The Books That Make the President

WHEN a president lets it be known that he's halfway through a book and then invites the author to lunch to talk about what he's written - well, a watcher of the presidential scene has to prick up his ears.

The book is ``President Kennedy, Profile of Power'' and the author is Richard Reeves, a newsman I used to see from time to time when we were covering the White House.

It's heartening to learn that President Clinton finds time for serious reading, what with having to come up with programs, meeting with one group after another, and making speeches and television appearances ad infinitum.

Jimmy Carter was a marvel when it came to reading, and he liked to recommend books to others. ``My favorite book,'' he once told me, ``is `Let Us Now Praise Famous Men' by James Agee, and with photographs by Walker Evans.''

I immediately bought and read a paperback of this classic depiction of the daily life of rural farmers in the Deep South during the Great Depression.

In repayment for this favor I once sent over a book to him that I had enjoyed - never knowing whether it would find its way to him from the White House mail room.

Within three days my wife (who had joined me in this enterprise) and I had received a handwritten note from Mr. Carter, thanking us and showing by his commentary that he had finished the book.

President Kennedy was a great reader, too. He was Mr. Clinton's hero, so we can logically conclude that Clinton is giving careful thought, as he reads, to the way that young president dealt with problems, particularly with foreign affairs.

The Washington Post reviewer of the book provides this appraisal, which comes close to my own:

``Rejecting claims such as Ted Sorensen's and James Schlesinger's that Kennedy grew more wise and mature during his presidency, Reeves sharply asserts, `The Kennedy I found certainly did not know what he was doing at the beginning, and in some ways never changed.'

``According to Reeves, Kennedy had `little ideology beyond anti-Communism and faith in active, pragmatic government. Furthermore, he was willing to suspend his few convictions in order to avoid conflict with Congress or charges of being soft.' ''

My hope is that Clinton will learn from the mistakes that Kennedy made - and that Reeves carefully documents.

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