Books by American Presidents, whether written by themselves or ghost-writers, reveal a lot about the person, their times and the impact they had on America and the world.
Since moving recently to the United States, I have been trying to understand its history through its leaders, especially the Presidents. I remember following Obama’s campaign keenly, and later his swearing in ceremony became especially memorable for me because I watched it from the hospital, just days after my son was born.
The recent presidential debates and
the massive polarising impact of Trump have only further fuelled interest in
American politics as seen through each President’ term. I thought one
interesting way to get closer to them is to collect books, letters and
autographs signed by these President’s through the years.
Of course, many of their autobiographies are probably ghost written or follow the old tradition of ‘as told to’, in collaboration with a good political journalist. An interesting tidbit I picked up from collecting President-signed books is that quite a few of them either had their secretary’s sign for them or used auto-pen – a machine that signs for them.
Luckily I think I have managed to dodge most auto-pen signatures barring a few that state it quite clearly like the Johnson signed book, The Professional. After having collected (rather easily) books signed by Nixon, Bush (Sr and Jr.) and Obama, the earlier Presidents proved more of a challenge to find. Plus they tended to be expensive.
My coup here is surely one of the most coveted autographs among President signed books: John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, from a private collection. Even though Kennedy got a Pulitzer Prize for Profiles of Courage, many historians think it was ghost written. Why England Slept is considered a better book by Kennedy.
Then came a series of autographed letters of Reagan, Eisenhower, and Theodore Roosevelt. One of the most prolific writer-Presidents has been Theodore Roosevelt who wrote as many as 42 books. Many consider him the writer who made it to the White House.
If there is one book I would like to own as a collector, it would be Theodore Roosevelt’s American Ideals and Other Essays, Social and Politican.
In the books category I managed to get the two volume memoirs signed set by Truman, and also later Nixon’s memoirs, which is a whopping 1100 pages long.
However, my current obsession is FDR Not only is he constantly rated amongst the top three US presidents (apart from Lincoln and Washington), he was also the longest serving US President (he died 3 months into his 4th term as President). FDR’s leadership during the most challenging times of modern America, his New Deal, wartime strategies and “Infamy Speech”, all stand out. Having led America through the worst depression and the world war, FDR was revered not only for his leadership but also his ability to overcome personal hardships (especially his battle with polio).
As a collector, I was also fascinated by the fact that FDR was an ardent collector himself (he spent a lot of time and personal resources collecting stamps). He was an autograph collector too and his own signature had two variations – his casual way of signing as ‘FDR’ and his more formal way of signing checks (with this full name). While there is a lot of material written about FDR, the biography by James Macgregor Burns Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox is considered by many as the most popular and widely read. When I started collecting material about FDR, I was more interested in starting from the people around him – his wife, children, secretary and people who had met and shared time with him.
Eleanor Roosevelt will probably go down in history as the most revered first lady (Truman called her the first lady of the world) and would be an obvious starting point for a collector. Her own relationship with FDR makes for an interesting reading (considering his numerous rumored affairs).
The starting point of my personal FDR collection was a FDR signed letter dated 1932 (while he was still the governor). His Personal Secretary Grace Tully, wrote a fascinating book My Boss - FDR. During my visit to Detroit, I managed to get a signed copy from the famous John K Kings store.
Another interesting book was the children’s book written by his daughter Anna Roosevelt Dall during her years in White House. As he saw it by FDR’s son Elliot Roosevelt is about his experiences as an aide to his father at five historic wartime summit meetings.
Frances Perkins was another interesting figures at this time, and reading her gave me more perspective about the New Deal. In the midst of all the talk about how finally America might have its first woman President, it is worthwhile to remember that Frances Perkins was probably the most influential woman in American politics at one time for being the person behind the New Deal.
Of the Presidents who are alive, Jimmy Carter has written 17 books and has probably achieved more in his post presidency than during his term as a President.
The recent book 41 by Bush junior about his father was one of the most recent books by American Presidents (only the 2nd instance where father and son have served President).
Bill Clinton’s Giving talks about how each one of us can change the world.
However, Obama’s Audacity of Hope is my favorite, though Dreams from my father is a more personal account and gives a better understanding of a Presidents mind. There are many who think Obama could have been as good a novelist as a politician, since he wrote Dreams from my father himself and did not use a ghost writer. Without doubt there is a great memoir in the making post the Obama years at the White House.
I have now taken to reading the various books ‘authored’ by the current Republican and Democrat Presidential candidates. And in the bargain, making sure as far as possible that they are signed copies.
It is amusing to note that the price of books signed by Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is already shooting up. Which is why before they become collectibles, I’ve decided to grab hold of Donald Trumps Art of the Deal and Hillary’s Clinton’s It Takes a Village.
While Lincoln is considered the greatest writer, Ulysses Grant’s Personal Memoirs is considered the best book by an American President.. From a literary perspective America has come a long way, from the high bar set by Lincoln (who can forget his famous Gettysburg address – all of 270 words) to Trump’s Art of the Deal .
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