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Books are at home in the White House.

Mar 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 26 • By RICHARD NORTON SMITH
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None of this disarmed those for whom Reagan appeared both incurious and trigger-happy. History repeats itself, though less often than historians. Before Reagan there was Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose scrambled syntax and defiantly middlebrow tastes drew cackles of derision from sophisticates supporting Adlai Stevenson, the original Egghead, on whose night table at the time of his death in 1965 was found a copy of The Social Register. As a boy in Abilene, Kansas, Eisenhower read everything he could get his hands on about military chieftains like Hannibal and Robert E. Lee. Yet just as the 1950s were caricatured as a time of grey-suited mediocrity, a bland interregnum between the New Deal and the New Frontier, so Eisenhower was pilloried for finding diversion in Zane Grey novels. Robert Frost knew better. When he visited Ike in the Oval Office, Frost gave the president a volume of his own poetry, with the telling inscription, "The Strong Are Saying Nothing Till They See."

As Washington, Jackson, and Eisenhower demonstrate, military men are particularly susceptible to intellectual stereotyping. Resentful that his family's grip on the White House had been broken before his turn at the place, Henry Adams opined that one could easily disprove Darwin's theory of evolution merely by tracing the line of presidential descent from Washington to Ulysses S. Grant (whose favorite book was said to be Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad). Grant gave as good as he got. Informed that Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner took issue with the Bible, the president snorted, "That's only because he didn't write it." Ironically, the man who dismissed James Garfield and other Republican reformers as a bunch of "damned literary fellows" would go on to author one of the classic autobiographies in the English language.

Garfield, of course, didn't live to write his memoirs. In the White House, this onetime Ohio schoolteacher took refuge from political slings and arrows by translating Latin odes. Garfield particularly enjoyed the novels of Jane Austen, which he pronounced superior in every way to current fiction. "The novel of today," he declared with a censoriousness alien to Charlotte Simmons, "is highly spiced with sensation, and I suspect it results from the general tendency to fast living, increased nervousness, and the general spirit of rush that seems to pervade life and thought in our times." Following the assassination of her husband in 1881, Lucretia Garfield was showered with money by grieving Americans. She promptly built a library to hold her husband's books and to uphold his memory.

Woodrow Wilson was another schoolmaster, albeit one who ranked political theory above imaginative literature. The only Ph.D. to occupy the White House, as a boy, Wilson found reading of any sort difficult. Many Wilson scholars believe it was dyslexia that prompted young Tommy Wilson to teach himself shorthand and cultivate an oratorical style of leadership better suited to parliament than the presidency. Wilson the academic was almost too prolific. His multivolume History of the American People offended recent immigrants, "men of the lowest class from the south of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland, men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor energy nor any initiative or quick intelligence." Even Chinese workmen were preferable, wrote Professor Wilson, to "the coarse crew that came crowding in every year at the eastern ports."

In the 1912 campaign, candidate Wilson was forced to eat his words, promising to remove derogatory passages in the next edition of his magnum opus. He was less successful in placating that other Scholar in Politics, Henry Cabot Lodge. Long before they debated the League of Nations, the two men argued the merits of their rival biographies of George Washington. Lodge sneered at the "Woodrovian Style," archly commenting that it might be good enough for Princeton, but it would never pass muster at Harvard. Lodge also figured in the savage competition pitting Wilson against Theodore Roosevelt. Wilson's habit of writing diplomatic notes in response to national humiliation earned him the derisive Rooseveltian sobriquet of "Byzantine logothete."

In the White House, TR was that rarest of animals: a man of action who could not live without a book in his hand. "To succeed in getting measures like these through [Congress] one has to be a rough and tumble man one's self," Roosevelt explained to the British historian G.M. Trevelyan, "and I find it a great comfort to like all kinds of books, and to get a half-an-hour or an hour's complete rest and complete detachment from the fighting of the moment by plunging into the genius and misdeeds of Marlborough . . . or in short anything that Macaulay wrote . . . or any one of most of the novels of Scott, or some of the novels of Thackeray and Dickens."

Ever the moralist, Roosevelt pronounced a "fundamental difference" between the two great Victorians, concluding that Thackeray was a gentleman and Dickens was not. Dubbed Theodore Rex by novelist Henry James, TR reciprocated by calling James a "miserable little snob." The author-expatriate replied in kind, categorizing the dynamic godfather to the modern presidency as "the mere monstrous embodiment of unprecedented and resounding noise." This was not altogether unjust, given TR's gleeful reliance on the personal pronoun. Mr. Dooley spoke for many who read Roosevelt's egocentric account of his Rough Riding adventures, when he suggested this nominal military history should more properly be entitled Alone in Cuba.

Other presidents turned to books for policy inspiration. Long before the era of compassionate conservatism, Richard Nixon wrapped himself in the mantle of Benjamin Disraeli, the consequence of having read Lord Robert Blake's magisterial biography of the great 19th-century British prime minister whose name is synonymous with reform conservatism. Court intellectual Daniel Patrick Moynihan adroitly guessed that Nixon the outsider would identify with Disraeli, the Jew whose Tory democracy found its 20th-century counterpart in the Silent Majority. To Disraeli, his Oxford biographer, and Moynihan, history may well credit such Nixonian initiatives as the Environmental Protection Agency, affirmative action, and the indexing of Social Security and other safety-net programs.

Harry Truman loved books more than bourbon. As a self-confessed mama's boy imprisoned behind coke-bottle glasses, Truman inhabited distant times and foreign cultures through volumes like Great Men and Famous Women. As a senator conducting sensitive investigations of military contracts during World War II, a frustrated Truman fantasized about going away somewhere and burying himself in Shakespeare and Plutarch. His thorough knowledge of the Bible and his deep immersion in the ancients made him naturally sympathetic to the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Not long before he died, asked if he liked to read himself to sleep at night, the ex-president replied, "No, young man. I like to read myself awake."

Similarly motivated, Rutherford B. Hayes found stimulation in the pages of Emerson. Calvin Coolidge, improbably, translated Dante's Inferno from the original Italian. In 1927, Coolidge read Main Street and Wall Street, a scathing indictment of stock market dishonesty by Harvard's William Z. Ripley. As recounted in Geoffrey Perrett's America in the Twenties, an alarmed president invited the author to the White House for an extended conversation. Deeply troubled by what he heard, Coolidge asked Ripley, "Is there anything that we can do down here?"

"No," replied the professor, for whom indignation clearly trumped imagination, "It's a state matter." And so it remained, until a less passive executive overrode tradition and Harvard expertise alike. A fan of detective stories who could speed-read Gone With the Wind in three hours, Franklin Roosevelt owed much to economist Stuart Chase and his 1932 volume A New Deal, whose concluding sentence inquired, "Why should Russians have all the fun of remaking a world?"

It should be obvious by now that what a president reads before his days in the White House is at least as consequential as anything he reads while in office. The autodidact James Madison completed his four-year college course in two years, and subsequently distilled dozens of works of political theory and the law of nations into a first draft of an American Constitution. Neither Voltaire nor the Encyclopédie Méthodique, however, could supply Madison's deficiencies as a wartime leader. More flexible was John F. Kennedy, the sole Pulitzer Prize-winner among presidential authors. Kennedy's youthful imagination had been set afire by David Cecil's The Young Melbourne and anything from the pen of Winston Churchill. Himself shadowed by the prospect of early death, JFK cherished John Buchan's Pilgrim's Way for its haunting portrait of the "debonair, brilliant, and brave" Raymond Asquith, a future prime minister cut down on the Western Front in 1916.

As president, Kennedy the romantic proved very much the realist. In the spring of 1962, he handed Secretary of the Army Elvis Stahr a copy of Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August. "I want you to read this," he said, "and I want every officer in the Army to read it." According to Kennedy biographer Richard Reeves, Stahr took the president at his word, ordering the book placed in officers' dayrooms on U.S. military bases around the world. Closer to home, a different kind of war was brewing, thanks to Michael Harrington's groundbreaking study The Other America. Kennedy never read the book, but he was sufficiently impressed by Dwight MacDonald's review in the New Yorker to ponder a second-term war on poverty. In the end, it was left to Lyndon Johnson, reading men instead of books, to infuse Kennedy's cerebral vision with his own singular passion.

And what of the greatest of American presidents, a leader whose actions have inspired more volumes than any historical figure next to Jesus Christ? Abraham Lincoln's earliest memories revolved around dreary farm labor, from which Parson Weems's idealized portrait of George Washington afforded an enterprising boy some momentary respite. Lincoln read the King James Bible for its literary cadence long before he appreciated its spiritual consolations. Shakespeare helped him master the language with an eloquence that has never been equaled. From an early age, Lincoln displayed a special fondness for the Bard's tragedies, none more so than Richard II, with its lugubrious invitation to sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings. His 1860 campaign biographer, John L. Scripps, not content to have Lincoln repay a farmer for a damaged book with three days' hard labor, conjured up a young scholar at home in Plutarch's Lives. This charming tale had but one shortcoming: It had been made up out of whole cloth by a writer who simply assumed, as he put it in a postelection letter to the victorious candidate, that Lincoln was familiar with the classic work. If not, wrote an embarrassed Scripps, Lincoln "must read it at once to make my statement good." Although the author received no formal reply, the Library of Congress did in the form of a White House request to borrow the volume in question.

In the next four years, Lincoln gained the secular immortality he had first glimpsed as a youth spellbound by Weems's Life of Washington. No small amount of our continuing fascination with the 16th president is due to his elusive combination of opposites. The teller of smutty stories is also the author of imperishable prose. On September 22, 1862, Lincoln prefaced a cabinet discussion of his proposed Emancipation Proclamation by reading a chapter from Artemus Ward's latest satire, "High Handed Outrage at Utica." Few others in the room shared his appreciation of Ward's burlesque on the Last Supper. Lincoln didn't care. Ward's foolishness offered him temporary escape from the crushing responsibilities of office.

George W. Bush, who is said to admire Lincoln above all his predecessors, may or may not know the details of this poignant scene. But he expressed what Lincoln and other successful presidents have felt when he told C-SPAN's Brian Lamb, in January 2005: "Books are a great escape. Books are a great way to get your mind on something else." Even if it's Texas artist Tom Lea's The King Ranch (No. 376,870 on Amazon.com). Ultimately, what a president reads may be less important than why he reads. It is to be hoped that he reads to expand his knowledge, deepen his sympathies, gain perspective, and cultivate a humility at odds with Washington, D.C.'s preening self-importance.

"The whole point of getting things done," according to Oswald Chambers, "is knowing what to leave undone." If Bush's choice of reading material doesn't always sit well with elite tastemakers, this, too, is part of the democratic tradition. After all, it was the president's distant kinsman, Franklin Pierce, who entrusted the writing of his 1852 campaign biography to his college classmate, and America's most distinguished novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Less read than admired, even in his own day, Hawthorne described Pierce, the most dismal of presidential failures, as "deep, deep, deep." It just goes to show: You can't always judge a president, or a book, by its cover.

Richard Norton Smith, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, is working on a biography of Nelson Rockefeller.