Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Executive Bedside Table

Earlier this week in honor of President's Day, The Daily Beast released a slide show they created entitled "The Best-Read Presidents." The list is compiled of nineteen American presidents who were known for being avid readers and for having a large collection or library of books of their own. Being a reader of multiple genres and a historian interested specifically in American history, I thought I knew quite a bit about the reading habits of the men who have inhabited the White House, but the list surprised me.

If I were setting out to compile a list of the presidents I thought were the most well-read, I wouldn't have hesitated to place Thomas Jefferson in the top spot. After all, our third president offered his own collection to the country after the Library of Congress burned. The more I think about Jefferson's placing on the Beast's list, he comes in third, the more I wonder if I wasn't unduly influenced by something President Kennedy said at a White House dinner in 1962:
"I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."
When President Kennedy made this remark, he had in his midst numerous Nobel recipients. President Kennedy, a reader and best-selling author, made the list at number fourteen.

Generally speaking, academics are readers to the extreme. It is really no surprise that Woodrow Wilson made the list. The former president of Princeton came in seventh on the list. His interest in politics was much deeper than a simple curiosity for how American government operated. The liberal Wilson was not always liked for being well-versed in political philosophy. You might say that Wilson was the original liberal elitist, at least that is how he was perceived by many in the nation's capital as he traveled to Europe to negotiate the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and to create the League of Nations.

Being well-read does not necessarily constitute being a good leader. The Beast noted this in their profile of number nineteen, James Buchanan:
"Considered the worst president in our history, James Buchanan not only loved reading, but also being read to. He was in the habit of reading himself to sleep every night with a candlestick and candle, terrified of burning a hole in his books, according to George Ticknor Curtis’s biography. And, frequently, he did."
Being well-read wasn't much of an advantage for President Buchanan. While George W. Bush and Sarah Palin (the second time she was asked, mind you) may have wanted us to think by their statements in the press about what they read that they are intellectuals and their reading lists in some way equip them in times of crisis to provide superb leadership, the truth of the matter is, if they were true readers they wouldn't look at each of their reading choices in terms of what benefit they get out of the material. True and avid readers simply read for the fun of reading, for the thrill of knowledge, to cure their curiosity.

Reading may have saved John Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt as they both struggled with serious physical ailments that left them immobile quite often. It was while he was recovering from back surgery that John Kennedy found the time and concentration to write his best seller Profiles In Courage. While books may have saved Kennedy and Roosevelt, they might have felt like a crutch to Woodrow Wilson after he suffered a stroke. A mind unmatched by many, his final years must have caused Wilson extreme frustration and anger.

One last thought on the reading material that has found its way to the bedside table in the White House: Though men like Adams (John and John Quincy), Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Wilson, and Kennedy had many books available to them and an unquenchable desire for knowledge, specifically about history and politics, it is the men on the list that were not as privileged that are quite remarkable. While the Roosevelts came from wealth, men like Abraham Lincoln, Millard Fillmore, and James Garfield came from humble means and homes with few, if any, books. We hardly think in the digital age about being deprived of information, but men like Garfield truly were. Garfield immersed himself in books when he went to Williams and while he was in the Union Army. We have had presidents who have taken for granted the information around them. We have had presidents who didn't take advantage of the wealth of knowledge around them. And yet, we have also had presidents who came from nearly nothing to become the most well-read and informed occupants of the White House.

Where does our current president fit in a discussion of the reading habits of those who have resided in the executive mansion? I suspect the former constitutional law professor more resembles Wilson, the academic with great interest in political philosophy, than he does a president like Herbert Hoover who was known to bury himself in scientific study. Regardless of which president he resembles, we can be sure President Obama has a book on his bedside table.

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