Commentary Magazine


Pardon Me, but Your Sycophancy Is Showing

According to a story — unconfirmed by me — a reporter was interviewing Albert Einstein shortly after Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. In the course of the conversation, the reporter asked Einstein what the speed of sound was at sea level. The physicist said he was sorry, but he couldn’t remember exactly. The reporter expressed surprise that the world’s greatest scientist didn’t know something like that. Einstein looked at him balefully over the top of his reading glasses and said, “I know where I can look it up.”

It’s amazing how many people seem not to know where to look information up, or perhaps don’t care, as they have things other than accuracy on their agenda. Take Rocco Landesman, the new head of the National Endowment of the Arts. In a speech in Brooklyn last week, he said of Barack Obama, “This is the first president that actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt and arguably the first to write them really well since Lincoln.”

Oh, dear, where do I begin? Well, let’s start with grammar. It’s “the first president who,” not “the first president that.”

Second, he implicitly accuses Presidents Clinton, Bush 41, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower, Truman, Hoover, Coolidge, and Wilson of having had their memoirs, autobiographies, and other works ghosted. Many of them received research assistance (one could hardly write a modern presidential memoir without it), and many, no doubt, also received a good deal of editing. Presidents are not usually professional writers. But research and editorial assistance is by no means the same thing as resorting to a ghost writer. I can’t imagine Harry Truman using a ghost writer. Herbert Hoover wrote sixteen books in his life, including Fishing for Fun — and to Wash Your Soul, published three years after his death, and a translation (with his wife) from the Latin of De re Metallica. Just a guess, but I don’t think there are many ghosted 640-page translations around.

Woodrow Wilson was a college professor and president before entering politics.  Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics, his best known work and one that ran through many editions, was not ghost written.

Third, Landesman implicitly accuses Theodore Roosevelt of being, unlike Barack Obama, a second-rate writer. Roosevelt wrote a total of 38 books in his life (not to mention countless magazine articles and thousands of letters, all while holding a day job and living only sixty years). His first, The Naval War of 1812, written when he was 23, is considered a basic historical text on that subject and is still both highly readable and in print. Will The Audacity of Hope be in print a 125 years after it was published?

Fourth, Landesman seems ignorant of even the existence of The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. They were written in the last months of Grant’s life (he died in agony from throat cancer three days after he finished the manuscript). They are universally regarded as the greatest military memoirs since Caesar’s Commentaries, and among the genuine masterpieces of American literature. Perhaps Mr. Landesman should give them a try if he doesn’t object to reading memoirs written by someone who had actually done something (like — you know — save the Union) before writing them.

Fifth, Lincoln never wrote a book.

What is it about Barack Obama that causes such cringe-inducing butt-kissing?