Using Presidential Daily Diaries as an Instructional Tool

Frank Franz, PhD, James Madison High School, Vienna, Virginia, frank.franz@fcps.edu

For the past several years, I have used presidential daily diaries as an instructional tool with students during the study of the presidency in my AP U.S. government classes. Some years, I had my students explore the daily diaries so they understood what a typical day was like for the president. Other years, I provided students with more direction. What I have found is that the presidential daily diary can be used as an effective instructional tool when studying the presidency.

What are Presidential Daily Diaries?

The Presidential Daily Diaries are minute-­‐by-­‐ minute accounts of the president’s day. Details include people with whom he meets, phone calls he makes and receives, and other information as noted by White House staff. Some daily diaries are more detailed than others, but for the most part, one can get a clear picture of what the president has done on a particular day by reading the daily diary.

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

Not all presidential daily diaries are created equal. Daily diaries for some presidents are more accessible and better maintained than others. The daily diaries of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson are the only daily diaries with a search function, although other daily diaries are searchable PDFs. Most daily diaries are housed at their respective presidential museum websites, but a few are housed at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center website. The Reagan Library has done a fine job of combining President Reagan’s personal diary with the official daily diary on its website. The daily diaries available online cover Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency through the first two years of the George H.W. Bush administration.

Using the Daily Diary to get a Taste of the Presidency

In the past, I have directed students to select ten days of a president’s daily diary, usually using the student’s birthday as the starting point. Students were asked to analyze the daily diaries, looking for patterns, in order to summarize what a typical day is like for the President of the United States. In order for students to gain greater insights into the presidency, I advise student to Google the names of people meeting or talking with president along with the president’s name, such as “Gerald Ford and Richard Cheney” to know with whom the president is interacting. Instructors can also direct students to specific daily diary dates by having student look for specific information. This can be done via daily diary websites, or instructors can print copies of the dates of interest for students to examine. Much depends on what instructors wish to gain from students interacting with the daily diaries.

Using the Daily Diary as a Case Study Tool

The “Lyndon Johnson Selected Interactive Daily Diary” site includes eight case studies. These case studies combine LBJ’s daily diary with key documents, recorded phone calls, and audio/video resources. The way the LBJ Library has constructed the case studies, instructors can use them as they are presented as case studies, or instructors can use the case studies as a template for case studies instructors wish to create on their own.

Using the Daily Diary in Term Paper Research Presidential daily diaries are rich with ideas for student term papers. Besides providing primary source material for more traditional research paper topics, the daily diaries can be used to spark non-­‐traditional research paper topics as: “Church Attendance and the Chief Executive,” “The Vacationing President,” “The Sporting President,” “The Intersection of Celebrities and the President,” “State Dinners as a Means of Diplomacy,” “Foreign Travel and the President,” and “The Films Presidents Watch.”

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