A Book for President Obama

There were lots of jokes about the George W. Bush Presidential Library’s holdings when the opening ceremonies occurred. Why not? “W” is likely the least interesting man in the world: “I don’t always read books, but when I do, I read The Klingon Hamlet. Stay incoherent my friends.”

With the exception of Thomas Jefferson there is little evidence books play a large role in the shaping of America’s presidents, though FDR had a considerable library and Lincoln knew his Shakespeare. JFK liked Ian Fleming. Jimmy Carter disastrously read Christopher Lasch. Reagan loved Whittaker Chambers. When our presidents sit down to read, the servings should be tasted first by a loyal and brave servant. (On the matter of brave White House servants, there’s the story of Rutherford B. Hayes who, fearing the newly installed electricity, had a butler flip the switch.) Hayes liked American biographies, so he knew how to delegate.

Now we have the curious case of Barack Obama who, in the matter of human rights appears more of a Quisling than the public may have supposed. Still, according to AbeBooks.com, Obama is a serious reader:

In May 2008, he was photographed carrying Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World as he walked across the tarmac at an airport in Bozeman, Montana. The book outlines America’s declining influence in international politics – was he formulating policies for dealing with rising powers like China, India and Brazil?

In October 2008, the New York Times asked Obama to provide a list of books and writers that were significant to him. Here goes – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, James Baldwin, W. E. B. DuBois’ Souls of Black Folk, Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and The Quiet American, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, Robert Caro’s Power Broker, Studs Terkel’s Working, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments, and also Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men – a novel about a corrupt Southern governor (Rod Blagojevich anyone?). And then there were his theology and philosophy influences – Friedrich Nietzsche, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich.


That’s heady stuff for a man who’s now presiding over the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, who believes in his authority to execute his own citizens on foreign soil without trial, and who has reneged on his promise to close the criminal enterprise we have come to call “Guantanamo”.

Of course what a man says he reads and what sits on his bedside table makes for interesting speculation. Nixon said his favorite book was “War and Peace” but aside from the likelihood he skipped some chapters, I suspect Nixon’s favorite book was “The Castle of Otranto”. (“He was persuaded he could know no happiness but in the society of one with whom he could for ever indulge the melancholy that had taken possession of his soul.”)

I reckon the books Obama says he reads are in fact precisely what he reads. It benefits no man or woman to sneer at the list of books above. But in a time when press freedom, personal privacy, and the right to a fair and speedy trial are all under siege, one wishes the President would take up Milton’s Areopagitica:

And though all the windes of doctrin were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licencing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falshood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the wors, in a free and open encounter.