Our Literary Leaders
Books are at home in the White House.
Mar 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 26 • By RICHARD NORTON SMITH
I read the [Joseph J.] Ellis book, which is a really interesting book--His Excellency, it's called--and [David] McCullough is writing a book on George Washington as well. People are constantly . . . evaluating a president's standing in history.
A BIPARTISAN FLUTTERING OF EYEBROWS greeted the news that President Bush has been recommending to friends Tom Wolfe's sex-drenched novel of collegiate America, I Am Charlotte Simmons. While moral watchdogs of the right were dismayed by the president's choice of reading matter, critics on the left professed astonishment that Mr. Bush read anything more challenging than TelePrompters and the sports page. Bluenose versus blue state: The latest dust-up over presidential reading habits reflects a cultural divide as old as the republic.
"You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket," claimed John Adams, whose political solitude mirrored his condescension toward those unfortunate enough to live outside New England. "Boston town meetings and our Harvard College have set the universe in motion," insisted Adams. His self-regard was matched by his envy of the godlike George Washington. Thus the first vice president attributed the first president's success to a fortunate marriage, to his majestic physique--"like the Hebrew sovereign chosen because he was taller by the head than the other Jews"--to anything, in short, but Washington's bookishness.
"You see I have made out ten talents," observed Adams smugly, "without saying a word about reading, thinking, or writing."
Washington was more of a reader than generally supposed, though pleasure took a back seat to self-improvement in his library, as in his life. Hoping to squeeze a profit from the thin, unproductive soil of Mount Vernon, Farmer Washington ordered Tull's Horse-Hoeing Husbandry, billed as "a new system of Agriculture, or a speedy way to grow rich." Almost 900 other volumes crowded his bookshelves, among them the speeches of Cicero and Aesop's Fables, novels by Samuel Butler and Henry Fielding, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, and John Locke's Essay On Human Understanding.
As an adolescent seeking admission to the aristocratic circles frequented by his half-brother Lawrence, Washington famously copied out of 110 Rules of Civility. No book in print, however, could teach adult Washington how to found a republic, or inspire a tattered army, or manage the warring egos of subordinates. In time, meetings of his cabinet degenerated into periwigged street brawls between Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. "I cannot live without books," acknowledged Jefferson, who could most assuredly have lived without Hamilton. Disdaining Plato's Republic for its "unintelligible jargon," the polymath Virginia planter preferred Molière, Homer, Hume's History of England, and King Lear. Science and philosophy occupied at least as much space in his Monticello library as law, politics, and economics.
Although books enriched Jefferson intellectually, they impoverished him in every other sense. It was somehow fitting that this champion of frugal government and lavish living should ward off bankruptcy in old age by selling his personal library of 6,500 volumes to Congress to replace the collection destroyed by British troops in the War of 1812. Just as predictably, Jefferson immediately began assembling a new library that he could ill afford.
Meanwhile, the Sage of Monticello and the Squire of Crawford have at least one thing in common. "The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers," complained Jefferson. This is a view held by many, if not most, White House occupants, including Bush's immediate predecessor, whose omnivorous literary appetites border on the Jeffersonian. But there is a difference: The famously compartmentalized Bill Clinton loves books without, as Jefferson often appeared to do, living in them. A list of Clinton's 21 favorite titles released by his presidential library runs the gamut from Maya Angelou and Marcus Aurelius to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, the poetry of Seamus Heaney, the piety of Thomas à Kempis, and his own wife's Living History.
Can a president read too much? Shown an advance copy of William Henry Harrison's 1841 inaugural address, a horrified Daniel Webster spent a full day rewriting the president-elect's mouldy paean to ancient Rome. Arriving late for a dinner party that evening, Webster struck a triumphant note, declaring, "I have killed 17 Roman proconsuls as dead as smelts." He should have killed more. Even in edited form, Harrison's inaugural address clocked in at one hour and 40 minutes. Thoroughly chilled, and semi-exhausted, the 68-year-old president caught cold and died within a month, a martyr to misplaced erudition.