Rocco Landesman, who was appointed chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts by President Obama last May (as a replacement for Dana Gioia, the eminent poet who was its leader during the Bush administration), comes from an affluent and remarkable – make that downright colorful – St. Louis family.
His uncle and aunt, Jay and Fran (Deitsch) Landesman, have for sixty years been familiar figures of, in turn, the New York, St. Louis, and London avant-garde scenes, crossing paths with everyone from Jack Kerouac to Barbra Streisand to the Beatles to the Sex Pistols; last year their son Cosmo told the story of their lives in his book Starstruck. (Here it’s worth mentioning that Fran Landesman co-wrote the jazz semi-standards “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” and “Ballad Of The Sad Young Men” with the late Tommy Wolf, later to be the musical director of Donny and Marie Osmond’s variety show.)

Rocco has had a somewhat more conventional career. After graduating from (and teaching at) the Yale School of Drama, he ran an investment fund for a decade until joining Jujamcyn Theaters, which operates a handful of the most prestigious showplaces on Broadway. In this capacity he produced some very considerable hits, including the late Roger Miller’s Big River; Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning Angels In America; and Mel Brooks’s blockbuster musical adaptation of his film The Producers. He’s also ventured, not quite as impressively, into horse racing and minor league baseball.

Last week, Landesman spoke before a group called Grantmakers In The Arts. He described what he sees as the vastly improved state of American culture since the inauguration of the forty-fourth President, in contrast to the cultural desert of much of the proceeding decade, then remarked:

“This 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.”

Since these words were first reported, many bloggers and columnists have remarked on them. What is thoroughly apparent from reading them is that the NEA chairman’s knowledge of the literary achievements of American presidents – and world leaders, for that matter – is a bit on the sparse side.

For one thing, it is a well-documented fact that Herbert Hoover, before, during, and after his Presidency, wrote every word of his many books and countless speeches, in a public career that stretched for a half-century from the 1910s. And there has never been much dispute that Jimmy Carter has written all or most of the contents of the two dozen books that have poured from his pen since leaving office in 1981, including his ventures into children’s fiction, the novel, and poetry.

While some Presidents, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, wrote rather little on their own apart from letters, others have been more involved in the writing process. President Nixon made a point of crediting the editorial assistance of others with his books, but what he did not write unassisted as a first draft, he always revised and reshaped, and the really important parts of his books were, much more often than not, entirely his own work.

These include the lengthy opening section of Six Crises, describing the Alger Hiss case; at the time RN worked on it, in 1961, only seven or eight books had been published on the case (most being the work of Hiss apologists), and of these only Whittaker Chambers’s Witness was a truly first-hand account of the events. So it was up to RN to describe the incredible twists and turns of the story, as he had seen them unfold in 1948 and 1949.

Landesman’s notion that President Obama is the most powerful person to qualify as a writer since Julius Caesar is also mistaken – quite apart from the fact, pointed out by a number of writers already, that it’s curious for a member of the Obama administration to compare our Chief Executive to the man who destroyed the Roman Republic.

For example, in the second century AD Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, a man who ruled a territory far larger than Caesar ever controlled, wrote his immortal Meditations in the downtime (as we’d call it now) of his campaigns against barbarian tribes. It’s true that Meditations was more in the way of a notebook than a carefully thought-out manuscript. But subsequent rulers have written full-scale books.

Henry VIII of England wrote a defense of Catholicism against Martin Luther, long before he led his nation out of the Church; for this he was given the title “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope, which the present Queen still uses. James I of England, around the time his subjects established the first permanent colony in Virginia, wrote a book warning of the baleful influence of witchcraft. In more recent times, Vladimir Lenin wrote a number of full-scale books and dozens of pamphlets while bringing the USSR into existence. Joseph Stalin, who fancied himself a literary and cultural critic, seemed always to be plugging away at a book, in the few moments he could spare from terrorizing his countrymen. And there was nothing Mao Zedong liked better than to pen some lines of poetry, when the mood struck him.

To mention a man far less powerful, Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha wrote many volumes of garrulous memoirs toward the end of his life, and kept novelist Ismail Kadare out of jail and writing so that he could personally edit his work – much as Russia’s Nicholas I once said to Alexander Pushkin, “it is I that will be your censor.”

Yesterday, Rocco Landesman offered a clarification (of sorts) of his remarks. In correcting his mistakes, he manages to make a few more. He says that Obama “wrote, on his own, the manuscript for his first book and went looking for a publisher.” This was not the case. Obama, when a student at Harvard Law School, was approached by literary agent Jane Dystel after the New York Times wrote about him. He contracted with Poseidon, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, to write the book that became Dreams From My Father. Several years later, with Obama out of law school and back in Chicago, but with no book finished, S&S canceled the contract. Ms. Dystel then took the project to Random House’s Times Books imprint, which acquired it, and the future President then completed his MS and the book was published.

Landesman also acknowledges that while Abraham Lincoln “never wrote a whole book per se, his writings were collected in one.” Now, the most complete collections of Lincoln’s writings have been in a number of volumes; one book, even thin-paper and over a thousand pages, wouldn’t hold them all if the innumerable legal papers he drafted before 1861 are included.

Before drifting off into an account of his new friendship with National Council of the Arts member Lee Greenwood (of “God Bless The USA” fame), Landesman manages to make one misstep of sorts; when speaking of books with a presidential byline, he says that “one important one, it is generally accepted, was written by a ghostwriter without credit.”

Several bloggers have already wondered if this refers to John F. Kennedy’s Profiles In Courage and the reports that have circulated since shortly after the book won the Pulitzer Prize that Theodore Sorensen was responsible for at least most of the text. Though Sorensen acknowledged in his recent book Counselor that he did write the first draft of most of the chapters, which were then revised by the future President, the Kennedy family has always been very sensitive about any suggestion that Profiles was not, in the last analysis, JFK’s own work. But it may be that Landesman had another book in mind: Ronald Reagan’s post-presidential effort An American Life, which was widely reported at the time of its publication to be essentially the work of professional ghostwriter William Novak. In any event, Landesman’s sentence is a rather gauche one. And his performance as NEA Chairman, so far, makes one wish that the capable and eloquent Dana Gioia were still in that position.