- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 20, 2006


As a president, Herbert Hoover ranks near the bottom in the hearts of most historians, condemned as the dull-minded bureaucrat who looked on while the nation sank into the Great Depression.

In at least one respect, however, Mr. Hoover’s sad, single term wasn’t a waste of time. In fact, he apparently was never more productive than when supposedly wasting his time, assembling what may be his supreme presidential legacy — as the nation’s foremost executive doodler.

“Presidential Doodles,” just released by Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group, collects the random sketches and drawings of Mr. Hoover and most of his fellow commanders in chief, from Mr. Hoover’s elaborate shapes and swirls to the isolated squiggles of Abraham Lincoln. The book expands upon an issue of Cabinet magazine, a quarterly of “Art & Culture” that featured the jottings of eight presidents.

“Just as our dreams and little Freudian slips can mean something about us, doodles can be indicative of the person and issues and things that he is dealing with,” says Cabinet Editor in Chief Sina Najafi.

Personalities emerge at a glance from John Adams’ hard, straight lines and precise geometrical patterns; Theodore Roosevelt’s rugged sketch of two dogs staring across a campfire; Dwight D. Eisenhower’s plain, practical illustrations; and Ronald Reagan’s childlike portraits, including one of himself in a cowboy hat.

President John F. Kennedy, known for separating his life into compartments, would enclose words and numbers inside circles and boxes. Events long after his death give one doodle an unintended chill: A small circle with the numbers “9-11” contained within. Just to the lower left on the page, the word “conspiracy” is underlined.

In summer 1964, as the Vietnam War intensified, President Lyndon B. Johnson scribbled “Breakdown” at the top of one paper. Richard Nixon left behind few doodles, but, characteristically, kept an eye on what his adversaries wrote down, once noticing that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sketched a heart with an arrow through it as talks faltered on limiting nuclear warheads.

Mr. Hoover’s work is the subject of 16 pages, six more than those of the man who displaced him from office and, for the most part, from history: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Trained as an engineer, Mr. Hoover sketched out designs that read like building projects gone awry, or one’s own imprisoned thoughts — circles within circles and diamonds inside diamonds, dark spirals reminiscent of spider webs or of wheels turning madly.

Mr. Hoover wasn’t the first executive to doodle, but he was the first to become famous for it. In 1929, an autograph collector got his hands on some sketches, which spawned a wave of newspaper articles and inspired a dressmaker to use Mr. Hoover’s designs for a line of one-piece children’s garments.

“Doodling is a 20th-century form,” Mr. Najafi notes. “You had the rise of bureaucracy and meetings and the demise of the secretary who would take notes for you.”

Some presidents, and their legacy keepers, have been proud of their doodles. Mr. Kennedy’s scribbles were exhibited after his death and even turned into sculpture. Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan both were fond of showing off their drawings, although, a CBS report noted at the time, if Mr. Reagan drew a horse or football player in your presence, it meant you had committed a grave error; you bored him.

“With Reagan, you start to see the collapse of the public-private distinction,” says historian David Greenberg, who wrote the book’s introduction and includes commentary throughout.

“He gave them out to friends. He gave them out at meetings. For him, doodles were very much an act of self-presentation. They are purported to be something private, but there’s an air of public relations.”

For other chief executives, doodling would appear too trivial to mention, or an unfortunate habit, like admitting that the president cracks his knuckles or chews with his mouth open.

The Harry Truman library initially denied that he doodled, until the book’s editors informed the library of a New York Times article from the 1940s that included a Truman sketch. “The handwriting on the paper does look very like his,” responded Truman archivist Randy Sowell, who reported finding a “piece of paper with a bit of doggerel in Mr. Truman’s handwriting on one side, and some doodles on the other.”

The library for President Jimmy Carter also stated that he did not doodle, but did confide that he wrote notes in the margins. A letter from Gerald R. Ford’s library asserted that the president’s attention was fixed on people rather than paper.

“Unfortunately, I have to report that President Ford was not a doodler,” wrote Ford archivist William H. McNitt. “In fact, you almost never saw him in a White House meeting holding a pen. When others were talking, he was listening.”



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