The Shelf Life of the Presidential Mind

by Published on
illustration by Dusan Kwiakowski

Presidents read. Or so they tell us. They believe in the power of the book. Or so some have professed. The cousins Roosevelt were up-front about their love of the mindful engagement that reading demands; so were those wonks-in-chief, Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter. Like Wilson, Eisenhower was president of an Ivy League university (Columbia), bringing to the Oval Office a bit of academic luster. John Kennedy and Richard Nixon may not have had much in common, but both were passionate readers. Then there was that intellectually promiscuous Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton, who devours everything from obscure think-tank white papers to the latest mass-market bestsellers. At the White House, books matter.

That our leaders want us to know that they read, that they have been willing to publicize lists of their favorite books and authors, reminds us how powerful the idea of literacy can be in American civic culture. They may not put it quite as viscerally as our third president, Thomas Jefferson, who confessed to his predecessor, the bibliophilic John Adams, “I cannot live without books.” But Jefferson’s successors in the White House surely would appreciate the sentiment (especially if their appreciation-implied or expressed-helped them win the coveted bookworm vote).

The political gains to be wrung from being well read, or at least appearing to be well read, did not escape the notice of the current president’s handlers. In the summer of 2006, as Bush’s approval ratings plummeted, a consequence in part of his shoot-from-the-hip persona (he doesn’t think before he acts, critics concluded), his staffers let slip that their boss was an inveterate reader, a man of contemplation. They even fed eager reporters titles they said he had consumed. Piling up on his nightstand in Washington, D.C., and Crawford, Texas, and presumably stowed away on Air Force One, were recent biographies of assassinated leaders Tsar Alexander II and Abraham Lincoln, troubled sports heroes Roberto Clemente and Babe Ruth, and atomic scientist Robert J. Oppenheimer. Polio: An American Story shared a shelf with The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. Sigmund Freud would have had a lot to say about the links between these texts and the narrative arc of the Bush presidency, a twined tale of decline and fall.

But that’s not how the White House analyzed this collection. Bush subalterns waxed enthusiastic about the fierce competition between the president and senior adviser Karl Rove to determine who could read the most books that year; the score as of August 2006 was Bush 60, Rove 50 (a good courtier would hardly trump his boss). It is revealing that staffers did not offer, and journalists did not ask, what the two speed-readers thought of what they had read. The news event was spun on the men’s competitiveness, not their insight. Reading in the Bush White House was presented as a matter of sport-a gloss that unintentionally undercut claims about the president’s contemplative mien, his bookish nature.

The literary credibility of the candidates angling to be our next president is more secure. Senators McCain and Obama not only read books, they write them. True, the Republican candidate has a designated co-author, Mark Salter, and the titles of their five jointly produced texts-Character is Destiny and Why Courage Matters, for example-are as stilted as their prose. It is true too that Obama, who at times is a superb stylist, can churn out clunky campaign fodder, such as the just-released Change We Can Believe In.

Then there are the gender limitations: Each man writes in the paternal voice (McCain’s Faith of My Fathers and Obama’s Dreams of My Father). Each has trouble imagining women’s lives, a subject that proved a source of considerable dialogue among faculty and students at Pomona College this fall after the incoming class read Obama’s Dreams and McCain’s Worth the Fighting For.

Still, given the past eight years of studied anti-intellectualism and clotted syntax spewing from the most powerful office in the land, any sign of a mind trying to make sense of complex issues by putting fingers to keyboard-however flawed the result-seems a vast improvement.

In the spirit of encouraging the candidates’ commitment to the written word, I’ve drawn up a short, annotated reading list that McCain, Obama, and their staffs ought to pick up at their local bookstore (or request from that magnificent monument to learned America, the Library of Congress). It’s framed around some of the central challenges facing the American West, and is so focused in part because of the major environmental, political, and social dilemmas this booming region is confronting. Moreover, this is Uncle Sam’s territory in a very real sense: The federal government owns upwards of 60 percent of the West’s land. Of necessity, the next administration will be deeply invested in helping the West resolve some of its most vexing problems. These books might help.

- Sherman Alexie, The Toughest Indian in the World (actually, read everything this deft critic, poet, and fiction writer has put between two covers).

- Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman, The King of California: J. G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire (a riveting exposé of the manipulative power of corporate agriculture in California’s Central Valley).

- Robert Gottlieb, Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in the Global City (a provocative examination of how to regenerate urban society).

- Daniel Kemmis, This Sovereign Land: A New Vision for Governing the West (argues forcefully for local sovereignty in a region that has too little of it).

- Nancy Langston, Where Land and Water Meet: A Western Landscape Transformed (a primer on the bewildering tangle of federal land-management policies in the Pacific Northwest).

- Patricia Nelson Limerick, Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West (these scintillating and revisionist essays are must-reads).

- Stephen Pyne, Tending Fire: Coping with America’s Wildland Fires (superb analysis of new approaches to fire management in our most burned-over region).

- Mark Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water (the classic study of federal water policies and politics).

- Luis Alberto Urrea, Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border (a brilliant and disturbing depiction of immigration’s human face).

- Robert Wilshire, Jane E. Nielson, and Richard W. Hazlett, The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery (a comprehensive exploration of resource issues imperiling our future).

- Diane Wilson, An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas (a gripping memoir of one woman’s protracted fight to protect a coastal fishery).

- Anything by Barry Lopez, Richard Nelson, Rebecca Solnit, or Terry Tempest Williams (because they’re our most inspired writers on nature).

Although this list is of necessity incomplete, its implicit prod is plain: Come January, whoever occupies the West Wing needs to read, and widely so, for there is no better way to come to grips with the forces transforming the Western landscape, natural and human.

Oh, and Mr. President, no excuses. After all, amid the two greatest crises in the Republic’s history-the Civil War and the Great Depression-Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt kept abreast of the world of ideas via books. Our 16th president was even able to joke about the literary origins of the bloody internecine conflict that consumed his administration. Introduced at a White House reception to the diminutive Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Lincoln reportedly laughed: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War!”

The resolution to the economic collapse of the 1930s also came from a text well thumbed in the White House: John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money is often credited with shaping the pump-priming New Deal interventions that staved off national ruin.

We have our own dark days ahead, but the gloom may well be lifted by a simple presidential gesture: turning on the reading lamp.

Char Miller teaches at Trinity University and is visiting professor of history and environmental analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, California. He is the author of Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism and Ground Work: Conservation in American Culture.