‘Author in Chief’ finds the gold amid the dross of presidential memoirs

Craig Fehrman delves into the writings of presidents who sought to set the record straight, explain their decisions, or simply hear themselves talk.  

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
“Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote” by Craig Fehrman, Avid Reader Press, 432 pp.

When reading the dozens of anecdotes Craig Fehrman has assembled in “Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote,” his joyfully engrossing debut, the question naturally arises: Why? Having sought, achieved, or successfully survived the highest elected office in the United States, why would so many of these men bother with the grubby and tedious task of writing a book, or having one written on their behalf? 

A practical and down-to-earth explanation quickly emerges in these pages, and Fehrman is equally quick to give it two categories: the campaign book, in essence written in order to introduce the candidate to a wider audience, or the legacy book, designed for “recapitulating a life and rebutting one’s critics.” (In the modern era, only George H.W. Bush and William Howard Taft have refrained from writing the latter). Basically, these men took up their pens to start or continue the eternal task of explaining themselves.

Surely that eternal task has never had so comprehensive a chronicle as this one. When contemplating the tall mountain of literary garbage Fehrman had to scale in order to write with such authority, even the adventurous reader must pale in terror. Our author has slogged his way through some epically awful stuff, but the main glory of “Author in Chief” is his enthusiasm for the forgotten gems of this strange genre. For example, his account of the genesis and wild popularity of Calvin Coolidge’s first autobiographical article for Cosmopolitan in 1929 brims with affection. The magazine’s staffers, we’re told, “were shocked by the cleanness of Coolidge’s prose (They seemed to spend more time passing his latest submission around the office than actually editing it).”

Fehrman also consistently pays these writings the compliment of reading them critically. “There were some bromides and back patting,” he writes about that first Coolidge article. “But mostly there was the kind of prose that only looks easy to write.” About James Buchanan’s 1866 book “Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion,” in which the hapless Buchanan blames everybody but himself for the Civil War, Fehrman deadpans, “Readers needed to acclimate to real-time autobiographies – or at least to ones written by lousy presidents.” Herbert Hoover’s voluminous post-presidency writings are “a literary career that produced more pages than readers.” Harry Truman’s bestselling 1955 “Memoirs” is accurately assessed as “an imperfect book, a book with a better, slimmer volume lurking within.”

Fehrman naturally prefers some kind of presidential authors over others. If he detects a whiff of grandiosity, graft, or grifting, he doesn’t hesitate to pounce. “Once he started dictating,” Fehrman comments about Theodore Roosevelt’s autobiography, “Roosevelt couldn’t resist adding prickly insults and transparent defenses. … Roosevelt had finally written a book about his favorite hero: himself.”

And it’s inevitable that in 2020, when writing about books written by presidents, the subject of ghostwriting should come up. Fehrman notes that the practice skyrocketed in popularity in the 1920s. “Ghostwriters,” wrote a journalist at the time, “are the crutches on which celebrity limps to authorship,” but it suddenly seemed like every famous public figure was employing them.

Fehrman begins with an excoriation of what is arguably the most famous allegation of ghostwriting in the 20th century: then-Senator John F. Kennedy’s authorship of his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1956 book “Profiles in Courage.” The book spent 88 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, but when it comes to Kennedy’s assertions that he, not his faithful and hard-working speechwriter Ted Sorensen, wrote the book, Fehrman is unyielding: “There is no reason to trust any of it. During his defenses, Kennedy lied easily and prolifically.”

This squares a bit awkwardly with Fehrman’s later contention that Donald Trump “has written more than a dozen volumes.” On the one hand, we have Sorensen himself attesting that Kennedy was deeply involved in the authorship of “Profiles in Courage,” and on the other hand, we have Trump’s ghostwriter for “The Art of the Deal” roundly denying that Trump wrote a word of the book. And yet we don’t hear about Trump lying “easily and prolifically.” 

Such juicy controversies and conversation-starters are the consistently found treats of “Author in Chief,” regardless of where you find yourself on the political spectrum. And the implication throughout – that books are vitally important to the nation’s soul – will surely appeal to red and blue state readers alike.

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