The Washington Post

Obama doodles

Recently President Obama admitted to ABC7s Scott Thuman that he is a man of hidden talents: “I'm also a pretty good doodler. See folks don’t know that about me.”

He doodles “all kinds of things. Faces, people. So sometimes when I'm in a big important international meeting and you see me writings stuff down, it might be that I’m just drawing some, drawing some folks.”

Obama doodles while the economy burns!

This is chilling, but it's certainly not unprecedented. There is a long, colorful, elaborately shaded history of presidential doodles.

You would think that Andrew Jackson was giving you his undivided attention, and then you would glance over and notice that he had devoted the last several minutes to making a laborious sketch of an alligator.

“Mr. President!” you would gasp, indignantly.

“I have a bullet lodged inside my body,” he would say. “From killing a man in a duel. A better man than you.” He would resume drawing the alligator.

And other presidents were no better. Ronald Reagan filled entire sheets of White House stationery with painstaking images of cowboys, babies, football players, fat businessmen and affectionate notes to his wife Nancy. He could not help himself. You would sit down in a meeting with him and emerge a few minutes later with a perfectly rendered caricature of yourself in jelly beans.

And consider Richard Nixon. Sure, he was bothered by the doodling of Elliot Richardson during meetings, but why would you choose Henry Kissinger as an adviser besides the fact that he was so fun to draw? You could not understand a word he said.

George Washington doodled, but only useful geometric designs that could have been of help in surveying. This was of a piece with the rest of his character. “Loosen up, George,” everyone was always telling him. “Can’t,” George would say. “Precedent.” George was seldom any fun and refused even to shake people by the hand or wear long pants, worried about the precedent it would set.

By the time Benjamin Harrison came around, the precedent was there and waiting. As unmemorable presidents go, Harrison went, but his sublimely creepy doodles remain, burning bright and terrifying Jung when they showed up in the collective unconscious years later.

“I don't understand all this,” Kennedy doodled at one point. He was always doodling things like “money money” “Blockade Cuba!” “Escape,” checkerboards, sailboats and flags and treble clefs. (I am not making this up.) One sensed that his mind was not on the task at hand.

In fact, the terrifying thing about all these doodles by presidents is that they remind you that the president is an ordinary person doing exactly what you would do in the same situation. Somehow this is not reassuring. Sure, you want your president to be a guy that you can grab a beer with, but you don’t want him to have the same response you would have to a six-hour briefing on our foreign policy towards Estonia, namely, to start scratching the words "KILL ME KILL ME NOW OH SWEET MERCIFUL HEAVENS" into your pad of White House stationery.

“Ah, Estonia,” you want him to say, perking up and leaning forward. “But surely we remember the lesson of the ’92 incident.”

(“I do that,” Mitt Romney says.

“Hush,” you say. “Not now.”)

Petri doodle, artist’s rendering. (MS PAINT)

You do not want someone who, like you, ceases listening somewhere around minute forty and begins to make detailed portraits of the people sitting across the room (who keep moving their heads just when you wish they wouldn’t and cause the picture to look less like Sullen Carl Across The Table Who Always Wears Ill-Fitting Shirts and more like a slightly overstimulated bear).

If you see me taking what appear to be frantic notes, chances are nine out of ten that I am in fact ineptly drawing something. And now I find that the president is no different? That worries me. If I look back over my notes from meetings over the last several months, we learn that “large bathtubs? socialists! WHAT IS THIS WORD?” and then there is a picture of what appears to be Batman but could honestly be anything. Possibly a potato of some sort. It goes without saying that I have no recollection of what was discussed in those meetings. I hope it wasn’t important!

Still, I suppose it’s better than having a laptop there. Then, if you see someone tapping away frenziedly at what look like detailed notes, chances are that he is gchatting and has forgotten even that you are in the room.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".


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