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Can A Presidential Memoir Really Give An Honest Picture?

Presidents wield enormous power through words — the bully pulpit, to use Theodore Roosevelt's phrase.

Historian Craig Fehrman has been reading the words past presidents (and their ghostwriters) have put down in books — from those they have used to get elected to post-presidential memoirs.

Fehrman's new book Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote explores what he has discovered.

On ghostwriters

There have been a lot of books that the presidential candidates themselves wrote. Lincoln, Coolidge. Jefferson. Adams. Obama. Plenty of examples. There's also been plenty of examples where they worked with a ghostwriter. But to me, I would push back on this idea that a ghostwritten book can't be a revealing book or can't be an important book. I mean, the history of ghostwriting in America goes all the way back to George Washington in his farewell address. There's as much of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams in that speech as there is George Washington. ... So there were definitely some ghostwritten books. But to me, the distinction is good ghostwriting versus bad ghostwriting.

On whether presidents' books are honest books

I think the books are often honest. Sometimes they're honest, maybe in ways that the politicians didn't intend them to be. So even if you can tell that somebody is selling a specific version of themself, that version that they're selling is really revealing. A good example of this, I think, our current president's first book, Trump's Art of the Deal. That was a book ... it wasn't his Twitter account that made him a national figure. It wasn't a TV show. It was a book in the 1980s. And that really lifted him from being a New York City figure to being a national figure. And he had a ghostwriter that he gave great access to, and he chose a good ghostwriter. And that helped the book be a really authentic representation of Trump's voice and Trump's ideas...

When John Adams worked on his presidential memoir, he ended up writing 400 pages. But even though Adams could be very honest in letters — he could be very honest about other people and their ambitions or their failings — Adams struggled in his own book to be honest about himself. He couldn't really confront that idea that he had articulated as a young man about ambition. You know, this is a book that was written in the early 1800s. And it's a critique that you could apply to a lot of presidential memoirs written even today. It's an example of that tradition being really long. But also there being some inconsistencies in terms of how presidents write about themselves.

On John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage

He did not write the book. And there's kind of an aura of it being ghostwritten and a little bit of a sense of scandal around the book. What I did by spending some time at the Kennedy Presidential Library and really going deep into this topic is I showed that the scandal was much, much bigger than maybe even previous biographers have realized. Kennedy did not work that hard on his book.

Where he did work really hard was in promoting his book. He went to his publisher and said, you know, I think the author photo needs to be a little bit bigger. He wrote his editor a letter and said, I was just in the airport in Washington and didn't see my book for sale. What are we gonna do about that? And this is all while he's a U.S. senator and while his book is a bestseller, but he's still taking the time to emphasize those issues. Probably the biggest discovery I made about Kennedy involved the Pulitzer Prize, which his book famously won in 1957. The story that's sort of been told about this is that Kennedy's father, Joseph Kennedy, just kind of decided that his son needed the Pulitzer Prize. But I show that, actually, Kennedy himself was the one who is obsessed with the Pulitzer Prize. And I found documents at the library that show Kennedy was personally involved in getting his book the Pulitzer Prize. It's a fine book. But does a book written by somebody else really deserve a Pulitzer Prize? I think most readers would say no.

The idea for a book came from [Ted] Sorensen [his speechwriter]. Sorensen wrote the first draft. Sorensen did the vast majority of the research. And Sorensen, as best we can tell, did most of the second draft, too. And Sorensen worked so hard on this book. He finished the first draft in about a month while his wife was eight months, or so, pregnant. And so he's not at home. He's not with his family. He's just working on this book, trying to get the draft done. This was a book that Sorensen worked really hard in. But then once the book became scandalous, once there became charges of ghostwriting, Sorensen was willing to say, even in an affidavit sworn in front of a notary: This is not my book. This is John F. Kennedy's book. And I think that tells you something about Sorenson's loyalty to his boss.

On a presidential book that stands the test of time

My favorite book that I discovered, and you can find it online — I'm not sure if it's still in print — was an autobiography by Calvin Coolidge. This came out in 1929. As soon as he had finished his presidency. And honestly, I think most people don't even remember Calvin Coolidge's presidency, much less the fact that he was a wonderful writer, but he really was a great writer. And that helped him become president. And that helped him write a great autobiography. H.L. Mencken, I don't think he liked anything about Calvin Coolidge except his prose style, but that prose style really shines through in the autobiography.

And what I loved about Coolidge's autobiography is first, it's short. It's only a couple hundred pages, which is certainly a marked contrast to most presidential memoirs. And it's just so personal. Coolidge doesn't get into political debates or talk about his favorite policies. He talks about what it felt like to be president and the best example is that his son passed away while he was president. And they are just heartbreaking passages where Coolidge talks about — I was the most powerful person in the world, but I had no power to save my son's life. And I wish more presidents would write about their experiences in the White House that way. Tell us what it felt like to be president. Show us the human being.

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.