It may be hard to believe in these days of seemingly endless political campaigns, but once upon a time, presidential candidates disdained personally stumping for political office. Asserting oneself through the written word was considered vain, undignified and beneath the status of a public figure. This is not to say they stayed silent: Through “anonymously” written biographies, pamphlets and authoritative histories like Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, they made themselves known and helped themselves become, for the most part, exalted. (Try as he might, John Adams didn’t fare so well in his attempts, and even Washington’s Farewell Address and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address had their partisan cynics and critics.)
In this eye-opener of a read, Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote, Craig Fehrman resurrects many such presidential pages, along with a plethora of facts and foibles about their writers—and ghostwriters. Alexander Hamilton and Ted Sorensen were among these invisible helpers, and their tales are here, too. For both the scholar and the casually curious, there is a lot to learn about our presidents.
This story cannot be told without layering in the birth of the publishing industry and the growing pains of transportation, and Fehrman weaves a detailed tapestry from these threads. From salesmen on horseback to today’s online clicks, authors have struggled to reach their readers. As Fehrman explains, “The most interesting thing about Obama and Lincoln are the differences”—as in, riding a horse to a distant general store with the hope that any book might be there in one era, and downloading an eBook onto one’s phone in the next.
There are the predictable standouts—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Grant, Roosevelt and Kennedy—and some outstanding surprises, such as Coolidge, Truman and Reagan. Whiffs of scandal puff up now and then. Jefferson spoke mightily of human rights but kept his slaves. Kennedy earned his Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, or did he? Every candidate used the power of the written word to open the door to the White House and, later, secure his legacy. Fehrman ensures their words will continue to matter.