For Obama and past presidents, the books they read shape policies and perceptions
As the battle over health-care reform crescendoed last month, President Obama let slip that he was still making time for some side reading. "We've been talking about health care for nearly a century," the president told a crowd at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania. "I'm reading a biography of Teddy Roosevelt right now. He was talking about it."
One of the reasons the country's intellectual class has taken so gleefully to Obama is precisely that, in addition to writing bestsellers, the man is clearly a dedicated reader. During his presidential campaign, he was photographed toting around Fareed Zakaria's "The Post-American World," the it-book of the foreign policy establishment at the time. A year ago, in an interview about economic policy, he told a reporter that he was reading Joseph O'Neill's post-Sept. 11 novel "Netherland," which had recently won the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award.
In a historical sense, Obama follows a long line of ardent presidential readers, paging all the way back to the founders. John Adams's library had more than 3,000 volumes -- including Cicero, Plutarch and Thucydides -- heavily inscribed with the president's marginalia. Thomas Jefferson's massive book collection launched him into debt and later became the backbone for the Library of Congress. "I cannot live without books," he confessed to Adams. And it's likely that no president will ever match the Rough Rider himself, who charged through multiple books in a single day and wrote more than a dozen well-regarded works, on topics ranging from the War of 1812 to the American West.
Obama's mention of the Roosevelt biography -- it turned out to be Edmund Morris's "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" -- may have been a calculated move to convey Teddy-esque toughness and a reform-minded spirit, but it also made clear an interesting notion: Reading lists don't only give presidents a break from the tedium of briefing documents; they can also inform their politics and policies, reaffirming, creating or shifting their views. White House watchers obsess over which aides have the ear of the president, but the books presidents read also offer insight on where they want to take the country -- and how history will remember them.
Consider Harry Truman. He was the last American president not to have completed college, but he was a voracious reader and particularly interested in history and biography, once musing that "the only thing new in this world is the history that you don't know."
Truman's support for establishing the country of Israel -- over the objections of his own State Department -- has been credited to his boyhood reading, both of the Bible (which he read at least a dozen times) and of the multivolume history "Great Men and Famous Women," edited by Charles F. Horne. The collection featured Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who let the Jews return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. Shortly after leaving the White House, Truman was introduced to a group of Jewish leaders as having "helped create" the state of Israel. "What do you mean 'helped create?' " Truman bristled. "I am Cyrus."
Books played an especially significant role in the John F. Kennedy White House. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Profiles in Courage" -- possibly ghostwritten by speechwriter Ted Sorensen -- had helped cement his reputation as a big thinker, and the White House's resident intellectual, Arthur Schlesinger, not only recommended books to Kennedy but also penned "A Thousand Days," which posthumously glorified the Camelot era.
But it was a book review, rather than a book itself, that helped launch one of the major policy initiatives of the 1960s. Walter Heller, chairman of Kennedy's Council of Economic Advisers, gave his boss Dwight MacDonald's influential 13,000-word New Yorker essay on Michael Harrington's "The Other America," which chronicled poverty in the nation. Inspired by the piece (and feeling vulnerable on the left after pushing for an across-the-board tax cut), Kennedy asked his staff to look into the problem. They came up with a plan for an "attack on poverty," which Heller discussed with the president a few days before Kennedy's fateful trip to Dallas in November 1963.
His successor, Lyndon Johnson -- who was influenced by British economist Barbara Ward's "The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations," which he said he read multiple times -- turned the attack into a War on Poverty. Future editions of Harrington's book had "the book that sparked the War on Poverty" on the cover, but the New Yorker deserves at least some of the credit.
Richard Nixon -- who in his memoirs noted that he read Tolstoy extensively in his youth, even calling himself a "Tolstoyan" -- often sought out books with links to the big issues of the day. After a summit with the Soviets, for instance, he bought a copy of Winston Churchill's "Triumph and Tragedy" so he could reread Churchill's recollections of the Yalta conference. And leading into his second term, Nixon was reading Robert Blake's biography of British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli and was struck by Disraeli's description of William Gladstone's cabinet as "exhausted volcanoes." The phrase inspired him to call for the resignation of his own White House staff and Cabinet, a move he later described as a mistake.
In his farewell speech to his staff on Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon offered a self-deprecating line: "I am not educated, but I do read books."
Presidential reading backfired on Jimmy Carter as well. In the summer of 1979, with the economy struggling and the presidency shaken by the Iran hostage crisis, Carter delivered his infamous speech proclaiming a "crisis of confidence" in America. It became known as the "malaise" speech and is widely regarded as a major political mistake. The address, written mainly by adviser Pat Caddell, was inspired by Christopher Lasch's best-selling book "The Culture of Narcissism." Lasch had come to the White House for a dinner about six weeks before the address, and his ideas apparently stayed behind. Two days after the July 15 speech, Carter fired several Cabinet members, adding to the sense of drift that seemed to define the era. (In 1993, during the fourth season of "The Simpsons," Springfield unveiled a Carter statue; the inscription at the base read "Malaise Forever.")