Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What Can We Learn from Politicians' Reading Habits? Not Much, I Hope

. Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I'm always skeptical of fluff pieces about the reading habits of politicians. I find it hard to believe that just because a president read a biography of Teddy Roosevelt, say, he became more resolved to pursue some policy or other. So I draw in my breath sharply when I read that some politician learned some profound lesson from some history book that directly influenced his policy. Perhaps it's because I suspect it's just P.R. leaking through, perhaps it's because I give too much benefit of the doubt to politicians, so I don't expect them to base any policy on any one book. If "book X -> policy Y" then that would be too depressing, especially when the books most politicians are found reading are either biographies of other Great Men or pseudo-intellectual fluff (read: whatever book by a NYT columnist just got published). But maybe I'm just being too charitable.

(Aside: one of my least favorite famous quotes is Santayana's "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it". There's no wisdom in that at all. I'd prefer "Those who confuse history with the present are doomed to catastrophe". Doesn't that nicely say a lot about the story of politics?)

So I met with some cynicism the most recent WaPo fluff piece on presidents' reading habits and how they influenced their policy agendas. Again, I'd certainly hope that presidents are not basing policy on one book, especially if that book is of the Great Man Overcomes Adversity Through Strength of Will variety. Then again, presidents put busts of Churchill and portraits of Lincoln in their offices so one of two things must be true: either politicians take books and history and legacies more seriously than they should, or they just use them as signals of their intelligence, seriousness, or intentions. I lean towards the latter, but there are still some interesting bits from the WaPo piece. Like Truman's incredible hubris:

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."

If that anecdote is true it's astounding. I've read the Bible more than a dozen times too, and I don't remember Cyrus pushing the big red atomic button, but whatever. Still, there's another anecdote in here I do believe:

[Bill] Clinton's reading affected his approach in the early 1990s to the crisis in the Balkans, a fierce and bloody struggle for control of Bosnian territory that had once been part of Yugoslavia. At the time, the president read Robert Kaplan's "Balkan Ghosts" and was struck by Kaplan's description of the region's long-standing ethnic hatreds. The book apparently set him against intervening in Bosnia. A panicky defense secretary, Les Aspin, told national security adviser Anthony Lake that Clinton was "not on board" with their proposals. Years later, journalist Laura Rozen wrote that "some can't hear the name Robert Kaplan without blaming him for the delay in U.S. intervention."

I believe this is at least partially true. I also believe that Clinton's foreign policy was the most brazenly cynical of any president in the post-war period, and did more damage to the U.S. and the burgeoning post-1989 liberal order than is popularly understood, so if Kaplan's transparently crap argument provided him with an excuse to continue to shirk a responsible foreign policy then he'd be happy to appropriate it. But maybe that's my bias.

Still, I can't help but be interested in these kinds of articles, despite myself. I already knew that Bush (claimed to) read Sartre, and that Reagan was a Milton Friedman fan despite enacting almost none of his policy prescriptions, but I did not know that Jefferson's book addiction drove him deep into debt but but later laid the groundwork for the Library of Congress. I did know that Clinton favored Maya Angelou, though I'm not quite sure why, but I didn't know that Obama carved out time for highbrow fiction.

Those anecdotes are interesting to me. I just won't read too much into them.


What Can We Learn from Politicians' Reading Habits? Not Much, I Hope




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