The Most Literary Politicians in History: Barack Obama, Vaclav Havel, and More
In his new book, The Literary Churchill, historian Jonathan Rose offers insight into the literary lives of politicians. Nations, he writes, want “power, wealth, trade, land, and security. But political actors also act out stories, which can have a force and a momentum of their own.” And all politicians, he adds, “tell stories, whether they are grand Bonapartist myths or homey Reaganesque anecdotes, and these stories can drive policy.”
Yes, politics is in many ways a long and often self-contradicting narrative; and yes, politicians are, in their own way, both readers and writers of stories. But, beyond the many who spin folktales at debates or publish read-my-memoir-and-vote-for-me fluff every year, there are a few select leaders throughout history who have risen to the rank of true literary figures. Winston Churchill, as Rose expertly demonstrates, was one of the stars of this class. But others, too, have set themselves apart with their studious reading habits and storytelling abilities. Here, we look at politicians whose words shined on the page as well as the podium.
“For Churchill,” Rose writes, “politics and literature were two sides of the same career.” The British prime minister was a theater nerd in his youth and, over the course of his career, wrote a number of books, including military histories, essay collections, and fiction. Regarded for his prolificness as well as his prose, he understood history (even the chapter of it in which he was a main player) as a story, and his politics were not immune to literary influences. This was especially true in, of all things, matters of science. Rose recounts one episode in which Churchill, writing a newspaper article about the future uses of science and nuclear fusion in particular, “cited [H.G.] Wells and copied his conviction that scientists were a revolution.” In addition to keeping literature alive in the minds of the public, Churchill also made his own contribution to the literary record of his era. His famous six-volume history, The Second World War, is credited with helping him to nab the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature.
While Barack Obama’s literary output hasn’t been all that voluminous (allow that he’s been, you know, a little busy these past few years), he’s consistently shown himself to be both a good writer and diligent reader. His book Dreams from My Father was a bestseller and contributed significantly to his swift rise in popularity (or, at the very least, fame). In arguing for the importance of narrative in politics, Jonathan Rose writes, “A few years ago Americans catapulted an obscure politician into the White House largely because they loved reading his life story.” While it’s unlikely that President Obama would agree wholly with this assessment, one suspects that he would, being a book nerd himself, appreciate it. In fact, thanks in large part to social media and the Internet, Obama has managed to exert more influence on the nation’s literary taste than any POTUS before him. Weeks before Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom hit shelves in 2010, Obama assured its popularity by buying an advance copy while on vacation and getting caught in the act. Even a visit to a D.C. bookstore with his daughters gave rise to a veritable, if very weird, media firestorm.
Over the course of his career, Lincoln proved himself to be a first-rate writer and orator. Impressively, his speeches (for which he is arguably more famous) translate well to the page, losing none of their persuasiveness or candid irony and humility. Perhaps what made Lincoln such a fine stylist and speaker—and what makes him, in the eyes of posterity, a certifiably literary president—was the fact that he both enjoyed and made political use of literary sources, particularly the Bible and drama (we recall his appreciation of the theater, of course, for very different and far sadder reasons). A recent article by David Bromwich in The New York Review of Books demonstrates how the influence of Shakespeare can be detected in Lincoln’s beliefs, particularly with regards to political ambition. Commenting on Lincoln’s love for the play Macbeth, and his coolness toward Hamlet’s “to be or not be” speech, Bromwich writes: “Lincoln was deeply touched by the portrait of the mind of a politician who had committed great wrongs. He was not equally moved by the thoughts of a hero who reproached himself for doing too little.”
Ulysses S. Grant
Grant’s memoirs, which detail his military career in the Mexican-American and Civil Wars, may represent the ideal to which all subsequent military histories aspire. Full of rich detail and vigor, they offer a deeply entertaining reading experience while setting down for posterity the in-person experience, instead of simply the factual record, of crucial events in American history. What could possibly make the memoirs even more literary? Oh, just the fact that they were published and marketed aggressively by one mustachioed wisecracker and reluctant America-lover, Mark Twain.
Disraeli, who served twice as Great Britain’s Prime Minister in the nineteenth century, left behind a literary reputation as secure as that of his political one. In addition to works of verse and history, he wrote several novels, many of which sold well in his time, remarking upon politics as well as the lives aristocrats (Disraeli himself was of the aristocratic class). They include Vivian Grey, Lothair, and the autobiographical Contarini Fleming.
Havel was a successful playwright and essayist whose vocal writings in opposition to communism contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and, according to a New York Times obituary (he died in 2011), “swept him into power” as “post-Communist Czechoslovakia’s first president.” Though politicians are often persuasive wordsmiths, and writers are often involved in the political life of their country, it’s rare to see a writer bridge so dramatically the two occupations.
Roosevelt is one of the more prolific politicians in history. As Jonathan Raban wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “from his senior year at Harvard (when he began his well-received history of the naval War of 1812) until his death, [Roosevelt] couldn't stop churning out books. He was a glutton for literature, once boasting of the pleasure of feasting on Aristophanes in German translation.” In addition to The Naval War of 1812 (the early publication of which technically makes him a writer first and politician second), Roosevelt wrote an autobiography and several books about nature, including Through the Brazilian Wilderness.