Dick Morris once rather famously admitted that at a time when Bill Clinton needed help with his image as a real guy, he conducted a poll to find out where the Clintons should spend their summer vacation. This led to a miserable wilderness vacation complete with mosquitoes, and whitewater rafting (how did they miss the obvious pun there?) and the next year, the First Family was back to hob-nobbing with the elites where they belonged.
Whether the stratagem worked, or not, is hard to judge. But the media ate it up. President Obama, on the other hand, has not been shy about spending taxpayer money on his glitzy entertainment choices. While hammering corporations for conventions, he has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on things like a Valentine's Day date in Chicago and showing Michelle a night on the town on Broadway.
So instead of fighting the elements with grumbling family members in tow, President Obama is in his element in Martha's Vineyard this week. That's fine and perfectly appropriate.
It's in the President's vacation reading list, that one detects the faint smell of political handlers. First, that it was released to the press (it wasn't until after he left the White House that we heard of George W. Bush and Karl Rove's contest to see who could read the most books) and second, the media's rapturous reaction to the list. Remember the long lens shots of a book under Bush's arm and the snide comments about whether he would actually read it?
The list is just a little too perfectly balanced to occur in nature: A popular environmental treatise, a seminal biography of a Founding Father, a sensitive tear jerker about heartland small town Americans, and two race-conscious thrillers with impeccable literary credentials.
In other words, something for every demographic, and all impeccably respectable. Intellectual without being overly pretentious; popular, but nothing low brow (actually, one lighter choice, say Michael Connelly or Robert Crais would have added an authentic touch).
And the media loves it.
In USA Today, Richard Wolf found accolades galore with the President's reading list, even while noting that at 2300 pages, his 5-hour golf outings aren't going to leave him time to complete it. Wolf writes, "Taken together, they are a smart collection for 'someone who really appreciates the written word,' says Susan Mercier, manager of Edgartown Books here."
Noted camera hog and vastly overrated presidential historian Douglas Brinkley could only have been happier if Obama had chosen a book by-- Douglas Brinkley, telling Wolf that Obama "has exquisite taste. All five of his picks are classics."
On NBC News, Brian Williams also noted the heft of the list, but expressed confidence in the President's super reading abilities, noting, "then again, he does have ten days of vacation."
At MSNBC, Chris Matthews defended the President against wags who observed that last summer on the campaign trail, Candidate Obama quoted from one of the books, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman's Hot Flat and Crowded as though he had already read it. "Well, hell," Matthews exclaimed, "I re-read books like "The Great Gatsby" and "Movable Feast" by Hemingway every couple of years, and I just re-read "Advise and Consent," which I first read in high school. I re-read books all the time. By the way, it's easier to re-read a book than to read it the first time. It's especially easy to read a book after you have seen the movie, which I recommend always."
Well, maybe, but Friedman ain't Faulkner, and while I'm a reasonably busy guy, it's been years since I've been able to re-read anything (other than Huckleberry Finn every five years or so). My schedule is not Presidential-busy, and it's a reasonable assumption that Obama wouldn't reread a policy-oriented book for the beauty of the language.
So, finally, here's the list, beginning with what I think are the least likely to be read and ending with what I hope are the most likely:
Hot, Flat, and Crowded, by Thomas Friedman.
Likelihood of being read—Low. If the President wanted to read this book, he likely already has, and if not, it's the kind of book aides should be summarizing for him, anyway.
Reason for Inclusion: Fills the current events niche, and lets his green base, who haven't gotten much love from him lately, know he's still thinking about them.
Plainsong, by Kent Haruf
Likelihood of being read—Low. Basically a chick book about guys. It was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV special Whatever you think of President Obama and his cultural outlook, I've never figured him running out to get the latest Oprah Book Club selection.
Reason for Inclusion: This beloved and acclaimed novel about the heart rending trials of small town heartland Americans reaches out to a demographic Obama has been slipping badly in the polls with of late—married middle-class white women.
John Adams, by David McCullough.
Likelihood of being read—Moderate. The real question here about McCullough's 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning biography of our second President is, "If this topic interests you, why haven't you read this yet, like everyone else in America? Of course, in 2002, Barack Obama was still getting his history lessons from Rev. Jeremiah Wright, as a second term state senator still 2 years away from running for federal office, much less President. The "skim" likelihood on this one is very high, at least—though taking Chris Matthews advice above and watching the excellent HBO miniseries would be save time, and make him conversant enough on the subject to get by.
Reason for Inclusion: A Presidential biography is obligatory on any list like this.
As for the last two books on the list, I sincerely hope the President reads them, having urged all of you to do the same with these books—or their authors-- here, here, here, and here. I will admit my readability rating is as much based on hope as expectation.
Lush Life, by Richard Price
Likelihood of being read—High. This compelling, readable and literate thriller is nearly impossible to set aside once begun; and it has particular relevance to a recent Obama misstep.
Reason for Inclusion: High class fiction with social relevance—though possibly not in the way whoever chose the book might suppose.
In my review of Lush Life last summer I wrote: "While presumptive Democratic presidential hopeful Barak Obama claims to be a post-racial figure, he can't resist falling back on the race card when pressed. Lush Life is a hopeful sign that in literature, even writers with impeccable liberal credentials may have progressed to a point where race is a factor in the mix, but racism is no longer the default setting for an easy catch-all culprit."
It's too bad that President Obama didn't read this book about a crime assumed to have racial overtones whose resolution is hindered by media hype, meddling politicians, and race-baiting polemicists before he waded into the Skip Gates controversy.
The Way Home, by George Pelecanos
Likelihood of being read—High. Like Richard Price, George Pelecanos recently wrote for the great HBO series, The Wire, which honestly and grippingly charted the decay of urban America in superlative fashion. Pelecanos's fiction is heartfelt and heartbreaking, not to mention mesmerizing, and is as good as anything being written by an American today.
Reason for Inclusion: Same as above, with the added attraction of a Washington D.C. area setting.
Why I Hope President Obama Reads This Book (and Lush Life): George Pelecanos's last three books have focused like a laser on responsible fatherhood and traditional family life as the cure for what ails American inner cities, and the lack thereof as the major cause of crime and societal breakdown. Both authors view race in a measured way that recognizes cultural differences and problems, but which gets beyond racism as the cause of today's ills. Pelelcanos, in particular, posits that souls are rescued one at a time. In The Way Home, it is through a father-son relationship, but an effective side character is a social worker and former criminal (much like the character in The Wire who runs a boxing gym to reach out to gang bangers) who realizes that individual attention and tough love are the key, not mass produced government benefits.
All in all, it's a better list than Bill Clinton was usually credited with—and, reports are he doesn't cheat on his golf scorecard.