When Democratic politicians brag about the books they read, they usually highlight big-name New-York-Times-bestseller-list kind of works. Think Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, David McCullough’s biographies, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and anything by David Brooks.
Reading these books declares: “I’m an intellectual! I think big thoughts!” They’re politically unimpeachable picks, sure, but also predictable and, in that sense, a little bit boring.
The top of the ticket proves the point. Although President Obama may occasionally bust out David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, he sticks to — in public at least — works such as Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, which he was photographed carrying around during the 2008 campaign; Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, which he read during the health-care reform debates; and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, which he read in the heat of the financial crisis in 2009. And Vice President Biden’s list includes Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Peter Beinart’s The Icarus Syndrome, James Traub’s The Freedom Agenda and, of course, Brooks’s The Social Animal.
The reading lists matter. Books can communicate candidates’ intellectual predilections and policy preferences, but they also humanize them. When voters hear that a potential leader of the free world enjoys a book they’ve read, it forges a connection.
When you turn to some of the GOP 2012 presidential hopefuls, a very different book club materializes. Their preferred titles, assuming they in fact do read them (an open question with all politicians), suggest a more wide-ranging and surprising — even a little eccentric — intellectual field:
MICHELE BACHMANN — THE CONVERTED CONSERVATIVE
The Minnesota congresswoman has talked up the influence of the writings of the Austrian economic heavyweight Ludwig von Mises, as well as American free marketers such as Walter Williams, Milton Friedman and Arthur Laffer. As Bachmann put it, “When I go on vacation and I lay on the beach, I bring Von Mises.”
Such books score points with voters who are ideologically committed to small government and unfettered capitalism. As Politico’s Alexander Burns said, the list “flaunts her righty intellectual cred.” Even if most conservative primary voters have not read Friedman or Von Mises, Bachmann understands that conservatives trust a politician who has internalized sophisticated defenses of free markets. It suggests that such candidates will stand on principle and are less likely to be swayed by the ways of Washington.
Bachmann also reports reading Game Change, a bestselling account of the 2008 presidential race by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin — suggesting a pragmatic candidate who is focused on the intricacies of campaign politics. But another book looms large in the story of Bachmann’s awakening: She has repeatedly credited Gore Vidal’s Burr (a fictional memoir of Aaron Burr and one of Vidal’s cynical novels about American history) for turning her into a Republican.
In a 2010 speech in Michigan, she decried Burr as a “snotty little novel” that “mocked our Founding Fathers.” Vidal’s constant mockery offended her — “as a reasonable, decent, fair-minded person who happened to be a Democrat” — so much so that she put down the book and said to herself: “You know what? I think I must be a Republican. I don’t think I’m a Democrat.” Such a transformation is a long-standing trope among Republicans, many of whom have gone from left to right. Ronald Reagan often referred to his days as an FDR Democrat: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” he said. “The party left me.” Subtly, Bachmann is seizing that mantle.
MITT ROMNEY — THE CONSENSUS CONSERVATIVE
In a recent interview with NBC News, Romney revealed that he had “finished President George W. Bush’s book Decisions and enjoyed that very much.” It was a smart move for the former Massachusetts governor, showing that as the putative front-runner for the nomination, he is already focused on governing — pragmatism and leadership, in one stroke. We can almost forgive his getting the title (“Decision Points”) wrong.
Even though Bush clearly had his problems with conservative voters, the choice of Bush’s memoir suggests Romney is seeking the label of the “consensus conservative” — with its sense of inevitability — which Bush wrapped up early in his 2000 campaign.
Romney has cited the Bible as his favorite book, but also has confessed his affection for science fiction and fantasy. In 2008, he admitted that he was a fan of Battlefield Earth, written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard; more recently, he revealed his penchant for Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, as well as Terry Goodkind’s The Law of Nines (even though he called it “The Rule of Nines”). The admissions of a genuine sci-fi guy, or is he seeking to counter his stuffed-shirt reputation?
RON PAUL — THE UNORTHODOX CONSERVATIVE
At the end of Paul’s The Revolution: A Manifesto, he recommends dozens of books, many of which emphasize his differences with more traditional GOP thinking. For instance, many of the works dealing with international affairs are not in the mainstream of Republican thought. They include Robert Pape’s Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire,” and Michael Scheuer’s Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror. These choices demonstrate how Paul represents a more isolationist strain in a GOP that has recently embodied a more internationalist — and interventionist — worldview.
Paul offers a fairly straightforward description of Flynn’s book: “Flynn was an accomplished journalist, [he] analyzes fascism in Italy and Germany and concludes by considering the state of America in his day.” This fails to convey the alarmism of the book, which warns of fascism reaching American shores. As for Rand — a passionate advocate of rational self-interest who imagined an equally alarming world in which business leaders and inventors retreated from the onslaught of socialistic politician-parasites — Paul deeply identifies with her thinking and has frequently mentioned her on the House floor. He has noted that he deems “all of Rand’s novels worth reading, in spite of my strong disagreements with her in important matters.” Such choices show an enduring propensity to part ways with mainstream conservative thinking as represented by the presidential nominees of the past few decades.
NEWT GINGRICH — THE VACUUM-CLEANER CONSERVATIVE
The former House speaker is the GOP contender most linked to the world of books. In the 1990s, he recommended books for his House colleagues, mostly business strategy reads such as Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave or Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive. Upon leaving the House in 1998, he became a prolific author, producing 17 books on everything from energy policy to the role of faith in American history.
Writing in the New York Times magazine, Andrew Ferguson recently characterized Gingrich’s books as “evidence of mental exertions unimaginable in any other contemporary politician.” He also identified certain strains in the Gingrich oeuvre, including warnings of a looming Armageddon and faith in the ability of technology to see us through most challenges.
In addition to reading and writing, Gingrich is a prolific reviewer of books. According to The Washington Post, Gingrich reviewed no fewer than 156 titles on Amazon from 2000 to 2008, making him one of the top 500 reviewers. He likes books written by men (he reviewed only six books by women), and was inclined to offer favorable reviews: On Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, for example, Gingrich wrote that “this is a book worth giving any of your friends who would better understand America or any foreigner who wonders at our energy, our resilience, our confidence and our success.”
Despite his omnivorous reading, it’s hard to conclude much about Gingrich’s thinking. Unfortunately, his reading habits reconfirm the rap on him — as the GOP’s supposed man of ideas, he might have difficulty sorting wheat from chaff.
RICK PERRY — THE RED-MEAT CONSERVATIVE
The latest entrant into the GOP race revealed in his most recent gubernatorial campaign that he likes to read novelized Texas histories — including Not Between Brothers, by David Marion Wilkinson, and The Gates of the Alamo, by Stephen Harrigan — and World War II memoirs, such as Islands of the Damned: A Marine at War in the Pacific, by R.V. Burgin, and With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, by E.B. Sledge. Both categories hold strong appeal for Republican-base voters but reveal little about Perry’s thinking.
How about the books Perry has written? The first, published in 2008, is On My Honor: Why the American Values of the Boy Scouts Are Worth Fighting For. It could not be more apple pie. Perry praises small-town America, lionizes the Scouts and takes shots at today’s coddled kids: “As opposed to sports leagues today where no one keeps score, the Scouts keep score.”
His latest, Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America from Washington (with the foreword written by Gingrich), is very much a campaign book — part biography, part lament about government policies, part celebration of Perry’s Texas record, and part governing philosophy, including a robust vision of states’ rights. Liberal blogger Matt Yglesias says “the book should give political reporters plenty of questions to ask Governor Perry as he introduces himself to a non-Texas constituency.” Overall, Perry’s reading and writing reveal a very political mind at work, conscious of core constituencies and provocative in an era when office-seekers often opt for caution.
The reading lists of the 2012 Republican contenders reflect not only the wide-open nature of the field, but the still-open question of what it means to be a conservative. Reagan left office more than two decades ago, and the GOP still cannot agree on any one person to take his place — let alone a single book to define modern conservatism. There is no latter-day The Conscience of a Conservative to pluck off a shelf or download on your Kindle; and there are no Buckleys or Friedmans to write landmark conservative works.
Yet there seems to be a thirst for big books, or at least big ideas, that Republican candidates can use as guiding lights. It may be a coincidence, but the first contender to withdraw from the race, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, did not really highlight any big books animating his conservatism. (In his own book, Courage to Stand, Pawlenty cites Ross Bernstein’s The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL as an example of the “finest lessons and greatest joys” that the sport of hockey has given him, and explains how it informs his political strategies and dealmaking.)
The variety and unpredictability of the GOP candidates’ reading lists could reflect a willingness to pursue unconventional thinking, for good or for ill, and they contrast with Democratic reliance on a single type of book, which evokes Saint Thomas Aquinas’s warning of hominem unius libri timeo (“I fear the man of a single book”). But the variety could also prove more virtue than defect. The Republicans have become a party of too many ideas, but too few unifying ones beyond low taxes and a newfound fiscal conservatism. This lack of clarity on core principles will be tested in the 2012 primaries, and the results could guide conservatism for years to come.