'Presidential Doodles:' Oval Office Artists From the hands of presidents have come a wealth of improvised drawings on White House stationery, memos and Cabinet agendas. A new book collects doodles created by commanders-in-chief going back to George Washington.
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'Presidential Doodles:' Oval Office Artists

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'Presidential Doodles:' Oval Office Artists

'Presidential Doodles:' Oval Office Artists

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block


And I'm Robert Siegel.

The hand on the rudder of the ship of state, the finger on the nuclear button has its frivolous extra Constitutional moments too. From the hands of presidents have come a wealth of improvised drawings on White House stationery, memos and cabinet agendas. And they've been collected by the creators of Cabinet Magazine and historian David Greenberg in a new book called Presidential Doodles: Two Centuries of Scribbles, Scratches and Squiggles and Scrawls from the Oval Office.

David Greenberg, your collection actually begins with George Washington, so I suppose that's really before there was an Oval Office.

Mr. DAVID GREENBERG (Historian): Well, that's right. And in fact the drawings we have from George Washington come from before there was an American presidency. They are boyhood scribbles and squiggles and scratches. Washington wasn't drawing with a ballpoint pen but with a quill, and has these very meticulous flourishes on his mathematical exercises from his schoolbook days. And you start to see the concern with appearance that becomes kind of a theme in his later career.

SIEGEL: I think it's Adams who draw things, which I confess to drawing a great deal of, which is triangles with the points or angles labeled as you learned in geometry.

Mr. GREENBERG: Yeah. And both George Washington and John Adams's examples of doodles come from their mathematical exercises. They draw triangles, three dimensional boxes. And these, of course, are staples of most of our doodles. They're kind of classic, iconic doodles. And it's good to know that these early presidents were doing them back in the 18th Century.

SIEGEL: But the breakthrough moment for doodling came, I gather, when not only presidents but people in general were liberated from the quill pen, which was a real inhibition to doodling.

Mr. GREENBERG: You do see a lot more doodling in the 20th Century presidents than in the 19th and those couple of 18th Century presidents. I think it's for several reasons. You've got ballpoint pens, you have more meetings, you have more paper and also better recordkeeping. Only in the 20th Century did that become kind of the obsession that it is today.

SIEGEL: Now I think we should define our terms here. Because Ulysses S. Grant, hero of the Civil War and renowned as less than vigilant as the boss of a famously corrupt administration, it turns out could really draw. And there's a drawing of a horse that you've included which just doesn't count as a doodle in my mind. It's really a drawing.

Mr. GREENBERG: Well, yes. And there are a few examples of drawings in this book. Dwight Eisenhower was also a painter who had some very nice paintings that we included. In part with Grant, we wanted to show the difference between his quite extraordinary painting, which he did as a cadet at West Point, which is very impressive in its likeness and its representational quality, compared to his doodles, which are really pretty sloppy and clumsy. It's a lot of Xs and boxes, lines crossed out.

And in a way this captures something about Grant that after this great promise and this great heroics as a Civil War general, he had this disappointing presidency. Just so after his promise as a young artist, he goes on to be a rather disappointing doodler.

SIEGEL: Now you caution us, though, not to do too much psychoanalyzing here into the doodles. However, the doodles of President Herbert Hoover have got to say something about the man and certainly his professional outlook in life.

Mr. GREENBERG: Well, Herbert Hoover is one of the most interesting presidential doodlers for all time. And if for nothing else he will go down in history with that mark of greatness.

SIEGEL: Tell us about his drawings.

Mr. GREENBERG: Well, Hoover, as you may know, was an engineer before entering politics. And he had a mind that was very systematic. He was good at coming up with large schemes and plans. And you really see this in his doodles, which are entirely abstract, there are no people in them, which also might be said for his policies in trying to address the Great Depression.


Mr. GREENBERG: Thought about the people. But he has these triangles, circles, pinwheels. He stitches them together in these ever more elaborate creations. They became, in fact in his own day, quite popular. One had been taken out of the White House by a visitor, sold to an autograph collector and eventually became a pattern for children's rompers. So he was something of a celebrated doodler even in 1930, 1931. But his reputation is only now being rediscovered.

SIEGEL: At another end of the spectrum - at least as I see them - from the engineer's conceived intricate geometric patters, would be the Lyndon Johnson, some of whose drawings look like they might have been something that Picasso thought up on a really, really bad day. There are a few drawings here - you have a couple of them - of three faced figures that Lyndon Johnson liked to doodle.

Mr. GREENBERG: This is a recurring theme in Lyndon Johnson's drawing, and I will leave it to Lyndon Johnson's analysts to try to make sense of what that three headed figure means. Overall, Johnson's drawings are quite volatile. There's a lot of energy, even a sense of violence you see in some of them. Some crazy characters that look like either mutant cats or rabbits with pointy ears.

And certainly this shows what we know from Johnson's personality, this volatile energy that entered into so much of what he did as president.

SIEGEL: Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, looks like he took the matchbook offering to learn to draw the figures from the matchbook. And he could draw a set of stock comic images and he drew them all the time.

Mr. GREENBERG: That's exactly right. As a young man, he thought about becoming a cartoonist. So apparently early in life he sort of mastered this set. And they're classic American archetypal images, some of them. There's the cowboy, there's the football player in a sort of 1930s, 1940s football uniform in a running back pose.

SIEGEL: Doing a stiff arm, a character I've struggled with for decades now in drawing.

Mr. GREENBERG: Yeah. And in a way I think of these Reagan characters like Reagan's rhetoric, like even the way Reagan saw the world. This treasure trove of American archetypes that he could draw on to evoke certain positive, warm associations for people with the American character.

But there's also this kind of cute side. He likes to draw babies and horses. He writes to Nancy Reagan these kind of mash notes that have kitty cats and Snoopy on them. So there's this really soft side that's something at odds with the cowboy/Rambo image that you see in other cartoons of his.

SIEGEL: Have you just found this a lot of fun or is there some insight about the presidential mind or spirit you come away with from looking at all these doodles?

Mr. GREENBERG: Well, as I say, it's dangerous to read too much into them. But I do think one gets little glimpses into particular presidents and that is satisfying in a way. And I think it's satisfying because today we feel that so much of what we get from the president is written by a speechwriter, vetted with a focus group, somehow planned and stage managed.

But these doodles, for the most part, are done perhaps even without the conscious awareness of the president himself. So they do kind of offer us an unguarded side of the president, and that is satisfying to see.

SIEGEL: Well, David Greenberg, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. GREENBERG: Oh, it was my pleasure. Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's historian David Greenberg, who together with the creators of Cabinet Magazine is responsible for the new book Presidential Doodles.

And you can see Ronald Reagan's self portrait, Lyndon Johnson's drawings and more presidential creations at NPR.org.

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