Recently Katie Couric asked the presidential candidates about their favourite books, but Jon Meacham goes into more detail on the subject in The New York Times, arguing that a president’s literary interests can tell us much about the “arrangement of his intellectual furniture.” John F. Kennedy was fond of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels; Ronald Reagan escaped personal unrest through Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fantasy novels; and Roosevelt’s choices — Alfred Thayer Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power Upon History and poems by Kipling — created an “Anglo-American ethos” put to use during the Second World War.
Meacham interviewed both John McCain and Barack Obama about their literary choices. McCain cited Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls as a favourite, saying he identifies with the protagonist, Robert Jordan.
The lingering image of the final scene is not one of death but of Jordan, the college professor who has come to Spain to fight the fascists, wounded yet still alive, taking aim at the enemy, his heart still beating against the forest floor. Hemingway does not kill Jordan but leaves him there, engaged to the end in the battles of his time.
McCain sees himself in the same way: as a warrior who never gives in, and never gives up, no matter how hopeless the cause. Oh, I reread it all the time, McCain told me. Robert Jordan is what I always thought a man ought to be. Jordan’s essential creed is encapsulated in a sentence that gave McCain the title of one of the books he has written with his aide Mark Salter: The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it. It’s not hard to see how the line would resonate with a romantic fatalist like McCain.
Obama sent Meacham a list of books and writers that were most significant to him. Included on the list were Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, writers Graham Greene and Doris Lessing, and philosophers Nietzcsche and Tillich, all of whom, Meacham says, are “writers consistent with his acknowledgment that while life is bleak, it is not hopeless.”
Obama, unsurprisingly, appears to be more drawn to stories sympathetic to the working classes than is McCain. Obama cites John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, about a labour dispute; Robert Caro’s Power Broker, about Robert Moses; and Studs Terkel’s Working. But he also includes Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments on his list.
Meacham also notes that both McCain and Obama are fond of All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren — a novel about the rise and fall of a corrupt political titan in the Deep South.