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‘Author in Chief’ Review:
The Oval Office Book Club

Our presidents ranked not by their political achievements but by their literary chops.

John Adams, the stoutest but thinnest-skinned of the Founders, compulsively responded to what he saw as “the torment of a perpetual volcano of slander, pouring on my flesh all my life.” As president, centuries before the covfefe of internet communication, he made his ire twitteringly ubiquitous by “firing off dozens of public letters that were reprinted around the country.” So Craig Fehrman reminds us in his delightfully instructive new study of presidential authorship. Expelled from the White House in 1801, Adams began to write a self-justifying memoir but kept settling so many scores that after 440 pages he’d yet to reach his years in the top job.

“Author in Chief” by Craig Fehrman

“Author in Chief,” which took Mr. Fehrman more than two terms to complete, considers texts of pre-presidential positioning and post-presidential apologia and makes room for all sorts of civic and literary highs, lows and complications. Thomas Jefferson —Adams’s nemesis, successor and eventual epistolary friend—was the first president to be troubled, during his bid for the White House, by a distant paper trail: the “atheistic” passages in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” published in 1785. Ideas retained their primacy over chief-executive feelings for quite some time: Adams’s unfinished autobiography may have “revealed his personality, his values, and his vendettas,” but early presidential memoirs generally steered clear of emotional-growth narratives, the sine qua non of life-writing in our own day. Jefferson’s autobiography is shorter and less intimate than Adams’s, and Madison’s is a mere “sketch” that, like Monroe’s, presents its author in the third person.

Years would pass before the reading public knew or especially cared what individual had written which Federalist paper or, for that matter, the Declaration of Independence. But in a new era of professional authorship, beginning near the start of the 19th century, all this began to count, and charges of ghostwriting became a matter of shame. Ghosting’s opprobrium would last about a century; as late as 1906, Woodrow Wilson, who typed out the drafts of his own scholarly books, was snorting about George Washington’s need for Alexander Hamilton’s help with his famous farewell address.

In the early years of the Republic, touting one’s own candidacy in print would have been regarded as vulgar, as bad as going out on the stump in person. This primness gave rise to the “campaign biography,” in which an aspirant’s praises were sung by authorial surrogates. The subject of “The Life of Andrew Jackson” (first edition, 1817) left embarrassing traces of his direct participation in the writing of that book, which was later completed by a succession of hired scribes, the first of whom was shot dead in a non-literary dispute. The 1852 campaign bio for Franklin Pierce was a tonier affair, its author being the candidate’s Bowdoin College classmate Nathaniel Hawt, who later accepted the job of U.S. consul in Liverpool as his reward.

Mr. Fehrman’s book is immensely enhanced by his awareness of American publishing history, which allows him to present all these political volumes in a cultural and business context. In considering his presidential tomes, he takes into account the effects of subscription sales and copyright legislation; stereotype printing and rail distribution; the way in which reader appetite and endurance were expanded by “newly affordable gadgets—a pair of eyeglasses, an oil lamp.” Such things have a special bearing on Mr. Fehrman’s Lincoln chapter, which concerns itself not with the future president’s eloquence but with his self-promotional savvy. It is commonplace to emphasize the Cooper Union speech and Mathew Brady’s still-beardless photograph as immediate propellants toward Lincoln’s nomination in May of 1860. Mr. Fehrman urges readers to look instead at “Political Debates Between Hon. Abraham Lincoln and Hon. Stephen A. Douglas, ” published by Follett, Foster, & Co., a firm in Columbus, Ohio, on March 20 of that year.

Taking advantage of yet another technical innovation, Lincoln had not allowed his debates with Douglas in 1858 to get under way until he knew that a press stenographer was in the audience and ready to go. The losing Senate candidate subsequently collected, corrected and archived newspaper transcripts of the debates, putting them into a scrapbook he showed to Republican allies in Ohio. When Salmon P. Chase, Ohio’s governor and another presidential contender, heard of the transcripts’ impending publication as a book, his own supporters “applied behind-the-scenes pressure to bog the process down.” To the dismay of Chase and the whole future “team of rivals,” Lincoln’s eastern adherents “started buying the book in bulk” during the springtime weeks leading up to the Republicans’ 1860 Chicago convention. In late June, having secured the nomination, Lincoln made a point of sending one of the nearly 30,000 copies in print to a Springfield publisher who the year before had turned the book down.

The autobiography Lincoln would never get to write provokes in Mr. Fehrman and other historians the sort of might-have-been imaginings that surround the Reconstruction Lincoln didn’t live to fashion. Grant’s “Personal Memoirs” (1885) is the closest substitute the era can offer. Spurred by the loss of his money and health, the 18th president handwrote his book in a race against time, finishing two days before he died. The work was then peddled, with enormous success, by “a small army” of door-to-door salesmen hired by its publisher, Mark Twain. A wave of literary nostalgia for the South’s Lost Cause would soon enough eclipse it, but among serious readers the book’s excellent reputation has endured. “Politicians admired that it was admired,” writes Mr. Fehrman.

The fortitude and unexpected writerliness involved in the creation of Grant’s book make for an impressive but familiar story. It is decades further on—after dust jackets, department-store bookselling, catalog shopping and Carnegie libraries have further transformed the publishing landscape—that Mr. Fehrman finds the unlikely, taciturn standout of “Author in Chief.” In 1920, Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge, newly famous for suppressing a labor revolt by the Boston police, secured the Republican vice-presidential nomination in large part by allowing some wealthy backers in business and advertising to promote a collection of his levelheaded, self-written (in pencil) speeches. The sampler concluded with his no-nonsense telegram to the police union: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”

After ascending to the presidency, Coolidge grudgingly ceded some of its oratorical tasks to speechwriters but retook charge of his own pencil when it came to producing “The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge” (1929), a mere 45,000 words, a figure by which, in their later memoirs, Truman, Nixon and Clinton have yet to clear their throats. The succinctness of Coolidge’s book was no surprise, but its intimacy was, especially his account of the death of his teenage son in the White House: “In his suffering, he was asking me to make him well. I could not.” Mr. Fehrman is untroubled about bucking history’s progressive snobbism, which typically denies Coolidge much literary status on account of his having pursued policies less liberal and consequential than those of FDR (whom he defeated for the vice presidency in 1920).

The young Ronald Reagan read Coolidge’s autobiography and 50 years later would be handwriting the hundreds of fast, crisp radio speeches that helped to launch his successful run for the presidency. Mr. Fehrman wisely prefers Reagan’s first autobiographical effort (“Where’s the Rest of Me?”), charmingly composed with Richard G. Hubler in the mid-1960s, to the elephantine bloat and wholly ghostwritten post-presidential memoirs that were published when Reagan’s body and memory were slowing down. The ex-president joked (or told the truth) about not having read, let alone written, “An American Life” (1990).

Mr. Fehrman has no trouble with ghostwriting, which, he points out, the public has understood and accepted since the early 20th century began producing movie stars and other mega-celebrities. The ghost does his work either poorly or well. The ostensible author gets to have his say; make money; secure political or historical advantage. What he doesn’t get to do is accept awards for his supposed literary effort. If Coolidge is the surprise gold standard of “Author in Chief,” John F. Kennedy —who “adored the public side of authorship,” wanting to be a writer while forgoing the prerequisite labor—is the book’s only real villain. Mr. Fehrman lays out a case for how shockingly little he contributed to “Profiles in Courage,” which won Kennedy a Pulitzer Prize in 1957. When the disingenuousness of that became a press story, Kennedy’s father paid Theodore Sorensen, the book’s principal writer, 15 times more for his silence than he’d gotten for his words.

Mr. Fehrman, whose uncompleted dissertation is all that lies between him and a Yale Ph.D., supplies not only the intermittent history of American publishing already referred to but also some thumbnail historiography—brief accounts of the academic and popular trends that created the longstanding “scholar-storyteller divide,” across which professors abstractly ponder cultural forces while professional writers produce biographies that people actually read. Despite Mr. Fehrman’s own talent for contextualism, his heart is clearly with the latter group; he shares the belief of Carlyle and Emerson and Harry Truman that history has much to do with the actions of formidable individuals. (Peculiarly, even while holding this view, Truman turned the composition of his memoirs into “a small bureaucracy,” a kind of Fair Deal government agency, going through more ghostwriters than Andrew Jackson and overseeing their production of a two-million-word draft.)

If Mr. Fehrman can sometimes teeter on the syrupy brink of seeing the presidency as an awesome burden (LBJ’s phrase), his judgments remain almost always clear-eyed and sound. Some of the most entertaining can be found in footnotes: “Compare [ Theodore Roosevelt’s ] essay ‘Hunting the Grizzly’ with George Orwell’s seminal ‘Shooting an Elephant.’ Orwell described shooting the titular elephant, then followed it with a meditation on imperialism and shame. Roosevelt described shooting the titular bear, then followed it with the shooting of another bear.”

When he reaches Barack Obama, a serious reader of fiction, Mr. Fehrman situates “Dreams From My Father” within the 1990s boom in youthful memoirs, which employed such literary devices as composite characters. Wrapped up in his subject to an amusing forest-for-the-trees extent, he concludes: “Dreams didn’t just form Obama. It formed his rhetorical style.” Mr. Fehrman’s own style is relentlessly peppy and digressive; he is forever setting up a story and then racing off in pursuit of another before returning to the first. The interruptus effect makes a number of his chapters feel like the presidency of Grover Cleveland. Brief appearances by unsung American readers strive to add a democratic amplitude to the author’s history of publishing and literary tastes, but they result mostly in narrative confusion.

Even so, overexuberance beats sourness, and “Author in Chief” ends up being one of the best books on the American presidency to appear in recent years. In Gore Vidal’s novel “Hollywood,” Woodrow Wilson talks to Theodore Roosevelt, author to author: “Ah, Colonel, words are the greatest action of all, words are what bind us to Heaven—and to hell. At the end, as well as in the beginning, there is only the word.” Mr. Fehrman does justice to his several dozen subjects, who through their books keep spinning, even when in their graves.

—Mr. Mallon’s latest novel, “Landfall,” has just been published in paperback.

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