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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Presidents, Reading, and Deliberation

Tevi Troy, author of Intellectuals and the American Presidency, writes that books can make a mark on White House deliberation:
A president’s reading can shape his policy decisions. Kennedy got the idea for a “War on Poverty” after being handed a review of Michael Harrington’s The Other America. Clinton’s decision to intervene in the Balkans was delayed for a while after he read Robert Kaplan’s harrowing Balkan Ghosts. After Nixon read in Robert Blake’s Disraeli that Gladstone had kept his staff around for too long, he was inspired after reelection to fire his first-term cabinet. Nixon also read The Feminine Mystique, at daughter Julie’s urging; it’s unclear what the impact of that experience was.
In an April article in The Washington Post, Mr. Troy elaborated on the point:

Truman's support for establishing the country of Israel -- over the objections of his own State Department -- has been credited to his boyhood reading, both of the Bible (which he read at least a dozen times) and of the multivolume history "Great Men and Famous Women," edited by Charles F. Horne. The collection featured Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who let the Jews return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. Shortly after leaving the White House, Truman was introduced to a group of Jewish leaders as having "helped create" the state of Israel. "What do you mean 'helped create?' " Truman bristled. "I am Cyrus."

Intellectuals disparaged George W. Bush, but he was an avid reader:

Sneers aside, Bush's reading certainly informed his worldview and policies. New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani observed that Bush "favored prescriptive books" such as Natan Sharansky's "The Case for Democracy" and Eliot A. Cohen's "Supreme Command," which argued that politicians should drive military strategy. Bush often met with the authors of books that resonated with him. Shortly after his reelection, he had Sharansky in for an hour-long Oval Office meeting to discuss democracy and ways to advance it around the world. Inspired in part by the author, the president went on to outline a global freedom agenda in his second inaugural address. "Not only did he read it, he felt it," Sharansky told The Post.