In the tradition of The Gatekeepers and The Presidents Club, historian Craig Fehrman offers a surprising new look into both the public and private lives of America’s presidents.
Most Americans are familiar with Lincoln’s famous words in the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet few can name the work that helped win him the presidency: his published collection of speeches entitled Political Debates Between Hon. Abraham Lincoln and Hon. Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln labored in secret to get his book ready for the 1860 election, tracking down newspaper transcripts, editing them carefully for fairness, and hunting for a printer who would meet his specifications. Political Debates sold fifty thousand copies—the rough equivalent of half a million books in today’s market—and it reveals something about Lincoln’s presidential ambitions. But it also reveals something about his heart and mind. When voters asked about his beliefs, Lincoln liked to point them to his book.
In Craig Fehrman’s groundbreaking work of history, Author in Chief, the story of America’s presidents and their books opens a rich new window into presidential biography. Beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, the first presidential book to influence a campaign, and John Adams’s Autobiography, the first score-settling presidential memoir, Author in Chief draws on newly uncovered information—including never-before-published letters from Andrew Jackson, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan—to offer insights into the aspirations and inner lives of our nation’s presidents. We see Teddy Roosevelt, known today for his rugged adventures and bulletproof self-confidence, as a vulnerable first-time author, struggling to write the book that would become a classic of American history. We see Ronald Reagan painstakingly revising Where’s the Rest of Me?, a forgotten memoir in which he sharpened his sunny political image. We see Donald Trump negotiating the deal for Art of the Deal, the volume that made him synonymous with business savvy—and decades later boosted him again on his way to the White House.
Combining the narrative skill of a journalist with the rigorous scholarship of a historian, Fehrman presents hundreds of new stories, scenes, quotations, and telling details to create an entirely fresh take on our highest leaders. Author in Chief is a feast for history lovers, book lovers, and everybody curious about a behind-the-scenes look at our presidents.
Craig Fehrman is a journalist and historian who’s written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The New Republic, and Slate, among others. He has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. He lives in Indiana with his wife and children.
“A lively account of the literary achievements (and failures) of America’s presidents. . . . The author covers a great deal of ground that even major biographers have skipped over in favor of ‘sexier’ storylines, yet to the book lover, these stories will be unquestionably enticing. Even the footnotes, appendix, and sources offer bookish gems. Fehrman’s illuminating blend of presidential and publishing history with literary criticism will appeal to amateur historians and bibliophiles alike.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Original, illuminating, and entertaining—as good history can be—Craig Fehrman’s Author in Chief is a book that should have been written, and should surely be read. By looking at presidents through the prism of their published writings, Fehrman throws new light on what John F. Kennedy—himself an author-president—called ‘the vital center of action.’ ” —Jon Meacham, author of The Soul of America
“Craig Fehrman takes us from Thomas Jefferson—a president who happened also to be the best prose stylist around—to the age of the obligatory campaign biography, on to the modern blockbuster. Along the way we meet revisionists, ghost writers (Truman went through four), runaway bestsellers (it seems there was a sport at which Calvin Coolidge excelled), surprising flops. We learn that the Civil War turned the occasional authorial impulse into a flood of literature; that Nathaniel Hawthorne quietly wrote a campaign biography; that the most literate presidents can meet with the worst reviews. Shapely, original, and brimming in anecdote, Author in Chief expertly illuminates, amid much else, how history finds its way into the books.” —Stacy Schiff, author of The Witches
“This book is just as fun and fascinating when taking you inside the minds of presidents as into ordinary eighteenth-century bookworms. It’s witty, charming, fantastically learned, and engrossing. I loved it.” —Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland
“CAUTION: This book contains material highly addictive to history lovers. From its account of Thomas Jefferson’s monumental efforts to bring out his Notes on the State of Virginia, to the description of John Kennedy’s fraudulent claims about writing Profiles in Courage, Craig Fehrman’s Author in Chief achieves what every original thesis should. The accumulated myths that we call our history are shattered by the recovery of the true facts. I’m annoyed right now that I didn’t write this disciplined, enormously engaging narrative myself.” —Rinker Buck, author of The Oregon Trail
“Author In Chief takes the reader into the hearts and minds of America’s presidents as they seek to define their legacies through literature. From Lincoln and Kennedy to Bush and Obama, Fehrman brings these men to life and allows us to see their struggles and revel in their successes. It offers an entirely new perspective into what it feels like to be president and how critical self-expression is to the study of American history.” —Kate Andersen Brower, author of The Residence, First Women, and First in Line
“This engrossing and delightful work offers a fresh lens on famous presidents and a new understanding of obscure ones. Fehrman explains how the uneven written work of presidents—original and ghostwritten—reveals the curious intersection of power and publishing.” —Jonathan Alter, author of The Promise