The Corner

Art and Power

Scott Johnson and John Miller have exposed the fatuousness of Rocco Landesman’s claim that President Obama is the first president that “actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt and arguably the first to write them really well since Lincoln. If you accept the premise, and I do, that the United States is the most powerful country in the world, then Barack Obama is the most powerful writer since Julius Caesar. That has to be good for American artists.”

It is curious that Mr. Landesman should speak of President Obama’s “books.” The Audacity of Hope has very little literary merit; any claims for the president as a writer must rest on Dreams from My Father. As for the question of who is the best writer among the presidents, it seems to me vain. Many statesmen have been excellent writers, but very few have produced works of first-rate literary art. The reason is obvious. The statesman puts his artistry into his public performance, and only rarely does he have the time, the patience, or the desire to concentrate what is often a very profound artistic impulse in a literary work. Lincoln’s Gettysburg and Second Inaugural addresses are the exceptions that prove the rule, as I suppose are the psalms of King David. Not even such a first-rate writer as Jefferson or Churchill rose in his writings to the level of art. There are places in his books and speeches where the latter seems to me to come close; but as Maynard Keynes observed in his review of The World Crisis, writing is a full-time job, and so is being chancellor of the exchequer. You can argue about Disraeli, but my own impression is that Lothair and Sybil and Coningsby confirm the truth of Keynes’s observation. The same goes for Bismarck, Clarendon, De Gaulle, and Bolingbroke; for Cicero and Caesar. Dante held public office in Florence, but his vocation was poetic, not political. Tacitus, Thucydides, and Macaulay were public men who produced works of historical art, but they succeeded only because they in some measure withdrew from public life, and at any rate they never reached the highest offices in the state. Swift was on the fringes of power; Machiavelli wrote in the bitterness of forced retirement; Burke, though he rose to be paymaster of the forces, never held any of the great offices of state. The most you can say about President Obama as a literary artist is that, had he failed in politics, he might have been a contender.

A final curiosity. Mr. Landesman seems to think that the possession by a leader of an artistic sensibility is necessarily good for the arts. As proved, I suppose, by Nero and Hitler. Qualis artifex pereo!

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran is a lawyer and writer. His book WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy is to be published this year.