Doodles reveal playfulness in the Oval Office |

Doodles reveal playfulness in the Oval Office

Charles Agar
Aspen Times Weekly

How much does doodling tell about a person?

A lot, according to a new book from the creators of Cabinet, a quarterly arts and culture magazine.

“Presidential Doodles” is a great coffee-table book that chronicles the “scribbles, scratches, squiggles, and scrawls from the Oval Office” in a series of reproductions of presidential papers from George Washington to George H. W.. Bush.

The book peeks into the mental meanders of American leaders, from Herbert Hoover’s obsessive graphic studies (he was an engineer) to JFK’s iconic doodle of his favorite Cape Cod sailboat, a picture he drew on hotel stationery the night before he was assassinated in Dallas.

Ronald Reagan fancied himself a cartoonist and drew funny characters on sweet-nothing notes he sent to his wife, Nancy. Lyndon B. Johnson was one of the most prolific doodlers, obsessively scrawling three-headed creatures and patterns. Dwight D. Eisenhower was an amateur artist and copyist, who popularized paint-by-number art during his White House tenure.

Early presidents overcame the hassle of cutting their own quills and dipping them in ink to make marginalia as well.

For some presidents, the scribbles portray a sense of playfulness under the pressure cooker of the presidency. Many presidents, like Bill Clinton, doodled during moments of stress. And some of the scribbles chronicle poignant times for presidents, from JFK scribbling “decisions, decisions, decisions” in a moment of doubt, to Harry Truman’s erratic chicken scratch shortly after Roosevelt died and he was handed the reins of a nation at war.

The authors of “Presidential Doodles” don’t pretend to have made an exhaustive study of every president’s inner workings. While a person’s doodling might reveal a lot about them, they say, it is by no means a tell-all on presidential personalities.

But the very publication of “Presidential Doodles” reflects America’s long-running obsession with its leaders, and the book offers some poetic perspective on presidential humanity.

The Presidential Records Act of 1978 makes every president’s papers public record, but both Clinton and George W. Bush’s libraries are not yet open and neither responded to requests for samples for the book.

The most notable scribble of current President Bush was one caught on film when he wrote a note to Condoleezza Rice during a United Nations session saying, “I think I MAY NEED A BATHROOM break? Is this possible?” The authors note the irony of a leader “who insisted he didn’t need a permission slip from the UN to go to war” but “felt he did need a permission slip at the UN to go to the bathroom.”

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