The History of White House Doodles


Sept. 22, 2006 — -- President Kennedy scribbled "Vietnam" over and over, drawing a box around the word each time.

President Eisenhower sketched a picture of himself looking larger than life, bare-chested, and with a head full of hair.

President Reagan doodled smiling cowboys alongside love notes to his wife.

Presidents Carter and Ford left no scribblings.

It's not the first thing a scholar might search for in the public record, but presidential doodles hold a certain fascination for the historically minded.

"Doodles are often the last remnants of unconscious, unscripted presidential writing," said David Greenberg, a historian who examined two centuries of scribblings by commanders in chief for a book appropriately called "Presidential Doodles."

The book includes the absentminded scratchings of 24 presidents -- plus a note from President Bush -- collected from public records and archives across the country.

Greenberg cautions against reading too much into a doodle, but he believes they offer a glimpse into the president's private side.

"So much of what we hear from a president is planned and vetted by focus groups. It's un-spontaneous. You see in these doodles the exact opposite. These doodles are done not only without regard to what the public is going to think but also what the president himself is thinking. It's often unconscious."

The doodles do seem telling.

Take Kennedy, for example.

There's the boxed-in rendering of "Vietnam," which has an obsessive anxious feel to it.

On a memo produced during a visit by the Shah of Iran, Kennedy doodled the words "Iraq," "Syria" and "Egypt," and put boxes around each word as well.

Greenberg views these sketches as a window into Kennedy's problem-solving process.

"He's drawing these doodles in meetings during times of high international tension. And the doodles show him trying to contain problems like Vietnam and the Middle East," Greenberg said.

"You see this contained energy. You feel him working within the constraints of the time and the Cold War."

In another Kennedy doodle with seeming modern-day relevance, he wrote "9/11" repeatedly and the word "conspiracy" next to it.

He also inverted the numbers, writing "11/9."

It turns out that was the tally of a committee vote, not a foreshadowing of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Eisenhower's doodles also seem to be a window into something -- if not his mental process then maybe his ego?

He was a frequent scribbler, and his renderings are well executed.

In fact, America's 34th president was a practiced landscape painter.

In his doodles, though, he seems a fan of the self-portrait.

On one memo with the heading "Cabinet Paper -- Privileged," he covers a third of the page -- including text about the executive branch's transportation responsibilities -- with a massive pencil sketch of his head, with hair.

Another memo outlining the agenda for "The Legislative Leadership Conference, Monday June 28, 1954" is scribbled over with a gunboat and a rendering of himself with huge muscles, a bare chest, thick hair, and a much younger face.

Greenberg says that picture "shows him as this Charles Atlas style figure … with a kind of virility. It was during a time when America was exerting its military force abroad, and Eisenhower is drawing a kind of correlative to that."

Most of Eisenhower's drawings incorporate weaponry -- knives, boats and missiles -- perhaps not surprising from a general.

There also is a threatening undercurrent to the sketches.

In one document he scribbled a picture of a bullet piercing the head of his chief of staff.

In another, he wrote the word "Nixon" next to a whip. One can only imagine what was going through his head at the time.

Greenberg is sensitive to accusations that presidential doodlers are weak-minded men.

"People think of doodles as a sign of a mind wandering, but really there can be something disciplining about doodling," Greenberg said. "It can be a way to focus your mind. Sometimes it's when you're not necessarily dwelling on your problem at hand that you come up with solutions."

He believes that's the case with President Johnson.

Johnson frequently drew scribbles over the words "The White House" that adorned the top of his stationery.

Greenberg believes it's a habit the president developed to calm his mind.

There is another possible interpretation of those doodles.

"The Johnson under the strain of Vietnam and the party turning on him was a man full of anger and resentment. And there are times he drew bars over the words 'White House,'" Greenberg said.

"It's going too far to say he saw the White House as a prison, but certainly by the end of his presidency he was unhappy there."

The Johnson sketches also include two pages of tight lines drawn in precise quilt patterns, and Greenberg sees the sketches as an important reminder of Johnson's skills.

"We remember Johnson as someone who was given over to urges all the time, but he was also enormously successful. There was no one more methodical in executing a plan. And it's nice to be reminded of that side of Johnson, which we see in these sketches."

Reagan was one of the more prolific presidential doodlers.

His sketches are interesting for what they don't reveal.

They betray no anxieties or internal struggles.

Instead, he sketched happy cartoonish pictures of cowboys and costumed movie characters often accompanied by love notes to his wife.

He filled one piece of paper with scribbled heads, including one that looked like his wife, Nancy, along with a heart pierced by an arrow.

It also was inscribed with his and his wife's initials, and a note read: "There I was doodling away -- then I began to think about you."

Greenberg says Reagan loved to give away his doodles as "as an instrument of public relations."

Greenberg said, "For him, the doodle was a deliberate way to show off his lighter, endearing side. There's a calculated side to Reagan's doodles."

Most other presidents were not as forthcoming with their silly scribblings.

The book's introduction starts with an anecdote -- recalled by former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke -- about President Clinton doodling during a meeting about the Somalia crisis.

Apparently Clinton was a doodler.

The former president, whose papers are still private, did not turn over any doodles for the book.

President Bush also did not turn over doodles.

The authors included the only private scribbling available from the current president -- a note that Bush wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a meeting of the United Nations.

It reads: "I think I may need a bathroom break? Is this possible?"

It's not a favorite moment for the current White House so perhaps a doodle would have been less embarrassing.

Greenberg understands why the presidents don't want their scribbles made public.

"Obviously there are much more embarrassing things that have come out about Bush and Clinton over the years. But presidents like to control their images, to decide what sides of them the public sees. So to have someone taking something personal, private, unplanned may feel like a violation even if it's something trivial."

Perhaps the most widely distributed presidential doodle was by President Hoover.

Reporters occasionally wrote about Hoover's penchant for doodling.

A visitor to the White House saw Hoover toss one of his sketches in the garbage, fished it out, asked the president to sign it, and then sold it to an autograph collector.

It was published in newspapers around the country, and a fabric maker lifted the pattern and put it on a line of children's outfits.

The scribble was widely written about and analyzed, and Greenberg says Hoover was annoyed by the attention the doodle received.

As for others:

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