Bragging Writes: How Presidential Candidates Try to Impress Reporters with Their Reading Lists
Kendall, Brent, The Washington Monthly
IN THIS PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION SEASON, everything is happening faster. The primaries have been moved up, consultants hired sooner, and, because of the crowded field and mushrooming expense of running a campaign, fundraising has begun earlier. Consequently, the press is racing to handicap the candidates, subjecting them to the various litmus tests that once occurred much later in the cycle. Anything that can yield a clue is accorded instant significance. There have even been articles analyzing several of the candidates' wives (conventional wisdom so far: Hadassah Lieberman and Elizabeth Edwards are campaign assets; Teresa Heinz Kerry is a bit of a head case).
So it's no surprise that there's also early interest in candidates' answers to the question, "What's your favorite book?" This may seem an innocuous query, but it's actually one of the more treacherous a candidate can answer. In January, for instance, ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked Sen. John Edwards to name his favorite book. Edwards replied that it was I.F. Stone's The Trial of Socrates. On the surface, that seemed to hit just the right note. It's plausible that an ex-trial lawyer like Edwards would enjoy a book about the ultimate historical trial, and by choosing that particular title--a serious inquiry written for a popular audience--Edwards conveyed a sense of weightiness without appearing snobbish. But the choice also opened him up to criticism. Conservative commentator Bob Novak fumed on CNN's "Capital Gang": "That's incredible! Did Senator Edwards know that Izzy Stone was a lifelong Soviet apologist? Did he know of evidence that
Stone received secret payments from the Kremlin?" Novak's rant illustrated how the slightest stumble on the book question can come back to hurt a candidate.
What a candidate chooses to read may seem like a small thing. Yet a person's literary tastes can be very revealing, as anyone who's ever scanned a stranger's bookshelf can attest. Book choices are especially prized by reporters, who use them as material for the narratives they write--narratives that often define candidates in the eyes of voters. Remember Michael Dukakis? His phlegmatic 1988 campaign was perfectly symbolized by his choice of vacation reading: a book entitled Swedish Land-Use Planning. Even if you knew nothing else about the Massachusetts governor, this tidbit suggested he was solution-oriented, practical to a fault, and probably not the sort of guy who'd be a lot of fun to have a beer with. Which is, of course, exactly the person the Democrats got.
Because the book question is so fraught with peril, candidates have increasingly figured out that they need to game the system. That's evident on the campaign trail today where, reporters say, Democratic candidates are toting the perfect "safe" book: volume three of Robert Caro's award-winning biographical series on Lyndon Johnson, Master of the Senate. The book is popular, serious, and imparts just the sort of gravitas presidential aspirants seek. Like a guy who reads Dostoyevsky in Starbucks to attract women, many candidates seem to choose books designed to impress reporters--though reporters, like women, often see through the charade. Says USA Today political columnist Walter Shapiro (who first unearthed Dukakis's book choice), "The number whom I've seen carrying the Caro book is greater than the people who've actually read it or finished it."
Americans are often derided for valuing style over substance. In the realm of politics, however, it can make sense to do so. As political scientist James David Barber noted in his classic work from 1972, The Presidential Character, personality is a strong predictor of White House performance. Barber argued that to understand how a candidate might act in office, voters must "see the man as a whole," a prescription that made reading material--and the conclusions reporters extrapolated from it--fair game.
During the 1988 presidential race, the book question became de rigueur. …