The Unkindest Cut

by Derrick G. Jeter

“I am no orator . . . / But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man, / That love my friend; and that they know full well / That gave me public leave to speak of him: / For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth, / Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech. . . .”1

Marc Antony’s assessment of his oratorical powers while eulogizing Julius Caesar could easily apply to Rocco Landesman’s (the Obama Administration chief of the National Endowment of the Art) October 21, 2009, speech to the Grantmakers in the Arts. It was . . . neither witty nor worthy. What caught my attention, and the attention of others, however, was one idiotic, illogical, and ignorant paragraph.

There is a new president and a new NEA. The president first. 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.2

Where does one begin with such mind-boggling nonsense? There were exactly eighteen presidents since Teddy Roosevelt, include Obama. Does Landesman really believe that not a one of these men had actually written their own books? He should of at least been able to recall that Jimmy Carter, a man of the left who supported Obama, had at least written one of his twenty-three books (including works of poetry). But when one has fallen under the spell of the “Artist in Chief,” little things like historic accuracy are simply inconveniences. Just to set the record straight here are a few historical facts of presidential authors since TR:

  • Calvin Coolidge—granted didn’t write a book, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless—translated Dante’s Divine Comedy purely for personal pleasure.
  • Herbert Hoover wrote twenty-five books, including two renowned works: one on mining and another on fishing.
  • John F. Kennedy wrote two books and won a Pulitzer for one of them (though debate still rages as to whether Profiles in Courage was ghosted by Ted Sorensen).
  • Richard Nixon wrote eight books.
  • Jimmy Carter, as already mentioned, wrote twenty-three.
  • Ronald Reagan wrote enough radio spots in his own hand to fill a book. Wait, there is a book of these manuscripts called Reagan: In His Own Hand.

Oh, by the way, Lincoln never wrote a book.

He clearly shows himself to be no logician. Just because Obama is the president of the “most powerful country in the world,” as was Caesar during his day, how does that make Obama the most “powerful writer since” Julius Caesar? Do I hear a collective, “Say what?” Time will tell, I suppose, but I’m betting that Obama’s two books just might fall short of Ulysses S. Grant’s autobiography, which is considered a national treasure. And that’s if we only compare Obama the writer to his fellow presidential penmen.

But here is the fun part. Thinking about Obama being the “most powerful writer since Julius Caesar,” I was perusing the shelves in my library and wondering how these writers would stack up to Obama’s literary genius. Here’s my assessment—and I think Landesman would agree:

  • J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye—Pour that man another drink.
  • Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man in the Sea—A dead fish.
  • Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird—It’ll never sing.
  • Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind—Hot air.
  • Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick—Throw it back.
  • Hariet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin—It’ll never make it out the door.
  • Henry David Thoreau’s Walden—All wet.
  • Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn—It missed the boat.

How about some non-American writers? How “powerful” is Obama compared to them? Miguel de Cervantes is tipping at windmills. Victor Hugo might as well stay in the Paris sewers. Aldous Huxley lives in a cowardly world. Fyodor Dostoevsky should never leave the monastery. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn should stay locked up in the gulag. And Winston Churchill? A pansy.

The unkindest cut of all is that none of these accomplished writers, to say nothing of Thucydides, Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle, any of the biblical writers, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Alexander Dumas, George Orwell, or a thousand other writers I could think of, come close to the “powerful” literary pen of Baraka Obama.

In all this idiocy and stupidity we can at least be grateful that Rocco Landesman isn’t heading the Department of Education.

  1. William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 3.2.219-24, in William Shakespeare: Complete Works (New York: Barnes and Nobel, 1994), 599.
  2. Rocco Landesman, “We Know Art Works,” October 21, 2009, Brooklyn, New York, (accessed October 30, 2009).