In 1994, the last time the Republicans wrested control of the House of Representatives from the Democrats, Newt Gingrich was the intellectual and political force behind the takeover. In addition to his political skills, Gingrich was quite the bibliophile, and before the 104th Congress convened he produced a reading list for House Republican members and staff. Gingrich’s 1994 list was heavy on military and business leadership works, including, famously, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave.
Fast-forward 16 years, and Republicans have once again taken over the House of Representatives, and once again books and ideas were central to that effort. In contrast to the last group of GOP leaders to take over the House, however, the new leaders — who were formally elected by the GOP Conference this Wednesday — are far less dependent on one man to inspire their reading selections. And the books and periodicals favored by the class of 2010 are deeper and more varied than what Gingrich suggested back in 1994.
Eric Cantor, who is poised to become the House majority leader, reads voraciously. At one point, one of his staffers, Neil Bradley, recommended that he read George Gilder’s The Israel Test. Cantor replied that he had read it six months earlier. Other recent Cantor reads include Joel Kotkin’s The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, Claire Berlinski’s “There Is No Alternative”: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters, and Michael Lewis’s Moneyball — demonstrating that he does not limit himself to books about politics or books by conservatives. In addition to books, Cantor also regularly reads The Weekly Standard, National Review (and National Review Online), Forbes, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Time, and — for a change of pace — People.
Another big reader is Paul Ryan, likely chairman of the Budget Committee. He is one of the many House GOP fans of The Battle: How the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future, by AEI president Arthur Brooks. In fact, he teamed up with Brooks to debate the New York Times’s David Brooks on the op-ed pages of the Times and the Wall Street Journal in September. Arthur Brooks and Ryan argued for what Commentary’s Jennifer Rubin called a “course correction” to Obama’s economic model. David Brooks, in contrast, found the Brooks/Ryan approach too “Manichean.” While the outcome was inconclusive, it was AEI’s Brooks who found himself the preferred Brooks among House GOP leaders. When the Republican Study Committee hosted him at a private dinner, Rep. Michele Bachmann held up a copy of the book and insisted that each of her colleagues take a complimentary copy from the stash Brooks’s publisher had provided.
While Ryan and Cantor may be the best-known readers in the House GOP, they are far from the only ones. Tom Price, who will be the new Policy Committee chairman, has recently read the Berlinski book on Thatcher; Dissed Trust: America’s Crisis of Truth, Faith, and Freedom, by William DeMersseman; and Write It When I’m Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford, by Thomas DeFrank. Incoming GOP whip Kevin McCarthy, who is of a more political bent, noted in Young Guns that he takes Michael Barone’s Almanac of American Politics with him wherever he goes. Other books that have caught on with House Republicans over the last two years include The Forgotten Man, Amity Shlaes’s revisionist take on the Depression, and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Naftali Bendavid’s The Thumpin’: How Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats Learned to Be Ruthless and Ended the Republican Revolution, which provided insight into the Democratic congressional takeover of 2006.
Speaker-to-be John Boehner, while not flashy about it, is a quiet, behind-the-scenes reader, who opens up a book as soon as he gets on an airplane. In addition to reading the Shlaes book, Boehner recently revealed to Politico that he was reading Kings of the Hill, about nine past House speakers, by Dick and Lynne Cheney. Boehner’s top aide, Barry Jackson, once headed the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, George W. Bush’s in-house think tank, and has an extensive and well-thumbed library of serious nonfiction in his Capitol Hill home.
All this reading brings certain advantages but some vulnerabilities as well. Liberals will not be comforted to hear that many House members are reading The Battle, which some see as overly partisan and pugnacious. And Boehner’s signal that he is using the speakership of Nicholas Longworth as a model inspired an attack from historian Bruce Schulman regarding “Slick Nick’s” penchant for fast living and his ruthless control over the running of the House floor. Still, conservatives can take comfort from the fact that their new leaders are serious readers, and that when they do read, they are paying attention to what conservatives have to say.
— Tevi Troy is a visiting senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of Intellectuals and the American Presidency: Philosophers, Jesters, or Technicians? He previously served as a senior White House aide, and he worked for the House Republican Policy Committee during the 104th Congress.