The influence of books on the American presidency has a long and distinguished history, as this autumn’s readers are learning in three new biographies of the nation’s commanders-in-chief.
In The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America’s Most Famous Residence (St. Martin’s Press, $26.99), author Robert Klara documents Truman’s oversight of a drastic renovation of the presidential mansion. In guiding the massive project, Truman drew on his extensive knowledge of history, a body of wisdom he’d accumulated as an avid reader since childhood. Klara recalls that as a boy, Truman was advised by his doctor to avoid outside sports to protect his eyes, which were considered delicate because of a structural astigmatism. “Petrified into staying indoors, Truman discovered the Independence Public Library,” Klara writes. “By the time he turned fourteen, the story goes, he had devoured all three thousand books in it.”
In The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (Simon & Schuster, $40), author Doris Kearns Goodwin notes that Roosevelt also found comfort and instruction in books as a child. Often confined because of childhood asthma, TR turned to books for consolation. “His voracious reading gave him a rich cache of ideas for stories of his own to entertain his younger brother and sister,” Goodwin tells readers. TR’s enthusiastic reading is a continual theme throughout “The Bully Pulpit” ; she notes, for example, that on a trip out West, young Roosevelt carried Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” along for the ride.
Goodwin reports that President William Howard Taft’s literary taste leaned toward the novels of Anthony Trollope. “Trollope is a great favorite of mine because of the realistic every day tone which one finds in every line he writes,” Taft observed in a letter.
In Wilson (Putnam, $40), a new biography of President Woodrow Wilson, author A. Scott Berg tells readers that even though Wilson was a professional academic, he also used light reading to relieve the pressures of the presidency. Shortly after taking office, Berg writes, Wilson asked “the Librarian of Congress to keep him supplied with detective novels.”
Taken together, the new books by Klara, Goodwin, and Berg give ample evidence that reading is a vital part of leading.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”