Respond to this Article April 2003

Bragging Writes

How presidential candidates try to impress reporters with their reading lists.

By Brent Kendall

In this presidential election season, everything is happening faster. The primaries have been moved up, consultants hired sooner, and, because of the crowded field and mushrooming expense of running a campaign, fundraising has begun earlier. Consequently, the press is racing to handicap the candidates, subjecting them to the various litmus tests that once occurred much later in the cycle. Anything that can yield a clue is accorded instant significance. There have even been articles analyzing several of the candidates' wives (conventional wisdom so far: Hadassah Lieberman and Elizabeth Edwards are campaign assets; Teresa Heinz Kerry is a bit of a head case).

So it's no surprise that there's also early interest in candidates' answers to the question, "What's your favorite book?" This may seem an innocuous query, but it's actually one of the more treacherous a candidate can answer. In January, for instance, ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked Sen. John Edwards to name his favorite book. Edwards replied that it was I.F. Stone's The Trial of Socrates. On the surface, that seemed to hit just the right note. It's plausible that an ex-trial lawyer like Edwards would enjoy a book about the ultimate historical trial, and by choosing that particular title--a serious inquiry written for a popular audience--Edwards conveyed a sense of weightiness without appearing snobbish. But the choice also opened him up to criticism. Conservative commentator Bob Novak fumed on CNN's "Capital Gang": "That's incredible! Did Senator Edwards know that Izzy Stone was a lifelong Soviet apologist? Did he know of evidence that Stone received secret payments from the Kremlin?" Novak's rant illustrated how the slightest stumble on the book question can come back to hurt a candidate.

What a candidate chooses to read may seem like a small thing. Yet a person's literary tastes can be very revealing, as anyone who's ever scanned a stranger's bookshelf can attest. Book choices are especially prized by reporters, who use them as material for the narratives they write--narratives that often define candidates in the eyes of voters. Remember Michael Dukakis? His phlegmatic 1988 campaign was perfectly symbolized by his choice of vacation reading: a book entitled Swedish Land-Use Planning. Even if you knew nothing else about the Massachusetts governor, this tidbit suggested he was solution-oriented, practical to a fault, and probably not the sort of guy who'd be a lot of fun to have a beer with. Which is, of course, exactly the person the Democrats got.

Because the book question is so fraught with peril, candidates have increasingly figured out that they need to game the system. That's evident on the campaign trail today where, reporters say, Democratic candidates are toting the perfect "safe" book: volume three of Robert Caro's award-winning biographical series on Lyndon Johnson, Master of the Senate. The book is popular, serious, and imparts just the sort of gravitas presidential aspirants seek. Like a guy who reads Dostoyevsky in Starbucks to attract women, many candidates seem to choose books designed to impress reporters--though reporters, like women, often see through the charade. Says USA Today political columnist Walter Shapiro (who first unearthed Dukakis's book choice), "The number whom I've seen carrying the Caro book is greater than the people who've actually read it or finished it."

Book Marks

Americans are often derided for valuing style over substance. In the realm of politics, however, it can make sense to do so. As political scientist James David Barber noted in his classic work from 1972, The Presidential Character, personality is a strong predictor of White House performance. Barber argued that to understand how a candidate might act in office, voters must "see the man as a whole," a prescription that made reading material--and the conclusions reporters extrapolated from it--fair game.

During the 1988 presidential race, the book question became de rigueur. After Shapiro exposed Dukakis's soporific choice, reporter Brit Hume asked Republican vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle to identify any work of literature, art, or film he'd experienced in the previous two years that had had a particularly strong effect on him. Quayle rattled off three books, Richard Nixon's 1999: Victory Without War, Sen. Richard Lugar's Letters to the Next President, and Bob Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra, about the fall of the Russian empire. Fine books all. But rather than impart to Quayle the mien of wisdom he'd no doubt hoped for, his choices, which seemed several grade levels beyond his intellect, telegraphed his very desperation to be taken seriously--the need for which was underscored later when Quayle remarked that Paul Johnson's Modern Times was "a very good historical book about history."

Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey took the opposite approach, tackling the book question headfirst when he sought the 1992 Democratic nomination. Kerrey readily offered that his favorite book was Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, a novel that depicted the aimless existence of a soldier-turned-stockbroker named Binx Bolling. His answer may have revealed too much. The New York Times' Maureen Dowd pounced, claiming Kerrey's confession would worry voters, given that Percy's work was an "anthem of alienation" about a war veteran "out of touch with the rest of America." As The New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert later put it, with 20/20 hindsight, "Here was a man proposing himself as the next leader of the free world while apparently identifying with a character who, to all outward appearances, seems to have completely lost his sense of direction." Ouch.

Kerrey holds no grudge against the press for engaging in such psychoanalysis. In fact, he says, there was some truth to it. His advice to the current candidates? Be authentic, but be prepared. "If you don't want to think about your answer ahead of time don't run for president. Because it's part of what you have to do," Kerrey told me. "No candidate is going to be successful by being themselves."

But at least he tried. In 2000, Bill Bradley staunchly refused to answer the book question, insisting it was irrelevant to his fitness for office. But even this non-answer proved revealing. It showed that Bradley considered himself above having to play the game. Which in turn reinforced the notion that he was aloof, a criticism that stuck and came to characterize the Bradley campaign, much as Dukakis's dullness had characterized his. In the end, even Bradley himself seemed to recognize this. When he withdrew from the race, he began his announcement speech by joking, "I want to begin this morning with a discussion of my favorite books."

But there is no better example of how books provide an insight into a candidate's persona than Bill Clinton. A legendary campaigner, Clinton famously had something to please everyone--including a different book for every constituency. (Not only did he feel your pain, he read your books.) As a voracious reader, he talked about books with gusto. If you asked him straight, he'd tell you his favorite was Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. For ivory-tower types, the answer switched to Lord Blake's Disraeli, a biography of the colorful 19th-century British prime minister. For the Oprah crowd? Clinton was a big fan of bestselling page-turners like Tony Hillerman and Sara Paretsky--Sue Grafton, too. In his unique way, Clinton's exuberance about books was genuine, something that voters picked up on. Indeed, the now ex-president continues to share his reading choices--he's even considering starting a book club through his not-yet-built presidential library.

The 2000 election demonstrated precisely how candidates' book choices play right into the media's preconceived storylines--for better and for worse. The vice president announced his book selection on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," Stendhal's The Red and the Black. His choice of the French classic drew praise in some quarters. "It was heartening to hear the invocation of a serious book and a serious writer roll off the tongue of a presidential candidate. Even if Gore is posturing, he is posturing in the right direction," The New Republic pronounced. Unfortunately for Gore, The Red and the Black provided a convenient plotline for his detractors. Stendhal's protagonist Julien Sorel may be one of the great characters of 19th-century literature, but he was also an opportunist whose actions were calculated to advance his career. Reporters seized on Sorel's inauthenticity as an analogy for Gore's. When Gore decided not to pursue the 2004 nomination, National Review extended the analogy even further, writing that his fancy for "Stendhal's novel of a career chosen against inclination" was evidence that he "felt that politics was a burden."

George W. Bush fared much better, citing Marquis James's The Raven, a 1929 biography of Sam Houston, whose life had hit an alcohol-induced rock bottom after years of success, only to be once again lifted when he moved to Texas and rediscovered his guiding principles. That was Bush's campaign story in a nut- shell--he'd had his problems, including drink, but loved Texas and righted his life there. (The choice was so perfect you could almost see Karl Rove slipping his own well-worn copy off his shelf and handing it to his candidate.) In the end, each book jibed with the media's storyline about each candidate--Bush, the easy-going, prodigal Texan, and Gore, the know-it-all pandering phony. The difference was that the analogy worked to Bush's favor, while Gore's did not.

Undaunted Caution

As a sport, picking books is a lot like figure skating. A contestant's success or failure is largely determined by a panel of judges--and, just as in figure skating, there are always judges who've got the fix in, as John Edwards learned.

The book question has been through enough election cycles that some general rules can be drawn. As Quayle demonstrated, it's easy to sniff out phonies. But Kerrey and Gore showed that it doesn't pay to be too authentic, either. Because, as the pillorying of Edwards bears witness, the media will gleefully use a choice against a struggling candidate. Clinton and Bush played the game right, with choices that enhanced their public persona without appearing nakedly manipulative.

So what can we learn about the current crop of Democratic candidates from their favorite books? And who might be the next Dukakis? I called each campaign to find out. There were plenty who chose to play it safe, perhaps spooked by the McCarthyite attack that greeted Edwards (though oddly no one chose Robert Caro--I figure the book's too long to finish). Richard Gephardt and Bob Graham both opted for David McCullough, Truman and John Adams, respectively. (Graham is also a fan of Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera.) John Kerry chose an image-softening volume of poetry (Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair) along with a standard-issue "safe" book, Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage, although Ambrose's penchant for plagiarism could set off media seismographs. Joe Lieberman, too, picked what would seem to be the ultimate safe choice: the Bible. "Oprah" viewers may recall that Al Gore himself once disparaged this answer as a cop-out, the one "everybody has to say."

Candidates' choices became more interesting--and more revealing--the longer their odds of winning the nomination. Apparently, neither Al Sharpton nor Dennis Kucinich spends much time reading, since neither produced a title despite repeated requests. Carol Moseley Braun, on the other hand, is a closet bookworm who insists she has no fewer than four favorites: Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Thomas's The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, Katharine Graham's Personal History, and Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. (Note to reporters: Try using the Alice in Wonderland choice to illustrate the logic behind Braun's choice to run.)

But the prize for the most interesting favorite book has to go to former Vermont governor Howard Dean. His choice of Ken Kesey's novel Sometimes a Great Notion is surely the bravest. After all, in this poll-tested, consultant-driven age, how many other candidates would confess--much less volunteer--to reading the work of an acid-dropping '60s counterculture hero? Here's hoping that the choice boosts Dean's emerging image as the straight-talking honest candidate, and that this diminutive liberal Northeastern governor doesn't wind up like the last one.

Brent Kendall is a Washington Monthly editorial assistant.


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