December 29, 2010 9:59 pm

Literary tips for those who govern in prose

What leaders read says a great deal about their administrations, writes John Thornhill

One of the most surprising revelations of George W. Bush’s recently published memoirs – the only one according to some critics – was the former US president’s well-concealed passion for reading books.

Mr Bush cultivated an anti-intellectual frat-boy image for most of his political career. But Decision Points reveals him to be an avid reader. In particular, Mr Bush says he found solace in reading history while he was busy making it, devouring 14 biographies of Abraham Lincoln during his time in the White House.


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Less surprisingly, Mr Bush appears to have regarded reading books as a form of competitive sport. He recounts how he once squared off with Karl Rove, his intellectually agile political adviser, to see how many books they could each read in a year. Mr Rove, nick-named the president’s “Brain”, won the competition. For the record, the final tally – noted by Mr Bush with somewhat disturbing precision – was 110 books to 95, or 40,347 pages to 37,343, or 2,275,297 square inches of text to 2,032,083.

What political leaders read – or in some cases write – sometimes says a great deal about the character of the individual and the nature of their administrations. As Oscar Wilde once said: “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”

Distracted by the 24/7 news cycle and the modern custom of spending time with one’s children, few contemporary leaders could ever hope to emulate the literary adventures of some of their predecessors.

The most omnivorous political reader of all time was surely William Gladstone, the 19th-century British prime minister and intellectual colossus, whose diaries record that he read 20,000 books during his 88-year lifetime. But Thomas Jefferson, the polymath US president, was hardly a slouch when it came to reading either, bequeathing his collection of 6,400 books to what became the Library of Congress.

Politicians, like everyone else, tend to read either for distraction or instruction – or sometimes both at once. Harold Macmillan, the patrician British prime minister, said he liked to go to bed with a good Trollope. And for a prime minister in repose one can understand the appeal of Trollope for his political understanding, his undemanding prose and his sage advice.

“One wants in a prime minister a good many things, but not very great things. He should be clever but need not be a genius; he should be conscientious but by no means strait-laced; he should be cautious but never timid, bold but never venturesome; he should have a good digestion, genial manners, and, above all, a thick skin,” says one character in Trollope’s novel, The Prime Minister.

Some politicians have preferred writing to reading. The flamboyant Benjamin Disraeli churned out popular novels. Winston Churchill even won the Nobel Prize for Literature “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory”.

No self-respecting French politician can flourish without penning a book to establish their intellectual credentials. Dominique de Villepin, the former prime minister, is a prolific poet and Napoleonic historian. Even Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s more earthbound president, wrote a bracing biography of Georges Mandel, the French journalist and politician.

Ambitious US politicians have also written books to further their careers. While a freshman senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage, which won the Pulitzer Prize (although controversy still rages about how much of the book was written by Kennedy’s speechwriter).

Barack Obama has arguably been the most successful in creating and projecting a political persona by writing two memorable books, which have sold millions. Some, though, complain that the serving US president needs to be more brutish than bookish: he has certainly found it easier to campaign in poetry than to govern in prose.

Mr Obama’s literary pretensions have also been lampooned, most famously by Sarah Palin, the darling of the Republican right. During the presidential election, the then vice-presidential candidate ridiculed Mr Obama for having written more books of memoirs than pieces of legislation.

But even the moose-slaying former governor of Alaska, and possible presidential contender in 2012, has been trying to impress with her reading, telling the interviewer Barbara Walters that she draws “divine inspiration” from the works of C.S. Lewis, the author of children’s tales and Christian pamphlets.

Predictably, her supporters enthused about her imaginative choice, while her detractors said it only confirmed her familiarity with fantasy land.

Even though he does not have voters to worry about, Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, has seen the political advantages of reading impressive-sounding books. In an interview with CNN, he said he frequently read books on Chinese and foreign history because “history is like a mirror”. He also professed admiration for the Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, even if he didn’t always agree with what they wrote.

All politicians should be applauded for reading – or writing – books. It is one of the few ways to escape from the “bubbles” in which they live and to get out of their own skins.

François Mitterrand, that most literary of French presidents, perhaps put it best: “A man loses contact with reality if he is not surrounded by his books.”

The writer is the FT’s news editor

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