A few days ago I wrote a long post about the importance of ideas, which included this observation:

Let us pause, as slacktivist does, to marvel that “Here is a man who speaks off the cuff in complete sentences and complete paragraphs. The contrast with our current president couldn’t be more stark.” Indeed, the contrast with much of the field of candidates couldn’t be more stark. Obama is someone you could have a conversation with, and that discussion would be grounded not only in his experience living around the world and around the country, editing the Harvard Law Review and organizing Chicago’s South Side, but also grounded in the great thinkers and great writers. There’s something to be said for that.

People who knew Bill Clinton said that he was a voracious reader and loved sitting around and talking about big ideas. I don’t doubt the same is true of Hillary (though I don’t know either way). I see no evidence that any of that could be said of the extant Republican candidates. McCain might do books on tape or something, and I think Romney probably hires folks to summarize books for him.

And so we come to the question. Floyd Norris asks What Should a Candidate Read?:

So here?s the request. Please submit a list of no more than three, and preferably fewer, books, that a would-be president should read in order to decide how to deal with the current economic and financial problems. Briefly explain each choice.

I’ll give my answers below the fold, and I hope you’ll suggest your own.

I’d start with Shake Hands with the Devil : The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Romo Dallaire. Yes, Samantha Power, who wrote the introduction, is an Obama advisor, so this may seem like a set-up, but it isn’t. A bit over two years ago I listed it among the books without which I’d be a very different person. D’allaire was on the ground in Rwanda, trying desperately to use the few UN resources he had to avert the genocide, and being blocked by bureaucracy and the unwillingness of America or other Great Powers to step up and pre-empt a war (rather than responding far, far too late). I think there are lessons from that account that can be applied to our dealings with other parts of Africa, with the UN, with generalized issues of development, with particular cases in North Korea or Burma, and of course in Afghanistan or Iraq. Not easy answers, but that’s why we want a smart President who can handle complexity.

Also on my earlier list are books by Muir which a President would do well to read, and books about Teddy Roosevelt, which tell stories that our next President should know, both as cautionary tales and as templates for success in domestic, foreign and congressional affairs. But we’ll assume that the Democrats will that background already, and that Republicans won’t care.

I haven’t read The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan, but from what I hear, that should be on a new President’s list (as it is on mine, just towards the bottom). How we handle agriculture and food are tremendously important. These are pocketbook issues that affect everyone, but which never get national attention because it seems so basic as to be trivial. The Farm Bill contains a heap of money, and a President can make some big choices about how to implement different programs for the greatest effect. Congress doesn’t have to get involved, and a lot of the prep work could be done out of sight, allowing big announcements when success happens, or a quick Friday announcement if it doesn’t come together. Perfect for a President looking to confound expectations. How we grow food influences the environment, the economy, global trade, and of course what sits in the fridge, which influences health in myriad ways.

Pollan was a near tie with a book like Hell and High Water: Global Warming–the Solution and the Politics–and What We Should Do by Joseph Romm, or Gore’s book, or even The Clean Tech Revolution: The Next Big Growth and Investment Opportunity by Ron Pernick and Clint Wilder. The issue I have with these is that, if we’re picking just three books, they have to give a big picture. I don’t know of a book which talks about how to respond to climate change in a way that rises above technocratic wonkery. If the President needs a climate wonk, s/he can hire one. These books are meant to ensure the next President is primed to ask the right questions and hear the important part of presentations. If it weren’t a bit dated, I might suggest Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future by Mark Hertsgaard. There are sentimental reasons behind that, as well.

For the third book, I’m tempted to say something smartass like Shakespeare (maybe just King Lear) or Moby-Dick. The great stories never get old, and that’s because they capture essential truths. But we’ll assume that the smart candidates have read the classics, while that the dumb ones won’t learn from them.

So the third pick will be The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever by Cass R. Sunstein. It was close between that and The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney, but I think, again the Democrats get it and the Republicans don’t care. Sunstein’s book examines a transformation FDR attempted, but implemented only partly. Social Security and Medicare are, in Sunstein’s scheme, constitutional while being extra-Constitution. That is, they are constituent parts of the modern American contract between government and governed. FDR would have liked the idea of freedom from want to be as deeply embedded in our national psyche as freedom of speech is, but we never quite got there. I’ve said before that 2008 represents a chance to realign American political coalitions, and that can be done in a way which moves us back towards the sort of relationship between government and governed which has stalled for 60 years. Protecting and strengthening Social Security and Medicare are going to remain important parts of what the next President will have to handle, but we can hope the next President will go beyond that, at least with health care. That can be done in a way that constrains the change, or in a way that leads to other changes in our relationship with our government. I hope the next President will be thinking in those terms, and Sunstein’s book is as good a roadmap for that process as I know of.

What would you pick? What did I get wrong?


  1. #1 John S. Wilkins
    February 2, 2008

    Every presidential hopeful should be made to read and discuss Mill’s On Liberty.

  2. #2 John B.
    February 2, 2008

    A perhaps-odd choice: Walden. Though not overtly a work of political philosophy, its constant movement from the local to the global and emphasis on discerning what truly matters and how to attain that at the least cost to oneself and one’s neighbor–not to mention its injunctions to steadily observe realities only and to follow one’s own inclination rather than that/those of ossified Tradition(s)–strikes me as providing a good set of guiding principles that, I’m certain, Obama has thoroughly absorbed and more politicians should absorb.

  3. #3 R N B
    February 2, 2008

    Thomas Paine – Common Sense. Obviously.

    Even the booklet’s subtitle says “the Origin and Design of Government in General”

  4. #4 Denis
    February 2, 2008

    Every two weeks, author Yann Martel is sending “a book that has been known to expand stillness” to Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.

    Worth a look.

  5. #5 Martijn ter Haar
    February 3, 2008

    A lot of times I want to give politicians an introduction on critical thinking and maybe something on numeracy (Clinton and Obama shouldn’t need it, but it can’t hurt.)

    And as I live in Rotterdam and as I can imagine that the candidates want something entertaining, I suggest Eramus’s The Praise of Folly.

  6. #6 Dirk
    February 4, 2008

    “Learning How to Learn” by Idries Shah.

    “From Dawn to Decadence” by Jacques Barzun.