The other night I was wandering the stacks of a discount bookstore when I spotted a book simply titled Presidential Doodles (text and introduction by David Greenberg. Basic Books, New York. 2006).
Presidential doodles. Somehow, I’d missed this. OK, I thought. I’ll bite.
Turns out, you can judge this book by its cover. It’s a collection of, as it says on the cover, “two centuries of scribbles, squiggles and scrawls from the Oval Office.” It was put out by the editors of the arts and culture quarterly Cabinet, and I’ll agree with back-cover blurb writer Michael Kinsley, who wrote, “If you read only one book on presidential doodles this year, make it this one.”
There appears to be some debate over whether doodle interpretation can offer any sort of portal into the psychology of the doodler. The book’s editors seem to dismiss the idea (or at least argue that it’s not really the point), writing:
Presidental doodles are intriguing, above all, because they provide us with a glimpse of the unscripted president … It renders the president human in ways that a staged family outing cannot.
These glimpses, strewn across agendas, speeches, White House stationery, margins of lined sheeets and all sorts of other papers, include:
- Andrew Jackson’s crude drawing of what looks like a alligator.
- Martin Van Buren’s take on clouds and rectangles.
- Herbert Hoover (clearly a leading president in terms of sheer doodling output) favoring intricate systems of shapes.
- Eisenhower’s delicate portraits of people and things (this guy was pretty good)
- Kennedy’s repetitous doodling of dozens of squares and single words over and over (“Vietnam” eight times in one doodle, most of which he then contained in a box). A collection of his doodles was exhibited in 1964.
- LBJ’s dual approach — either drawings of weird looking figures worthy of a third grader or orderly assortments of well-aligned lines and shapes.
- Lots of presidential cubes, diamonds and boxes, subdivided and subdivided again (my general approach — identity politics by doodling type may be the next big thing).
And there’s my favorite: This charming fellow, rendered by President Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893).