Reading the Presidential Narrative

By Stuart Mitchner

Craig Fehrman’s introduction to Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote (Avid Reader Press $30) features a photograph of then-Senator John Kennedy standing between poet W.H. Auden and novelist John O’Hara. The occasion was the 1956 National Book Awards at which Kennedy delivered the keynote address, “The Politician and the Author: A Plea for Greater Understanding.” He was 38 at the time, November 1956, and his book Profiles in Courage was climbing the best-seller list. In his talk he playfully presents himself as being “in the camp of the enemy; you, the authors, the scholars, the intellectuals, and the eggheads of America, the traditional foes of politicians in every part of the country.”    

Four Novembers later the junior senator from Massachusetts was elected president, thanks in part to intellectuals and authors like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Kenneth Galbraith, and Norman Mailer, who reimagined Kennedy as a movie star-charismatic hero with “the eyes of a mountaineer” in his Esquire essay, “Superman Comes to the Super Market.”

“Miles to Go”

The concept of the president as author encouraged by Fehrman’s book and the image of young JFK standing between a poet and a writer may have influenced my response to the close-up on Kennedy on the cover of Fredrik Logevall’s JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917–1956 (Random House $40). If you think of the future president as the eventual author of his own story, it’s possible to imagine him seeing beyond his political ambitions to a darker, more daunting challenge. I find more of the poet than Mailer’s mountaineer in his expression. There’s a “miles to go before I sleep” look in his eyes, as if he were peering into Robert Frost’s “lovely, dark and deep” woods with a troubling presentiment of “promises to keep,” perhaps already sensing the vague outlines of the mission he was embarking on. In a speech from the same period, the senator suggested “If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, … the world be a little better place to live.” No wonder, then, that JFK combined poetry and politics by having Frost read a poem at the  inauguration, the opening chapter of his presidency.

Believing in the Protagonist

A compelling narrative usually requires an engaging, believable protagonist, a hero you can side with no matter what, which is how I related to Kennedy and Clinton, the only two chiefs of state this side of Lincoln that I ever felt “close to” as a reader of the presidential narrative. I was literally close to Kennedy on November 25, 1963, if  “literally” covers the fact that I was in Washington D.C. watching his funeral procession with thousands of others, close enough to hear the creaking of the wheels of the horse-drawn caisson bearing his coffin.

Bill Clinton was very much alive on the hot day in August 2004 when I stood close by, reporting on his appearance at a fundraiser for Representative Rush Holt. He was in his element, the champ, the smiling warrior. He’d been through the valley of the shadow, suffered the slings and arrows of impeachment and emerged with his head and his ratings high. Two weeks earlier, I’d read and reviewed his memoir, My Life, noting that Clinton’s gift as both politician and writer is that people interest him. He likes them and wants to be liked by them, and he relishes the quirky details he finds in teachers, friends, strangers, or relatives. I thought at the time that he might write a novel “one of these years.”

A little over a decade later he teamed up with James Patterson to write The President Is Missing, and now he and Patterson are working on another page-turner titled The President’s Daughter. Meanwhile, the only new book about the Man from Hope, Michael Nelson’s Clinton’s Elections: 1992, 1996, and the Birth of a New Era of Governance ($34.95), comes not from a high-powered trade publisher but the University Press of Kansas.

Reagan Redux

Two newly published titles in the run up to the 2020 election are Reconsidering Reagan: Racism, Republicans, and the Road to Trump (Beacon Press $28.95) by Daniel Lucks, and Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980 (Simon & Schuster $40). In spite of The Nation hailing Perlstein as “the hypercaffeinated Herodotus of the American century,” I doubt that I’d enjoy his 1,120-page tome as much as I did Ron Reagan’s My Father at 100 (Viking 2011), with his first-hand portrait of about “as strange a fellow” as he’d ever met: “Not darkly strange, mind you. In fact, he was so naturally sunny, so utterly without guile, so devoid of cynicism or pettiness as to create for himself a whole new category of strangeness.”

Lincoln Forever

I’ve felt that Abraham Lincoln’s was the most inspiring chapter in the American narrative ever since a visit to the Ford Theatre Museum when I was 12. Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times (Penguin Press $44), a new biography by David S. Reynolds, has been hailed by Jon Meacham, author of The Soul of America — “Abraham Lincoln is the central figure of the American story, a flawed but noble man who insisted against all odds that the national experiment in liberty must go on in spite of all. In this wonderful new biography, David Reynolds brings the giant to life once more, reminding us of the limitations and the possibilities of politics in a fallen world.”

Appreciating Carter

Another election season biography is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life (Simon & Schuster $37.50) by Jonathan Alter, one of cable television’s most visible talking heads. Although I never felt as close to Carter as I did to Kennedy and Clinton, I was pulling for him as the hero of a fresh new chapter in the national story after the debacle of Nixon and Watergate. Although he lost his bid for re-election, he served an unlimited second term outside of office, leading by example, fighting to eradicate diseases and building houses for the poor with Habitat for Humanity. Walter Isaacson, biographer of Einstein and DaVinci, rightly calls Carter “our most underrated modern president” and finds “his story a needed inspiration in this dark time.”

Wilson’s Fountain

Although there appear to be no recent or upcoming biographies of Woodrow Wilson, you can find one “written in water” in the fountain fronting the School of Public and International Affairs that bore the 28th president’s name until June 27 of this year when it was removed because of Wilson’s “racist thinking and policies.” Sculpted by James Fitzgerald, and officially described as the Fountain of Freedom, its original purpose was “to symbolize Woodrow Wilson’s vision of lasting world peace.” While it’s possible to connect the quest for freedom with the force field of water splashing, jetting, gushing up and down and in and out of the craggy contours of the 20-foot-high bronze sculpture, it’s hard to imagine a “vision of lasting world peace” in all that tumult. Everything’s at cross purposes, like a massive celebration of disorder and conflict, with the jets coming and going every which way, some at angles, spilling mist and spray in all directions. There’s also joy, poetry, and music in the play of light and the sound, but when the water’s turned off all you see is a bleak, twisted mass that might serve to mark a battle scene where great losses were sustained — or the illustration to a particularly dark chapter in America’s work in progress, a phrase that has special resonance after President Obama used the words (“a constant work in progress”) to describe his conception of America in his July 30 eulogy for congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis.