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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Washington Read

As our textbook notes, works such as Silent Spring have had an impact on American politics and policy. At The Washingtonian, however, Tevi Troy points out that people in our nation's capital often do not read the books that they talk about.

The Washington Read is the phenomenon by which, through a form of intellectual osmosis, a book is absorbed into the Washington atmosphere.

It’s an old story here. In the 1970s, Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism influenced one of the most famous speeches in presidential history, Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “malaise” address—so called even though the word “malaise” wasn’t in the speech. According to Kevin Mattson’s “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?”: Jimmy Carter, America’s “Malaise,” and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country, Carter aide Pat Caddell “hadn’t read Lasch’s book closely, if at all,” as he was beginning to make the argument for some kind of game-changing speech.

In the spring of 1979, Mattson writes, the Lasch book rode “a wave, becoming the most discussed, if not necessarily read, work of serious nonfiction.” It’s not clear whether Carter read the book, either. Mattson writes that, after meeting with Caddell to discuss the lengthy memo Caddell had written on the subject, “Carter told Caddell that he’d do some speed reading, books by Christopher Lasch and James MacGregor Burns (and even Alexis de Tocqueville’s old classic, Democracy in America).”

Lasch’s book inspired a speech that became the best-remembered one Carter gave. In other words, Carter may be most known for a word he didn’t say in a speech based on a book the speech’s main proponent may not have read.

Another presidential initiative that resulted from a possibly unread book was the War on Poverty. In 1963, White House economic aide Walter Heller gave President John F. Kennedy a copy of Dwight MacDonald’s New Yorker essay about Michael Harrington’s The Other America. That spurred JFK to order his staff to come up with plans for an “attack on poverty.” He never had a chance to act on the plans, but his successor, Lyndon Johnson, ran with the idea and initiated the War on Poverty.

Harrington’s book was later reprinted with the tag line “the book that sparked the War on Poverty,” even though the spark came from a magazine review rather than the book itself. That Kennedy made policy based on a possibly unread book might seem only fair when his own Pulitzer Prize winner, Profiles in Courage, not only often goes unread but may also have been unwritten by its author. Some historians think JFK aide Ted Sorensen penned Profiles.