What Do Presidential Candidates Read?

A few years ago I published an op/ed in the New Hampshire Union Leader (unfortunately the newspaper of record in New Hampshire) on my first impressions of the New Hampshire primaries. I was struck by the fact that all of the candidates were asked basically the same formulaic, but not unimportant, questions at nearly every gathering. I am reprinting that original article here for in order to contextualize a future blog on what Presidents read. I will just add that I think it’s vital to know what types of books our politicians, and our presidential candidates especially, are reading or have read.

What are the Candidates Reading?

It’s primary season once again in New Hampshire and one of the perks of living here is that we get many opportunities to see all of the presidential candidates up close and personal. Although the election may still seem far off, the candidates have already begun attempting to seduce the citizens of this small, but important state.

So far I’ve attended nearly half a dozen rallies for presidential candidates. These rallies range from the extremely down-home conversations picturesquely staged outdoors, to intimate house parties, to the rock star-like choreographed appearances by some of the wealthier candidates. What’s interesting is that in New Hampshire the citizens are not afraid to ask any type of question. Most of the questioning I have witnessed focuses on the big issues: health care, the economy, abortion and civil rights, the state of the economy, and most frequently, the war in Iraq. It’s interesting to note that all of the questions focusing on the war always centers on Iraq. In all of the rallies I have attended thus far not one person mentioned Afghanistan. I’m not trying to downplay these types of questions. Doubtless, they get to the heart of what the next president of the United States will face in office. Yet, something about these questions strike me as incredibly vague and, well, large. I want to know something about the candidates themselves; something that will tell us about how they arrived at the conclusions and answers they give to these questions. The type of questioning I would like to hear every candidate asked would include questions such as, “Name your favorite writer,” or “What novel had the most impact on you?”

What are the candidates reading? Are they deep into Havel’s To the Castle and Back or Grass’s Peeling the Onion? Have they attempted Pynchon’s Against the Day, or DeLillio’s Falling Man? Are any of them breathlessly making their way through the last Harry Potter? What a candidate reads can tell us more about his or her character than any question having to do with abortion or the war. What they are reading or have read can give us a glimpse of the formation of their character, their beliefs and values. One doesn’t have to spend time with Gabriel Garcia Marquez to be considered highly literate. Indeed, I would be happy just to know that the candidates read novels.

Which brings up a rather sticky problem with questions like these: if any of the candidates’ favorite author is, say, Marquez, will this hurt their image? Will they commit a faux pas of grave proportions if a favorite author is not American? I’m willing to bet that the candidate that has a favorite author or book that is not American will be viciously attacked by his or her opponents. Moreover, what if a favorite author is a notorious trouble maker like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, or, god-forbid, Ann Coulter? Are there authors or books that are just too polarizing and risky to mention? Has any candidate read Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses? If so, would they admit it? I would hope that the candidates would have the guts to answer this type of questioning as honestly and sincerely as they can, despite the possibilities of political repercussions.

So, if you’re fortunate enough to find yourself in the position to ask a presidential candidate a question, don’t go for the “easy” ones on health care, the economy, or the war; the candidates have all been well trained on how to answer those. Instead, ask what novel, what film, artist, piece of music, has been particularly inspiring. What we may find out is something much more revealing and interesting than the questions asked them on a consistent basis, for which they have already composed a sound bite-like stock answer. What we find out may surprise us. (originally published in The New Hampshire Union Leader on Memorial Day, 2007)

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