Yankee doodles

DAVID GREENBERG, who teaches history and media studies at Rutgers University, wrote the text for "Presidential Doodles," published by Basic Books.

THE ART OF DOODLING is an ancient one. Prehistoric South African cave drawings and Mesopotamian clay tablets bear marks unrelated to their main content. So it should come as no surprise that presidents doodle too. In fact, they exhibit a range of styles and subjects as varied as the personalities of the men who have held the office.

One class of doodles includes those that seem to spring from the presidential id. Lyndon B. Johnson, a man of primal urges and ferocious appetites, drew three-headed creatures that look like aliens and mutant animals with spiky ears and wild hair. Benjamin Harrison -- one of the forgotten presidents of the late 19th century -- also sketched vaguely menacing figures, including one with a jack-o'-lantern face and shock of hair resting on its head like a miniature haystack. A child who drew such an armless and legless body on a personality test might be diagnosed as psychotic.

Other presidents display a sense of whimsy. Theodore Roosevelt imbued his drawings with a slapstick sensibility. In one, a trapped wildcat mauls a hapless boy; in another his daughter, Ethel, has her hands full restraining her little brothers, Archie and Quentin -- who were known around the White House for pelting Secret Service agents with snowballs and similar high jinks.

James Garfield was similarly playful, doodling a page of clam-like images to represent kisses planted on the page by his six children, their parents and their grandmother. Ronald Reagan showed a fondness for babies and horses, which he drew repeatedly, and kitty cats and Snoopy, which adorned the greeting cards he gave to his wife, Nancy. John F. Kennedy was cerebral, writing words over and over as if refining his understanding with each repetition. During long meetings, he drummed impatiently with his fingers and made slashing pencil lines on a notepad, often setting off in rectangular boxes the subject of his current obsession -- whether it was poverty or Vietnam.

A few presidents were deliberate in their artistry. Thomas Jefferson, who grew fond of Italian food during his European travels and served macaroni and cheese in the White House, stuck a feather in his inkwell, drew a plan for a pasta-maker and called it a “macaroni-making machine.” Franklin Roosevelt, an obsessive philatelist who hauled his enormous stamp collection to the 1945 Yalta summit in a steamer trunk, took it upon himself to design the official U.S. postage stamp for Mother’s Day -- one of the lesser-known ways in which FDR expanded presidential power.


Then there were presidents who barely drew at all. Once, when asked for a doodle by Richard Nixon, White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman insisted that Nixon didn’t make any such drawings -- but then, mulling the public relations implications of the matter, added: “Should the president doodle?” Nixon did leave behind a few scribbles, but he was too inhibited to indulge in the fashion of the great presidential doodlers.

These scribbles from our chief executives intrigue us not just because of the august position that these particular artists held but also because these casually drawn sketches offer a rare glimpse of authenticity. We’ve gotten used to thinking of every piece of presidential communication as having been crafted by speechwriters, vetted by focus groups and shaped for public consumption. But doodles are, by definition, unplanned and personal.

When asked to draw a doodle for a collector, diplomat Ralph Bunche once wisely explained, “To do a doodle to order would really be faking, because a doodle ought to be spontaneous and subconscious. In fact, since receiving your letter, I have found that my doodling is spoiled because the letter has made me self-conscious about it.”