In terms of quantity, it would have to be Theodore Roosevelt, but I think Abraham Lincoln was undoubtedly the best pure writer of any of the Presidents, no matter if we’re talking about public papers or private communication, especially when you consider the extent of his education and the era in which he lived. Stylistically, much of the writing (official and personal) of our 18th, 19th, and even early 20th Century Presidents has a formality that can make it a chore to read. There’s certainly an art and a beauty to some of that writing, as well, but it rarely feels natural. Nearly all of the early Inaugural Addresses read more like royal proclamations than the initial public speech by the democratically-elected leader of a free republic.
Lincoln’s writing always felt natural — whether we’re talking about public messages or private correspondence. I always get the sense that Lincoln wrote with the people hanging out at the post office in Sangamon County, Illinois, or the bars in Chicago in mind rather than Ivy Leaguers or the editors of newspapers in New York and Boston. Lincoln seemed to write with the thought that everything he released would be read out loud. I think that came from his love of the theater, and the fact that his reading tastes ranged from Shakespeare to Artemus Ward. Lincoln’s reading lists weren’t wholly dominated by Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and he was one of the first American Presidents to realize that the vast majority of the rest of the country — including the voters — had similar tastes and experiences. That’s not to say that Lincoln ever dumbed himself down to the American public as some Presidents have (I’ve previously written about the long history of anti-intellectualism in Presidential politics). Instead, he was one of the first Presidents who actually knew how to talk to people. Quite frankly, he’s still one of the few Presidents who had that ability.
Another President whom I believe was a great pure, natural writer might surprise some of my readers — Ronald Reagan. It’s always difficult to discern which words belong to modern Presidents because we live in an era where every politician has a staff of speechwriters and even their autobiographies are generally the work of ghostwriters. Reagan had one of the great Presidential speechwriters of all-time in Peggy Noonan, and his delivery of important speeches was usually so on-point that he deservedly earned the nickname of “the Great Communicator”. But with President Reagan, we have two paths of insight that illuminate the fact that he was not simply a Great Communicator of other people’s words, but that he was a wonderful writer himself. First of all, Reagan kept a diary as President that was released after he died — edited to one volume by the great historian Douglas Brinkley and available unabridged, as well. Reagan’s diary is mostly short daily recaps of what happened each day while he was in the White House, but from time-to-time, there are surprisingly candid reflections about his family life — no earth-shattering revelations, but an almost stunning candor from a genial man who also happened to be completely opaque to everybody he every knew except for his wife, Nancy. Clark Clifford once referred to Reagan as an “amiable dunce”, but his diaries make it clear that he was anything but. Ronald Reagan may have been an actor — a professional at reading other people’s lines — but he was also a thinker and, right or wrong, an idealist with ideas of his own.
But the diary that Reagan kept during his Presidential years isn’t the best example of his talent as a writer — it’s his personal correspondence. Now, again, most Presidents have secretaries, speechwriters, and interns in charge of their correspondence — in fact, there is literally an “Office of Presidential Correspondence” in the White House. President Obama (another very good pure writer as displayed in his first book, Dreams From My Father) reads a number of letters from the American public every week, but other Presidents have done something similar in an attempt to sample the pulse of life outside of the White House bubble. Reagan was no different and, as I wrote in "Ronald Reagan’s Private Correspondence With America", not only read letters from the American people, but he personally responded. His instantly-recognizable handwriting and simple style set Ronald Reagan apart from the usual form letters and cautious responses of normal Presidential correspondence — much to the chagrin of his political advisers, and especially his wife when he would send a personal check to a family in need that had asked for his help.
The 2004 book, Reagan: A Life in Letters, is a solid sample of Reagan’s skill as a writer and includes public and private correspondence from before and after he embarked upon a political career. In every instance, Reagan’s writing style is genuine — the mark of any good writer. I gained a whole different level of respect for Ronald Reagan once I began reading his personal writing, and the book that really reinforced that was actually published by Nancy Reagan — I Love You, Ronnie: The Letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan. What really sets that book apart, again, is the candor. There’s nothing contrived about the letters in that book. They are love letters, pure and simple. I saw some of them on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, and was astonished at the beauty and simplicity of the writing. Reagan had no expectations that the letters would ever be read by anybody but the love of his life, and I think that is what makes them so powerful. It’s difficult to fake humanity and love and determination, and that’s what makes Lincoln and Reagan such great writers.
Fittingly, the last act of Ronald Reagan’s public life was the release of a letter — handwritten, simple, memorable, and beautifully heartbreaking — in which he announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, closing the letter with, “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.” Even in such tragic circumstances, Reagan included a dose of optimism, something that Lincoln also often instilled in his speeches, messages, or correspondence. And maybe that’s what made these two men the best writers to ever serve as President. Somehow, their writing was never about them — even when it was.
In 2003, Edmund Morris, who wrote a brilliant trilogy of biographies on Theodore Roosevelt and a must-read, albeit controversial, authorized biography of Ronald Reagan (Dutch), penned an article for The Washington Post about Reagan’s writing style. Of the personal letters that Reagan wrote during his life — in and out of politics — Morris said:
It’s important to understand that Reagan, unconscious of being anthologized one day (lack of ego, again), addressed almost all these letters to individual people whose reactions were important to him. In that sense, each is a campaign document, even if he had no public office in mind at the time of writing. His weapons are honesty, modesty, and an epistolary style that, while free of literary flourishes or anything resembling an original thought, seems (deceptively) to focus on the recipient. I’ve interviewed many of the owners of these letters, and can testify that they cherish every cliché.”
What really set Lincoln and Reagan apart from other Presidents when it comes to their writing is that it was always meaningful — to them and the reader — but the simplicity and modesty of the writing made its importance also seem effortless. And that’s what makes it feel genuine.
If you were still around
I’d hold you
Shake you by the knees
Blow hot air in both ears
You, who could write like a Panther Cat
Whatever got into your veins
What kind of green blood
Swam you to your doom
If you were still around
I’d tear into your fear
Leave it hanging off you
In long streamers
Shreds of dread
I’d turn you
Facing the wind
Bend your spine on my knee
Chew the back of your head
Til you opened your mouth to this life
Homestead Valley, Ca.
(From Motel Chronicles by Sam Shepard)
they ooze and call each other “darlings”
they hire fortune tellers who lie
they frame pictures of the kid they’ve sent away
they call the old black bartender by his first name
they hire watered-down R&B bands and make them play acoustic
they frown on nude swimming
they confess to anyone who’ll listen
they each have an “oldest and dearest” friend
he’s usually the one they’ve confessed to the most
they hate being wished “Happy Birthday”
they love having not seen someone for such a long time
then they rush to the next one
their loneliness is covered with grins
their loneliness is smothered in a circle of “friends”
(From Motel Chronicles by Sam Shepard)
Insomnia is a chain
Insomnia is a loop
Insomnia is a vicious circle
Inside my skull
Inside the bones
My neck turns
I like the sound of my own bones
In the midst of this emergency
I think of you
And only you
In the midst of all this sleepless blood
Your pink lips
Your arms upstretched
I can’t breathe without you
But this circle of ribs
Keeps working on its own
(From Motel Chronicles by Sam Shepard)
On August 27, 1858, Daniel Marshall brought his young son, Tommy, into Freeport, Illinois, near the Wisconsin border, where nearly 15,000 people had gathered in a downtown square for the second of seven debates between Senator Stephen A. Douglas and his Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln. Marshall was a solid Democrat who had moved his family to Illinois from Indiana a year earlier and supported the incumbent Senator Douglas.
In Freeport, under the debating rules set by the candidates, Lincoln spoke first for 60 minutes, Douglas spoke next for 90 minutes, and Lincoln finished with a 30-minute-long rebuttal. The population of Freeport tripled on the day of the debate and the proceedings took place in unseasonably cool, cloudy weather for late-August.
As Lincoln and Douglas engaged in perhaps the most newsworthy debate of their historic series, 4-year-old Tommy Marshall found himself the best seat in the house. While Lincoln spoke, Tommy sat in the lap of Stephen A. Douglas. When Senator Douglas responded, Tommy sat in the lap of Abraham Lincoln.
Decades later, after little Tommy Marshall had grown into Thomas Riley Marshall and became Vice President of the United States under Woodrow Wilson, sitting in the laps of history at the second Lincoln/Douglas debate remained one of his fondest memories.
Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne met when they were about 17 years old, long before Pierce was President of the United States or Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, at Bowdoin College in Maine. They formed a friendship that lasted for the rest of their lives, and their devotion to each other caused controversy, especially in later years after President Pierce, a Northerner, supported Southern interests and remained close to Jefferson Davis. Many of Pierce’s friends, neighbors, and supporters deserted him, but Hawthorne never did. Hawthorne had written a campaign biography of Pierce in 1852 and Pierce appointed Hawthorne as the U.S. Consul in Liverpool — a position which required few duties from Hawthorne but provided him with a steady income to continue his writing.
In 1863, the Civil War was raging and former President Pierce was as unpopular as any ex-President in American history, with some even accusing him of treason and alleging that his longtime friendship with the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, suggested Pierce’s collusion with Davis’s cause. Despite that storm, Nathaniel Hawthorne had told some friends that he was planning on dedicating his latest book, Our Old Home, to Franklin Pierce. They were outraged. Hawthorne’s friends, neighbors, and publisher strongly urged him to reconsider, with many telling the author that the American people would soon turn against him, too, if he remained so publicly supportive of the unpopular former President who was seen by many as a traitor.
In the face of such backlash, it didn’t take Hawthorne long to decide on what to do. On July 2, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg was entering its second day and Nathaniel Hawthorne sat down in his home, The Wayside, in Concord, Massachusetts and wrote:
TO FRANKLIN PIERCE,
AS A SLIGHT MEMORIAL OF A COLLEGE FRIENDSHIP, PROLONGED THROUGH MANHOOD, AND RETAINING ALL ITS VITALITY IN OUR AUTUMNAL YEARS,
THIS VOLUME IS INSCRIBED BY NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE.
TO A FRIEND:
I HAVE not asked your consent, my dear General, to the foregoing inscription, because it would have been no inconsiderable disappointment to me had you withheld it; for I have long desired to connect your name with some book of mine, in commemoration of an early friendship that has grown old between two individuals of widely dissimilar pursuits and fortunes. I only wish that the offering were a worthier one than this volume of sketches, which certainly are not of a kind likely to prove interesting to a statesman in retirement, inasmuch as they meddle with no matters of policy or government, and have very little to say about the deeper traits of national character. In their humble way, they belong entirely to aesthetic literature, and can achieve no higher success than to represent to the American reader a few of the external aspects of English scenery and life, especially those that are touched with the antique charm to which our countrymen are more susceptible than are the people among whom it is of native growth.
And now farewell, my dear friend; and excuse (if you think it needs any excuse) the freedom with which I thus publicly assert a personal friendship between a private individual and a statesman who has filled what was then the most august position in the world. But I dedicate my book to the Friend, and shall defer a colloquy with the Statesman till some calmer and sunnier hour. Only this let me say, that, with the record of your life in my memory, and with a sense of your character in my deeper consciousness as among the few things that times has left as it found them, I need no assurance that you continue faithful forever to that grand idea of an irrevocable Union, which, as you once told me, was the earliest that your brave father taught you. For other men there may be a choice of paths, — for you, but one; and it rests among my certainties that no man’s loyalty is more steadfast, no man’s hopes or apprehensions on behalf of our national existence more deeply heartfelt, or more closely intertwined with his possibilities of personal happiness, than those of FRANKLIN PIERCE
Passing from his room to my own, leaving the door open and so placing the lamp that its direct rays would not fall upon him and yet enable me to see distinctly from my bed, I betook myself to rest too, a little after ten o’clock. But I awoke before twelve, and noticed that he was lying in a perfectly natural position, like a child, with his right hand under his cheek. That noble brow and face struck me as more grand serenely calm then than ever before. With new hope that such undisturbed repose might bring back fresh vigor, I fell asleep again; but he was so very restless the night previous that I was surprised and startled when I noticed, at three o’clock, that his position was identically the same as when I observed him between eleven and twelve. Hastening softly to his bedside, I could not perceive that he breathed, although no change had come over his features. I seized his wrist, but found no pulse; ran my hands down upon his bare side, but the great, generous, brave heart beat no more.
Many of you who have been following me since I was posting on my personal blog (which I no longer update) and started Dead Presidents were also followers of my good friend, Keith, in the various incarnations that his Tumblr blog has taken over the years. Since Keith is a husband and father and works hard, he sometimes takes sabbaticals from writing because, quite frankly, he has better shit to do. But anytime that Keith is writing and creating is a good time because, as I’ve said for 15 years — even when people weren’t listening and didn’t care — Keith is the best writer that I’ve ever known.
He’s back to posting on his Tumblr, Divided By Frames, so you may want to check it out and follow him. Now, Keith isn’t for everybody, and he’s certainly not writing about history. But if you are a fan of erotica and general assholery, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy Divided By Frames.
Before I close, I’d like to share a personal note about Keith. Now, this would be a great opportunity for me to let you know how good of a friend that he has been to me, and how he did more than just about anybody to convince me to leave a bad situation in Texas and spend time in Missouri to get my head right and recharge my batteries. This would be a good place to talk about how he let me stay in his home as I got settled in Missouri, and that if I killed somebody and had to get rid of the body, I’d only need to text Keith and he’d say, “I’ll bring the Pepsi and the shovel.” This is a perfect opening for me to share how amazing of a father he is to his adorable daughter. There is no better time than now to share all of those things.
But I’m not going to talk about that. Instead, I want to tell you about how this anti-establishment rebel, this non-conformist wordsmith of provocative erotica is a complete and utter phony. You see, before I left Missouri, Keith had asked if I knew where to find a copy of a certain book that he was having a hard time finding for a reasonable price. Even used copies were being sold at a minimum of $75-$90, he said. So, I said I’d see if I could help and figured it must be something really fascinating — something rebellious or radical, real cutting-edge literature that shocked and frightened the mainstream audience, something that was so seditious, so outrageous, so stimulating and exciting, that the reason the price was so high for the book was because few copies existed either because they were destroyed by people disturbed by the content, or held on to tightly by people inspired by the very fact that someone would write something so intoxicating.
Was it some crazy writer from the Beat Generation that I’d never heard of? First edition copies of Hunter S. Thompson classics? Some type of literature that I had never even imagined was being created? What was the book that Keith was looking for?
No, it was this:
That’s right, Keith desperately wanted to get his hands on a copy of Knowing Bass: The Scientific Approach to Catching More Fish by Dr. Keith A. Jones, PhD. That’s not some creative title masking subversive literature; it is what you think it is — a scientific study on the habits of BASS in order for nerds to “understand” them better when they go FISHING. I’m still disgusted in my friend.
We couldn’t find it cheaply online, but on my first trip to the wonderful Beers Books store after returning to Sacramento, I looked for the book and immediately found it for $12. So, the story has a happy ending for Keith, even though I hope that he is eventually ravaged by freshwater sharks or piranha or goldfish or whatever monsters are living in the water whenever he uses his “scientific knowledge about bass” while going fishing.
Don’t let this depressing story turn you away from Keith’s blog, Divided By Frames, however. As I said, he’s an amazing writer, even if he is an embarrassing excuse for a human being who needs a scientific study to help him catch stupid fish. Oh, and make no mistake about it — if I hadn’t found that copy of that silly book here in Sacramento and sent it to him, I am positive he eventually would have paid $90 for a copy.