According to a story — unconfirmed by me — a reporter was interviewing Albert Einstein shortly after Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. In the course of the conversation, the reporter asked Einstein what the speed of sound was at sea level. The physicist said he was sorry, but he couldn’t remember exactly. The reporter expressed surprise that the world’s greatest scientist didn’t know something like that. Einstein looked at him balefully over the top of his reading glasses and said, “I know where I can look it up.”
It’s amazing how many people seem not to know where to look information up, or perhaps don’t care, as they have things other than accuracy on their agenda. Take Rocco Landesman, the new head of the National Endowment of the Arts. In a speech in Brooklyn last week, he said of Barack Obama, “This is the first president that actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt and arguably the first to write them really well since Lincoln.”
Oh, dear, where do I begin? Well, let’s start with grammar. It’s “the first president who,” not “the first president that.”
Second, he implicitly accuses Presidents Clinton, Bush 41, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower, Truman, Hoover, Coolidge, and Wilson of having had their memoirs, autobiographies, and other works ghosted. Many of them received research assistance (one could hardly write a modern presidential memoir without it), and many, no doubt, also received a good deal of editing. Presidents are not usually professional writers. But research and editorial assistance is by no means the same thing as resorting to a ghost writer. I can’t imagine Harry Truman using a ghost writer. Herbert Hoover wrote sixteen books in his life, including Fishing for Fun — and to Wash Your Soul, published three years after his death, and a translation (with his wife) from the Latin of De re Metallica. Just a guess, but I don’t think there are many ghosted 640-page translations around.
Woodrow Wilson was a college professor and president before entering politics. Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics, his best known work and one that ran through many editions, was not ghost written.
Third, Landesman implicitly accuses Theodore Roosevelt of being, unlike Barack Obama, a second-rate writer. Roosevelt wrote a total of 38 books in his life (not to mention countless magazine articles and thousands of letters, all while holding a day job and living only sixty years). His first, The Naval War of 1812, written when he was 23, is considered a basic historical text on that subject and is still both highly readable and in print. Will The Audacity of Hope be in print a 125 years after it was published?
Fourth, Landesman seems ignorant of even the existence of The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. They were written in the last months of Grant’s life (he died in agony from throat cancer three days after he finished the manuscript). They are universally regarded as the greatest military memoirs since Caesar’s Commentaries, and among the genuine masterpieces of American literature. Perhaps Mr. Landesman should give them a try if he doesn’t object to reading memoirs written by someone who had actually done something (like — you know — save the Union) before writing them.
Fifth, Lincoln never wrote a book.
What is it about Barack Obama that causes such cringe-inducing butt-kissing?
Addendum(s) from John Miller at the Corner:
What an absurd statement by NEA chief Rocco Landesman. He doesn't mean that Obama is a powerful writer in the sense that he is a compelling writer; he means that he is a writer who wields a lot of political power. This is not necessarily a distinguished category of authorship: It includes the likes of Lenin and Hitler. (It also includes good men, such as Churchill.) The most powerful since Caesar? Egad.
Then there's this comment:
This is the first president that actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt and arguably the first to write them really well since Lincoln.
Wow. First of all, TR's books are pretty good. I wish I could take a red pen to them every now and then, but the man was working with great material: He wrote about hunting, the Rough Riders, exploring the Amazon, etc. They are much better than anything Obama has written. Many historians believe the Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant sit at the top of the presidential literature pile. Mark Twain — presumably a better literary critic than Rocco Landesman — was a huge admirer. And since we're on the subject of presidents who write their own books, let's not forget Ronald Reagan. Sure, he used speechwriters and ghostwriters. But anybody who thinks he spent his life letting scribes put words in his mouth must sit down with Reagan In His Own Hand, a book whose contents he — um, how shall I put this? — wrote in his own hand.
When Rocco said Obama was "the first president that actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt" was he calling Calvin Coolidge a liar?
Answer: Probably not. He was just demonstrating the deep depths of his own ignorance.
An e-mailer mentioned Dwight Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe as an excellent book written by a president. I know of it but haven't read it. I asked for proof that Ike had done the work himself. Here's the reply:Make of that what you will. As long as we're in the category of leaders who are "powerful writers," I may place my bets with the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.From Travis Beal Jacobs, "Eisenhower at Columbia":"Working sixteen hours a day, he completed the draft of his five hundred-page memoir on March 26 [having started in early February]. Joseph Barnes, the foreign news editor at the Herald Tribune, told Eli Ginzberg that on one occasion Eisenhower dictated, without stopping, five thousand words that required almost no editing, and Barnes had 'never seen such a performance.'"Eisenhower wrote MacArthur's speeches while serving as his deputy. Why shouldn't he have written his own memoir?
Additional Addendum from Scott Johnson at Power Line:
Rocco Landesman is President Obama's handpicked chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Last week he gave the keynote address to the 2009 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference. Those of us concerned about the politicization of life and art in the Age of Obama will not be consoled by a reading of Landesman's speech. The speech bears examination in its entirety, but Landesman's tribute to Obama is especially worth a look:
This is the first president that actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt and arguably the first to write them really well since Lincoln. If you accept the premise, and I do, that the United States is the most powerful country in the world, then Barack Obama is the most powerful writer since Julius Caesar. That has to be good for American artists.
Landesman compares Obama favorably with Julius Caesar as "a powerful writer." Landesman is not referring to Obama's skills as a writer, but rather to the power he holds by virtue of his office. Some might think that the literary comparison sells Obama short. Caesar was something of a self-promoter and propagandist in his writing.
Yet Landesman knows Obama is like Caesar, somehow -- a friend asks, is it in the transformation of a republic into an empire with a divine ruler? Perhaps if Landesman had his wits about him, he would note instead that Obama is the most powerful speaker since the other JC.
Well, so what if Landesman is a bootlicker? Landesman is also an idiot. Lincoln never wrote a book, although I believe he did compile the texts of his 1858 debates with Douglas for publication in book form. And Landesman misses a few presidential authors since Theodore Roosevelt.
Woodrow Wilson wrote several influential books as a Princeton professor. Herbert Hoover wrote books including, I am reliably advised, a classic book on fishing. Richard Nixon wrote books before and after his presidency. And even Bill Clinton wrote his apologia pro vita sua.
Landesman leaves JFK unmentioned by name. JFK was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage in 1957. My guess is that JFK and Obama share the attribute of authorship in roughly equal measure.
One reader of Landesman's speech wonders: "Isn't Obama the first president since Jefferson to more than double the size of the country? The first since Lincoln to free the slavers? The first since FDR to win a war against fascism?" Betraying the spirit of Rocco Landesman, however, the reader injects a note of caution: "I might be wrong. Can any of you fact check that?"
It would be hard to pack so much ignorance into one short paragraph if one were really trying. We can deduce that Landesman doesn't even have to try.
And, of course, all of this presumes that Dreams of My Father was not partially or completely ghost-written as has been suggested by Jack Cashill.