Politics & Policy

What’s Obama Reading?

On this summer’s presidential book list, fiction trumps reality.

The reports are in about the books President Obama is looking at on his annual trip to Martha’s Vineyard. According to reports from the Los Angeles Times and the AP, Obama purchased five books on his trip to the Vineyard bookseller Bunch of Grapes: Marianna Baer’s Frost, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Daniel Woodrell’s Bayou Trilogy, Emma Donoghue’s Room, and Ward Just’s Rodin’s Debutante.

The second wave came when, according to Alexis Simendinger, White House aides listed for reporters the three books Obama brought with him to the Vineyard: two more novels — Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone and David Grossman’s To the End of the Land — and one nonfiction work — Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

Assuming that Brave New World and Frost are for his daughters, this leaves six books that are presumably for presidential consumption, and they may constitute the oddest assortment of presidential reading material ever disclosed, for a number of reasons. First, five of the six are novels, and the near-absence of nonfiction sends the wrong message for any president, because it sets him up for the charge that he is out of touch with reality.

Sure enough, the list has already prompted this accusation. As Reuters described his selections, “President Barack Obama, perhaps seeking a break from harsh reality after a tough summer battling the economy and Republicans in Congress, has picked a summer reading list that is long on fiction.”

Beyond the issue of fiction vs. nonfiction, there is also the question of genre. The Bayou Trilogy has received excellent reviews, but it is a mystery series. While there is nothing wrong with that per se, not every presidential reading selection is worth revealing to the public. Bill Clinton, for example, used to love mysteries, but he did not advertise the titles of what he once called “my little cheap thrills outlet.” Room is another well-received novel, but it is about a mother and child trapped in an 11-by-11-foot room. This claustrophobic adventure does not strike me as the right choice for someone trying to escape the perception that he is trapped in a White House bubble.

The Grossman novel, which is about an Israeli woman who hikes to avoid hearing bad news about her soldier son, could create complications for Obama on the Israel front. Grossman is a well-known critic of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, so reading this novel will likely not assuage those concerned about Obama’s views on the Middle East.

While the fiction-heavy aspect of the list is something new, the liberal authors should come as no surprise. Obama, like other Democratic presidents, has tended to read mainly liberal books, although he could stand to gain some insight from conservative ones. There could be many reasons for his selection bias, but buying his books at the “legendary” Bunch of Grapes probably is not helping matters. While I have never had the pleasure of shopping there, the store’s website highlights a variety of its offerings, with nary a conservative work. There may be some on the shelves there somewhere, but they are probably not staring Obama in the face when he visits the store.

According to the results of my completely unscientific survey of Bunch of Grapes’s website, Laura Ingraham’s Of Thee I Zing, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, and Mark Steyn’s After America were listed as available for online ordering. Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded, which appeared as an Obama book selection twice, in 2008 and 2009, was listed as “In Stock.” This is not meant as a criticism of the bookseller; Bunch of Grapes is running a business, and they need to cater to the liberal crowd at Martha’s Vineyard in order to bring in customers. At the same time, if Obama wants to diversify his reading selections, Bunch of Grapes may not be the place to go.

This year’s list suggests that Obama needs to consider the messages sent by his reading more carefully. According to Mickey Kaus, the Obama list is “heavy on the wrenching stories of immigrant experiences, something the President already knows quite a bit about.” For this reason, Kaus feels that the list reveals an intellectually incurious president. Either that, or it is “a bit of politicized PR BS designed to help the President out.” In that case, he notes, “it’s sending the wrong message.” Either way, the annual book list should be a relatively easy way to make the president appear to be on top of things and in control. This year’s list, alas, reveals a president who appears to be neither.

— Tevi Troy is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former senior White House aide. He is the author of Intellectuals and the American Presidency: Philosophers, Jesters, or Technicians?

Tevi Troy — Mr. Troy is a visiting fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a presidential historian, and a former White House aide. His latest book is Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump.


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