Talking with Craig Fehrman about presidential memoirs and whether good writers make good presidents

Seattle author Craig Fehrman's new book Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote is a literary history of the office of the president, a guided tour of the books presidents write and read. If you're a history buff, a presidential trivia aficionado, or just a lover of American literary history, this book will transfix you, inform you, and surprise you. Fehrman reads at Elliott Bay Book Company to celebrate the book's release next Wednesday, February 19th, at 7 pm. The reading is free. What follows is an edited and abridged phone conversation I had with Fehrman on the afternoon before the Iowa caucuses stalled and collapsed into confusion. It was a simpler time.

I finished reading your book this weekend and I really enjoyed it. It seemed like such a simple idea that I'm surprised nobody has done it before. Did you have to do some research to see if somebody else had tackled this concept in the same way before you did it?

Yeah, I did. When I first had the flicker of the idea, I tried to see if anybody had really covered this, and the strange thing is, even if you look at the really good biographies on individual presidents, they just don't take their books seriously. [The biographers] don't take them seriously as writers. So sometimes I wonder if that's the present warping the way we see the past.

A lot of people today, mistakenly I think, roll their eyes at political books and think they're not serious or think they can't really have a big impact. That's just not true, and it's certainly not true historically, but I think that contributed to people not seizing on this simple idea.

The other factor might just be that it takes a lot of work. It took me 10 years to finish this. I had to research politics, I had to research publishing, and I had to research a lot of other different things. But I was glad I did, because hopefully they fuse together and make it a surprisingly multifaceted book.

They absolutely did. Can you talk a little bit about your inspiration for the book?

Back in 2008, like most Americans, I was obsessed with the presidential election. I was going to Politico every day and clicking refresh. You just really get swept up in it.

And also like a lot of Americans, I really liked Barack Obama's books. I just wondered, 'is there a history there? Has this happened before? Has a similar book or similar candidate ever caught on this way?' And so I started digging in. I went to really good research libraries and used their catalogs and just put in presidents and prominent presidential candidates names and just looked to see how many books they'd written.

I started to realize this was a much richer story than I thought. I mean, the first campaign book comes from Jefferson, the first presidential memoir comes from Adams. So this is history is as old as American history itself.

Do you think that that being a good writer is a good quality for a president?

Yeah. I have to give a convoluted answer to this, and I think that's because I'm a writer and not a politician.

I think that being a good writer can really help you when you're running for the presidency. Whether it's writing a good speech, or writing a good book, or just coming up with a compelling story about yourself and why you're running for office.

There are so many examples. Obama is the one, certainly, that's resonating most recently. But plenty of other presidential candidates, including the ones we've all forgotten, like Calvin Coolidge, used this skill to get to the office.

But I think that being a good writer can actually hurt you when you're in the White House, if you're not careful. A writer has to complicate ideas. A writer has to explore nuances. A writer has to figure out why an idea is challenging and grapple with it.

That doesn't always work well in politics. Politicians have to simplify ideas. They have to fight, they have to find messages that are persuasive as much as they are nuanced or rhetorically soaring. So I think the best move, if you want to run for president, is be a really good writer and use that skill to get to the White House. But once you have power in the White House, be willing to step away from that skill and just play politics, because sometimes nuance and beautiful language can get in the way of that.

It seems like you developed an affinity for Calvin Coolidge in this book. Is that an accurate assessment?

I wouldn't say that I have a political affinity for him. My book's not really very political. It looks more at them as people and as writers and as readers and as campaigners. Although I was really interested in Coolidge's version of conservatism and how it did not necessarily sound like the conservatism we hear today, even though he's kind of an underground hero to a lot of conservatives.

But he's a really good writer, and it's not just me saying that. I think the only thing that H.L. Mencken liked about Calvin Coolidge was his prose style. And the New York Times praise Calvin Coolidge while he's in the White House for being the most literary president since Lincoln.

Coolidge was a good example of how to be a good writer and a good politician at the same time, because his biggest gift as a writer was taking simple ideas but saying them in a memorable and succinct and persuasive way. Coolidge wouldn't take an idea and complicate it and add nuance. He would take an idea and state it in a way that was sticky and persuasive and would fire up his supporters. That's the way that a president can use the skills of a writer even while in the White House.

One of the things that I love about presidential history is that each president provides a little window into their era. For me, it's a useful way to explore history. And that's one of the things I liked about this book is it's not by any means comprehensive, but it was almost like a train ride through literary history. You're looking out a window and you see Nathaniel Hawthorne and you see Mark Twain and these other different stages of American literature. Are there things you learned about the history of American literature coming at it from the presidential side of things?

I think the thing that surprised me the most, and maybe this shouldn't have surprised me, was just how much prominent authors ended up interacting with presidents. You can really stack up the examples: You've got Emerson as a young man visiting John Adams as an old man. Or you have Herman Melville going to the White House and shaking hands with Abraham Lincoln. Or you have Edith Wharton go into the White House to have lunch with Theodore Roosevelt. A lot of these writers were celebrities in their own times, and so it makes sense that they were very prominent citizens who got to interact with presidents and got to shape public opinion in a way very few writers, unfortunately, don't get to do today.

Would you indulge me in talking a little bit about books by the current crop of presidential candidates?

Sure, let's do it.

Have you read Buttigieg's?

I have.

I'll put myself out there first: I thought it was pretty good. I didn't think it was Dreams from My Father, but I thought it was pretty well-written. What do you think?

I totally agree. What's interesting to me is that you can see, and not just in his book but in a couple of other ones too, the influence of Dreams from my Father, in that it definitely has the feel of not just memoir but literary memoir. It felt like a lot of chapters started with descriptions of sunrises and weather and little moments.

Whether Obama's memoir let serious literary candidates know that they could go in that direction, or whether they were trying to capture that formula, I'm not sure. But I definitely feel the influence of Dreams from my Father is present in Buttigieg's book. And I agree with you. It's an interesting book.

It's like there's a before Obama and after Obama in presidential memoirs.

Yeah. Joe Biden's Promise Me, Dad is another good example. It's also a surprisingly literary memoir. If you compare it to previous political books he's written, those are more your standard manifesto. But this book doesn't talk that much about him being Vice President, it doesn't even talk that much about his relationship with Obama. It's very focused on themes like family. And it has a really lyrical tone to it, which doesn't necessarily sound like Biden, but definitely sounds like Dreams from my Father. So that's another example I think where you can see Obama's book influencing the current crop.

Yeah, I was surprised, actually, that the Biden one was my favorite of the crop. I listened to the audio book and I actually like broke down a couple of times, which was a unique experience for me with a presidential biography.

No, I totally agree with you. It's a powerful story and it's told in a really powerful way and it's short. So many of these books would be better at half the length. And then another thing you can say about Biden's book is that it's focused, it gets to the point. And I think that makes the story hit harder. That's one reason I like Coolidge's book. He's a pretty famously taciturn guy, and that applied to his writing too.

One of the things that I really loved in this book was this figure — I can't recall his name, but I bet you know off top of your head. He wrote one the most popular history books of his time. What was his name?

John Clark Ridpath?

Yes! Ridpath. Did you read all of his books? You said it sold like a million copies or something, right?

He was prolific in the way that only a 19th century nonfiction writer could be prolific, so I did not attempt to read all of his works, but I did read his biggest hit, which was the most popular one-volume history of America in that time.

It tells the American story in a way that most people understood it in that period: Very providential, very focused on the current moment, very focused on white Americans and their government and everybody else is just an obstacle or a boost along the way to them achieving their current moment and their current ideology.

It must've been daunting to see a historian who was so well read and beloved in his time who's now basically forgotten. Did you learn anything from reading these historical texts that were loved and then abandoned as time marches on?

I think it just helps humble you as a writer, because you can see how they reflected the anxiety and the concerns of their age. I'm sure I'm doing the exact same thing. We talked about how nobody has done a book about presidents and their books before. But I don't think it's any accident that the first person who did it was somebody who got the idea from Obama. If I'm going to say that Obama's books are influencing their candidates, I certainly have to 'fess up and say that his book influenced my book.

So I think one reason I wrote my book was because Obama made political books salient as a category. That's a small example, but you can find lots of different examples where historians are reflecting their moment. So anytime you read a history book, you're reading something that's both historical in that it talks about the past but also it's historical in that it reflects the moment it was written in. I'm sure that's true in my book too.