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The long history of presidents as authors


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: And now, on this Presidents Day, the latest title on the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

John Yang speaks with a historian whose new work explores the tradition of book writing by American presidents.

John Yang: In this election year, Americans are judging presidential candidates using many measures, as leaders, as policy-makers and as orators.

A new book looks at presidents as writers. Its "Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote."

The author of "Author in Chief" is historian Craig Fehrman.

Craig, thanks so much for joining us.

Craig Fehrman: Hey, it's my pleasure.

John Yang: We're all used to the cycle now, that, before a campaign, there's the pre-campaign book, as candidates try to introduce themselves and shape their own narratives.

Every Democratic candidate, leading Democratic candidate, had a book out before the campaign. And then, if they are elected, after the presidency, they have their post-presidential legacy book, trying to shape their own legacy, big blockbusters, big advances.

But this isn't anything new, as you write. This goes back to the founding fathers.

Craig Fehrman: That's absolutely right.

The first campaign book was actually written by Thomas Jefferson. The first legacy book written by John Adams. So, in a sense, the history of presidents as writers is as old as the history of America itself.

John Yang: And you write that Thomas Jefferson not only wrote the first pre-campaign book, was also the first to be dogged by a paper trail.

Craig Fehrman: Well, it caused him a lot of trouble during the election of 1800. He wrote passages about religion and why, if you're living in America, you shouldn't worry about the religion of other people. What their religious beliefs are don't break your leg or pick your pocket. That was his line.

But that really became one of the first modern sound bites, because his critics said, well, if we accept what Jefferson is saying, then we have no shared moral framework, and then the whole country is going to fall apart. They're not going to break our legs or pick our pockets. The country is going to fall into decay.

What's really interesting, though, is that Jefferson's supporters also referred to his book. I found stories in my book of his supporters standing up at town halls and reading from his book, citing it by page number, and saying, these -- this is not somebody who's an atheist. This is somebody who just wants religion and politics to be kept separate.

So, you had one book right at the center of the campaign. One side saw one way. One side saw it the other.

John Yang: And then that first legacy book, John Adams, you said that it was extraordinarily personal and pathologically petty.

You said that he went to war with his enemies, marshaling a nasty intimacy that any score-settler could admire.

Craig Fehrman: Sure. You could apply that description to a lot of more recent political memoirs.

But, I mean, that -- John Adams was doing the same thing. He was somebody who had lost the presidency. He went home. He was frustrated. He felt like history hadn't given him a fair shake. And so his answer was to write about it.

And because Adams was a very emotional person and a very eloquent person, he wrote these amazing zingers about Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Paine. And the same arguments that we would see today were happening back then. And they were happening in books.

John Yang: And I was also surprised by the model of both a pre-campaign book and a post-presidential book, Calvin Coolidge, someone, a president that is considered sort of taciturn, very few words.

Craig Fehrman: Sure.

There's this idea of silent Cal, but, really, what made him such an effective candidate and what made him a huge celebrity when he left the White House was the opposite. It was his words. And so he had a book that really helped him when he ran for president and it made him vice president.

But the book of his that is my favorite is his autobiography. That came out in 1929. And it was the biggest book in the country at that point. There were -- people were talking about it everywhere. And he wrote about his son. His son had passed away while he was in the White House.

And, of course, Americans knew that story. But when Coolidge was able to write, he told his side of the story. And it's still heartbreaking to read. Coolidge writes about, I'm the most powerful person in the world, but I had no power to save my son who was dying in front of me.

And he really revealed, I think, the personal side of being in the White House.

John Yang: Talking about that very personal touch, are there many modern memoirs, presidential memoirs, that are more personal, less sort of my greatest hits, and trying to shape legacy, trying to shape what the historians are going to write?

Craig Fehrman: Sure. Sure.

Most presidents are pretty good talking about their early life. So, if they're talking about their childhood, or their favorite books, or how they first got into politics, there are great stories there.

Now, once they get close to talking about their own political careers, you definitely start to see a little bit of spin.

But what I tried to do in my book was take readers behind the scenes at that point, because, if somebody is trying to project a certain image of themselves, it's interesting to see, well, what kind of image are they trying to project? How do they decide what they're going to do?

And so those kinds of stories, I think, could be revealing.

Bill Clinton's "My Life" is a good example. He was late to finish that book. And so his editor ended up spending the night on his couch, on Clinton's couch, just to make sure that his author would turn in the pages in time.

And that's a fun story, and I think it shows a side of Clinton's personality too.

John Yang: You also talk a lot or write a lot about presidents as readers, not just as writers, but as readers, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Barack Obama.

Craig Fehrman: Sure.

I think it's really important to understand how they read, if you want to understand how they write, because any writer is shaped by the books they read.

One of my favorite examples is Ulysses Grant. His presidential memoir is, of course, one of the ones that's best known today. But what surprised me is that he was the first American president who was really a fiction lover. When he was a cadet at West Point, he got demerits for spending too much time in the library, because the man loved novels.

And I think you can see that in his personal memoirs, the book he wrote, because the moments that stuck with me when he described meeting Abraham Lincoln or described meeting Robert E. Lee. And novelists are really good at describing characters.

And I think all of that novel-reading Grant did helped him write such a great book.

John Yang: John F. Kennedy, both his first book, which stemmed from his college thesis, "Why England Slept," and his later book, "Profiles in Courage."

I think that it's generally accepted now that Theodore Sorensen, his aide, wrote "Profiles in Courage."

But you discovered Kennedy's involvement in the push for publicity for that book and push for the Pulitzer Prize for that book.

Craig Fehrman: That's right.

If Kennedy would have been happy with a ghostwritten book, I think it would have been a story with a really happy ending. Even in 1956, before the book won the Pulitzer, it was already a huge hit. Kennedy nearly became the vice presidential nominee that year.

And at the convention, he had a secret meeting with Harry Truman. When he came out of that meeting, the reporters were like, well, what were you guys talking about? And Kennedy said, "my book," because that book was everywhere. It was a huge hit.

But that wasn't enough for Kennedy. Even while he was a U.S. senator, he would write his editor letters and say: Hey, I was at the airport. Didn't see my book for sale.

You would think a senator maybe had more important things to worry about. And that desire for literary success especially showed up in the push for the Pulitzer.

I found documents at the Kennedy Presidential Library that show that Kennedy himself was personally involved in this. And so once he got his family and some of his family's supporters on board, they were able to influence the Pulitzer's board and get the book the prize, when it probably didn't deserve it because it was a book that was largely written by someone else.

John Yang: This is all fascinating.

Craig Fehrman, author of "Author in Chief," thank you very much.

Craig Fehrman: Hey, it's been my pleasure.

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