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Which Presidents Could Actually Write?

A new book looks at the written work of everyone who’s occupied the White House.

Photograph by Rapport Press/Newscom

We asked Craig Fehrman, author of the new book Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote, to pick the best and worst of the genre.

Best

1. Abraham Lincoln, Political Debates 1860

“It’s still an amazing read today. You can really see how his mind works. He believed that books were powerful and important, and that’s why he worked so hard on a book of his own.”

 

2. Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs 1885

“This is probably the best presidential memoir, but it had very little impact on Grant’s legacy. If a book this good can’t shape his reputation, what hope does any presidential author have?”

3. Calvin Coolidge, The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge 1929

“It’s forgotten today, but it was a huge hit. It’s a model for writing a presidential memoir: Be personal, be specific, and talk about what it felt like to be President.”

4. Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father 1995

“The instinct would have been to write something kind of bland that appeals to lots of people. But he couldn’t help but write a book that was interesting and prickly and complicated.”

Worst

1. James Buchanan, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion 1866

“We should give Buchanan credit for being the first President to publish an autobiography in his lifetime, but it’s a terrible book.”

 

2. Warren G. Harding, Rededicating America 1920

“I would also like to draw special attention to Harding’s poetry [not included in this book]. I’ll give you a snippet: ‘I love your poise / of perfect thighs / when they hold me / in paradise.’ ”

3. Herbert Hoover, The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover 1951

“He ended up publishing volume after volume of this memoir, and I honestly think that he had more pages than readers.”

4. Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Hart Benton 1886

“He’s a very talented writer, a very deep reader, but was always in such a hurry that it impeded a lot of his books. The Benton biography is a good example of that.”

This article appears in the February 2020 issue of Washingtonian.

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Nathan Diller
Editorial Fellow

Nathan is an editorial fellow at Washingtonian. Originally from Nashville, he graduated from Columbia Journalism School with a master’s degree in 2019. His work has also appeared in SPIN, NYLON, and Nashville Lifestyles.