This month’s observance of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis offers many lessons for Americans, including the value of having a president who’s an avid reader.
John F. Kennedy, locked in a titanic struggle with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev over the USSR’s plan to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, had read historian Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August” a few months before the crisis began. As Meredith Hindley points out in a recent article on Tuchman in Humanities magazine, Kennedy took to heart Tuchman’s cautionary tale of the political miscalculations that escalated into World War I.
“I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time: The Missiles of October,” Kennedy said.
That’s how the insights gleaned from a president’s reading quite possibly helped save the world from nuclear oblivion. With that in mind, voters this year should probably pay more attention to what the contenders for the White House are reading – and to what degree they read at all.
Kennedy was a voracious reader whose love of books helped him understand how the world worked, according to JFK biographer and confidant Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. “He read mostly history and biography, American and English,” recalled Schlesinger. He noted that Kennedy’s reading helped cultivate “a moderate and dispassionate mind, committed to the arts of government, persuaded of the inevitability of change but distrustful of comprehensive plans and grandiose abstractions, skeptical of excess but admiring of purpose, determined above all to be effective.”
Harry S. Truman, historian David McCullough has observed, was also a great reader, absorbing volumes of history that convinced him of the power of strong individual leadership in shaping human destiny. Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps the modern presidency’s biggest bibliophile, read anywhere and everywhere. Combing the volumes of bird artist John James Audubon no doubt helped deepen TR’s appreciation of wilderness areas, inspiring his role as a champion of national parks.
Lincoln’s love of Shakespeare sharpened his eloquence as a public speaker, helping to shape the rhetorical brilliance he used to save the Union. Shakespeare also cultivated Lincoln’s keen eye for human foibles, a valuable asset for any leader.
Thomas Jefferson’s wide reading nourished the intellect behind the Declaration of Independence. “I cannot live without books,” he wrote to another former president and equally avid reader, John Adams, late in life.
Adams, writes Mr. McCullough, “read Cicero, Tacitus, and others of his Roman heroes in Latin, and Plato and Thucydides in the original Greek, which he considered the supreme language. But in his need to fathom the ‘labyrinth’ of human nature, as he said, he was drawn to Shakespeare and Swift, and likely to carry Cervantes or a volume and English poetry with him on his journeys.”
Such engagement with the written word by some of America’s most accomplished chief executives suggests that for many of the most successful presidents, reading has been not merely a hobby, but an essential resource in building their world views.
That reality argues for the continuing value of a reading life for today’s occupants of the Oval Office, in spite of the many pressures of presidential duty that leave little time for perusing novels, poems, or popular histories. Given the demands of the nation’s highest office, reading might seem, almost by necessity, a low priority for commanders-in-chief. But precisely because the presidency involves dozens of urgent decisions a day, presidents need the critical perspective and broader vision that an active reading life can nurture.
With that in mind, Americans should be deeply curious about the reading habits of this year’s presidential candidates. We hear occasional reports on this subject – we know, for example, that President Obama has read McCullough’s “John Adams” biography and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Abraham Lincoln, “Team of Rivals,” and that GOP nominee Mitt Romney has read George W. Bush’s White House memoir. But voters know very little about the quality and quantity of reading done by Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney.
As they go to the polls to decide the next leader of the free world, Americans would be wise to remember a proverbial directive: “Show me the books you read, and I’ll show you who you are.”
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”