With Hottest Heads of State Volume One: The American Presidents, J.D. and Kate Dobson ask the tough questions that previous presidential biographers and American historians have been afraid to tackle: What are some pickup lines used by former occupants of the Oval Office? How can you style your hair like Martin Van Buren? And which president had the best beard?
The book, out this month from Henry Holt & Co, is a smart, cheeky, and above all entertaining journey through American political history as seen through the smoldering and beguiling eyes of our presidents. J.D.—a 2004 graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, former congressional aide, lobbyist, and crisis communications consultant—and Kate—a Brown University alumna and former Washington Post comics editor—deliver this trip through our 44 presidents in the style of a teen magazine, complete with quizzes, lists, lots of photos, and no block of text longer than a full page.
J.D. and Kate have been toying with superficiality as a form of political satire for about a decade at their website Hottest Heads of State, where they skewer political news and rank global heads of state in order of hotness. (Currently, the unfairly photogenic Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and king of Bhutan Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck occupy the top three spots.) They also make candles scented with the complex notes of world leaders and former presidents. The Rutherford B. Hayes candle recalls "fresh-squeezed lemonade, just like the kind that was served in the Hayes White House in lieu of alcohol," while the Vladimir Putin conjures thoughts of "pine, earth, and smoke billowing from the cities of your enemies."
The Hub caught up with J.D. and Kate ahead of two upcoming Washington, D.C., stops on their book tour to talk political humor in the face of political anxiety, evaluating foreign policy on a hotness scale, and the durability of the executive office.
You first started Hottest Heads of State world leaders and presidents around the beginning of Obama's first term—way before the contentious 2016 election cycle. How do you expect us to laugh and learn about the previous 44 presidents when it can seem like we're a Tweet away from everything going all Mad Max: Fury Road?
Kate: That's how we felt at first, too. We thought, How are we going to write jokes about the presidents when we are so sad and terrified? But as it turned out, writing the book was extremely therapeutic, and we hope that reading it will be, too. It's a good reminder that America has been through dark times before. Did you know that there was this whole Civil War back in the 1860s? That is just one of the many intriguing facts you will learn in our book!
Why go with the guys who have occupied the highest office in the land? I mean, the mix of access to education, privilege, ego, maleness, and—save eight years out of the 228 we've had a president—whiteness that it takes to be president doesn't always translate into hotness. You probably would have had a better cast of hotness if you did Hottest Studio Musicians of the 1970s? Why presidents?
J.D.: The only studio musicians we're familiar with are a couple of guys I went to high school with, and it would be pretty weird to publish a book ranking the two of them on their respective hotness.
Kate: And that kind of gets at why we chose presidents. We love politics and history, and it's only natural to want to write about the things that interest you, and also to rank those things in order of hotness. As to diversity, we would consider it a personal favor if the American people would elect some presidents who aren't white men, so our second edition can be more diverse. Thanks in advance!
Tell me a bit about choosing this format for the book, the Tiger Beat meets high school slam book approach of factoids, lists, biographical snippets, photos, and miscellany. What makes this approach the right one for talking about presidential hotness?
J.D.: The great thing about this format is that it allowed us to write a lot fewer words than would have been otherwise required. I can't even imagine if we'd had to fill each page with a solid block of text.
Kate: I wish I could say that we chose this format as a sophisticated commentary on the intrusion of celebrity culture into politics, but the truth is we just thought it would be fun to read. Would you rather read something fun, like a quiz, or something boring, like a paragraph? Plus, it gave us an excuse to buy a huge stack of teen celebrity magazines and deduct it as a business expense.
A quick hat tip: In the book, you do a very good job of concisely and entertainingly explaining knotty things such as the Electoral College, the Federal Reserve System, the gold standard, and the Iran-Contra affair. What made you choose those events and institutions from our nation's past? And do you have any plans for more? I, for one, wouldn't mind Hottest Heads of State explainers about the Great Society and the fallacies of neoliberal urban policies that I could email to, say, every American mayor and city councilperson.
Kate: Thank you! We'd done something similar for our website on the topic of Brexit. I don't remember if people liked it. But at the end of the day we're doing this for us, and we liked it, so we decided to write a few more for the book.
J.D.: We started out with a long list of potential topics, and then we narrowed it down by asking ourselves, "Which of these topics do we already know about, so we won't have to do any research?" And voilà! I literally wrote the gold standard explainer on my phone while pushing our kids around the park in a stroller, because that's the kind of astonishing feat you can perform if you got a B- in International Monetary Theory at SAIS.
We would love to write more of these, but it probably depends on whether we can con our publisher into letting us write a second book. And on the topic of utopian top-down schemes to remodel how people live, I would refer you to my book Seeing Like a State which I wrote under the pseudonym James Scott while in high school.
Foreign policy time: Given the relative multilateralism of the Monroe Doctrine versus the unilateralism of the Bush Doctrine, which adds to a president's hotness?
J.D.: Do you prefer a man who says "From now on, I run this neighborhood, and no one else is allowed to come in or else they're gonna get it"? Or a man who says, "If I think someone looks sketchy I'm going to break into their house and have a look around, even if I have to do it by myself because you all think I'm crazy"? If your taste in men runs to "controlling" then these are both pretty hot, but we have to go with the Monroe Doctrine.
Kate: You should also keep in mind that it was really Secretary of State John Quincy Adams who came up with the Monroe Doctrine, and it obviously didn't do much for him. Bush, on the other hand, probably came up with the Bush Doctrine himself, during one of his famed sessions burning the midnight oil in the Oval Office, alone, poring over dusty tomes on political theory.
I realize no author likes to choose favorites, and that you two do this as a team, but I'm curious: Does each of you have your own favorite hot presidents? Who are they and why?
J.D.: This might already be a cliché, but I would pick Ulysses S. Grant. I grew up being taught that Grant was an incompetent, corrupt, and usually drunk president. But the truth is that he was probably only one of those things (incompetent), and he was less incompetent than most of the other late 19th-century presidents.
Kate: I have loved James A. Garfield ever since I read Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. I do not recommend this book unless you, too, want to experience the torture of falling in love with James A. Garfield only to find out that he was killed by an assassin 137 years ago.
I have to ask—are you CIA? Your website says you live, write comically informative books about presidents, rank world leaders by their hotness, and make candles in St. Louis, but that's just the kind of misdirection I'd expect from intelligence ops who might be strategizing fake news and social media misinformation. Do you know who really killed JFK?
Kate: People sometimes assume that J.D. secretly works for the CIA because he spent time in Lebanon and Syria while a student at SAIS. The more prosaic truth is that J.D. is an idiot who thought a good way to pass the language requirement would be to start studying Arabic. As opposed to, say, literally any other language. If you're a native English speaker who is lazy about doing homework and afraid of talking to strangers, Arabic might not be the language for you! But yes, we live in St. Louis. If you want proof, come to the Target at Hampton and Chippewa because we are there pretty much every day.
J.D.: Kate, on the other hand, does have some theories about who killed JFK. This was a fun discovery while we were writing the book. Imagine if your spouse came up to you one day and said, "I've been doing some research, and I think the Illuminati are sterilizing us with chemtrails." That's what it's like, writing a book with Kate.
Kate: OK, but seriously, I did unearth some pretty shocking information about the JFK assassination by reading Wikipedia.
I know your book is about the presidents and all but—real talk for a second—is Justin Trudeau too hot to be a head of state? As professional heads of state hotness adjudicators and aromachologists, you're qualified to make that call.
J.D.: We are often assailed by pedants who want to lecture us about the distinction between heads of state and heads of government, so first, let us be pedants and note that the head of state of Canada is Queen Elizabeth. As to whether or not Queen Elizabeth is too hot to be a head of state: Yes, she is, but that's the kind of risk you take with a hereditary monarchy.
Kate: Trudeau isn't too hot to be prime minister, but he is definitely hotter than a prime minister needs to be. And when he's no longer prime minister, Canada could do worse than deploy him as a sort of global spokesmodel who travels the world kissing babies and flirting and winking.
As writers who have followed global and domestic politics for nearly a decade to parody it, what changes have you noticed in the tenor of political discourse, as well as the public's relationship to news and the concept of fact, over this time period?**
J.D.: So, a couple of things. First, I think people are almost hardwired to imagine that the past was better than the present, which is a dangerous instinct. So when you hear "the tenor of political discourse has deteriorated," even if that feels right, it's worth examining. There have been long periods in American history when someone might try to beat you with a club on your way to your polling place. So while the tenor feels worse than it was 20 or 30 years ago, and it probably is, we're still a long way from reaching the nadir. (That said, it is disconcerting the way the current administration frequently responds to criticism with terms like "disgusting." It is robbing the word "disgusting" of all meaning.)
Second, and more pessimistically, media fragmentation is destroying our shared conception of reality, which in turn is making it more and more difficult to resolve differences through argument and discussion. You really can't have a productive debate about Obama's record with someone who thinks he is secretly a Kenyan national. For democracy to work we all have to agree on at least some basic facts and rules, and it feels like that's eroding, mainly on the right. The upshot is that every responsible citizen has a duty to try and destroy the Internet.
But seriously, after studying our presidents enough to discuss their administrations, biographies, and hotness over an entire book, can you offer us any sage advice for surviving and thriving in our current political climate?
J.D.: First, nothing last forever. Everything passes, and this will, too. Speaking of which, vote. No cavalry is coming over the horizon to save us. We have to save ourselves, and we can't do that unless we vote. Which feels anticlimactic since voting is so mundane and boring, but that's what we have to do.
And finally, it's always worth remembering how terrible some of our presidents have been, and that having those presidents didn't doom us forever. Nixon damaged our democracy in ways we're still suffering from today, but nothing about electing an authoritarian bigot in 1968 meant we couldn't get ourselves more or less back on track. America is, in nearly every way, a better place today than it was before Nixon was elected—even a smart, sophisticated villain like him couldn't permanently bend our trajectory downward.
To put it another way, predicting the future is hard. It's certainly possible that we're living in the last days of the Roman Republic here. But if you were in California in 1994 watching Pete Wilson pass Prop 187 by nearly 20 points, you could have easily concluded, "Welp, I guess the California GOP is going to use nativism to ride from strength to strength." But what you were actually watching was the California GOP's unwitting self-destruction.
So I do feel optimistic overall. But I also think things are probably going to get worse before they get better.
J.D. and Kate Dobson stop by two Washington, D.C., bookshops this weekend—the East City Book Shop from 6:30 to7:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 2, and Politics and Prose from 6 to 7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 3.
Posted in Voices+Opinion, Politics+Society