Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Presidents' Favorite Books

From Cicero to James Bond

Jefferson's Library at the Library of Congress

Who knew Richard Nixon regarded himself as a Tolstoyan?  Or, War and Peace taught George H.W. Bush "a lot about life?"  These and many other insights into the favorite books of Presidents have been compiled for Buzzfeed.  Of course you can take many of them with a grain of salt, as obviously Dave Odegard has a pension for citing biographies and autobiographies to those Presidents he didn't like, or in Warren G. Harding's case, Rules of Poker, because he apparently bet the White House china on a single hand and lost.  Which set of rules, the author doesn't say.

There is probably a grain of truth to most of these selections, but Odegard could have done a little more sleuthing.  Thomas Jefferson held Cicero in very high regard and purportedly modeled his own life on the Roman statesman's love of study and aristocratic country life.  Odegard does note that Jefferson donated his extensive collection of books to the Library of Congress after the British had burned the library in 1812, but this too was not without controversy.  Some Congressmen questioned Jefferson's literary tastes and wondered out loud if it was fit for the country.  Like George W. Bush today, many thought The Bible was all you needed, and probably considered the book burning a blessing in disguise.  But, here I am interjecting.

We all know Lincoln's reading list, thanks to the wonderful book, Lincoln's Virtues, by William Lee Miller.  Abe didn't have a large library like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, but he saw his short stack of books as crucial to his development, and reread them over and over again to gain a complete understanding.  Odegard lists Shakespeare as Lincoln's favorite author, but he had Parson Weem's Life of Washington, seemingly like everyone else at the time, loved Aesop's Fables, and of course read The Bible.

Ulysses S. Grant was probably best known for penning his own memoirs, which many historians still regard as the standard of presidential autobiographies.  Odegard listed Edward Bulwer-Lytton as his favorite author, but noted that Grant would read any popular novel at the time, including those by James Fennimore Cooper, Washington Irving and Walter Scott, which Odegard slyly notes may have been the reason Grant finished in the middle of his West Point graduating class.  No matter, he proved to be the best general America has ever seen.   There is still a Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest held each year at San Jose State University.

Jack Kennedy was also a big lover of fiction.  Apparently, Ian Fleming was the President's favorite author, but this has been disputed.  Arthur Schlesinger, Kennedy's biographer, noted that Jack's passion for Bond was little more than a publicity stunt, although it did aid Fleming in gaining an American audience for his spy thrillers.

Ronald Reagan similarly elevated Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October to national bestseller, when he noted that it was "unputdownable" at a press conference in 1985.  Marlin Fitzwater thought that mentioning a recent book might help shake the image most had of Reagan being someone soaked in Louis L'Amour Western novels.  Clancy used this connection to profit considerably, and apparently formed a lasting friendship with the Gipper.  Surprised Reagan didn't ask him to write his official biography, rather than Edmund Morris, as Dutch was met with so much controversy.

You do get the sense that the reading tastes of Presidents have deteriorated over the years, which was why it was such a nice surprise to see that George H.W. Bush held War and Peace up as the most influential book in his life.  But, he too liked Tom Clancy, probably at Reagan's urging.  He also had a soft spot for J.D. Salinger and Larry McMurtry.

Of course, that doesn't stop former Presidents from building libraries that essentially serve as repositories of their White House years, but are also used to promote their legacies.   Congress even provides matching funds for these efforts, which most recently included the library of George W. Bush at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.  None, however, hold a candle to Thomas Jefferson's library at the Library of Congress.

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