A Presidential Communication Reading List

For me, every day is President’s Day. I’ve been a fan of presidential history since childhood. Like many, it began with a grade-school fascination with the Civil War and World War II history. This led to deep dives on Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and others. And the rest, as they say, is history, as adult-Nick remains an avid reader of presidential biographies.

In my work as a communication strategist, speaker, and college educator, I frequently cite leadership communication examples from the U.S. Presidents. These lessons and stories have become the basis for my keynote speech, Presidentially Speaking: The Communication Secrets of Our Commanders in Chief. (You can view a description of this talk and others here.)

For those wanting to learn more on this subject, I’ve put together the following reading list of helpful books on presidential communication.

The Rhetorical Presidency by Jeffrey K. Tulis

A scholarly text, The Rhetorical Presidency provides a great level-set on presidential communication from Washington to the present day. What I really like about this book is that it maps the various phases of presidential communication, identifying Lincoln as an inflection point in executive branch rhetoric and public persuasion while also noting media innovations like print, radio, TV, and social media.

Lincoln’s Sword by Douglas L. Wilson

There are many great biographies of Abraham Lincoln (my favorites are Lincoln by David Herbert Donald and Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin). However, if you want to know more about Lincoln as a writer, look no further than Lincoln’s Sword by Douglas Wilson of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College. From written scraps and notes to detailed textual analysis of speeches like the Gettysburg Address, no book was more helpful in learning about a specific president’s communication style than this one.

Reagan’s Persuasion by James C. Humes

In addition to being one of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriters, James Humes is also a professional speaker in his own right and an expert on both Reagan as a speaker as well as other charismatic leaders like Winston Churchill. While not as detailed as Lincoln’s Sword, The Reagan Persuasion is full of helpful tips and amazing anecdotes from someone who personally observed “The Great Communicator” in action.

The Defining Moment by Jonathan Alter

While The Defining Moment is more of a standard presidential history, it’s on this list because of author Jonathan Alter’s defined focus on the landmark first 100 days of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. In addition to legislative action to combat the Great Depression, these months also saw FDR give his first inaugural address (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”) and launch the first of his fireside chats. Alter makes you feel like you have behind-the-scenes access to the crafting of these critical communications.

Leadership by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Like Alter’s book, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership isn’t a communication-focused text per se. However, in her book on the leadership of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, and Lyndon Johnson’s during their own turbulent times, communication—especially the power of storytelling—is a consistent theme. Some of my favorite presidential communication stories come from this book including how LBJ used stories to help whip up congressional support for civil rights legislation.

Bonus! Washington Post’s Presidential Podcast

Do you wish you knew at least one nugget about each of our presidents? Check out The Washington Post’s Presidential podcast series. Hosted by Lillian Cunningham, each episode focuses on a single president and features interviews with Pulitzer Prize-winning biographers Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, Jon Meacham, Bob Woodward, and more.

If you’re looking for a non-presidential reading list focused on helping you become a better presenter and public speaker, I’ve got one of those too. (I cite works on this list from Nancy Duarte and Amy Cuddy in Presidentially Speaking.)

Are there books that I missed? What are your favorite presidential biographies? Let me know in the comments below.

Would you like to bring my talk, Presidentially Speaking, to your next conference or event? Contact me now to learn more.