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Paul Begala on What Obama's Reading

The president-elect has been reading a life of Franklin Roosevelt and appears to be taking to heart history's lessons on how to fix the Depression.

11.19.08 4:27 PM ET

How wonderful to have a literate president once again. I can still recall scrambling for a copy of David Ellwood’s Poor Support to get a sense of what was influencing Bill Clinton’s thinking on welfare reform, and the wide-ranging dinners he would convene with authors and historians, poets, and playwrights.

The presidential reading list is a window into the president’s mind. I still chuckle when I think of the Bush White House claiming George W. Bush had plowed through Camus’ L’Etranger. And book sales soared when the First Reader was photographed carrying a copy of Bernie Goldberg’s moronic screed Bias.

And so bibliophiles everywhere swooned when President-elect Barack Obama mentioned that he was reading a book on FDR. The New York Daily News has confirmed Obama was referring to Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment. (In fact, I’d told CNN’s Larry King that I’d heard Obama was reading Alter’s book a few weeks ago.)

Barack Obama is comfortable in the world of ideas, he is rooted in the life of the mind. And now he is charged with translating those ideas into reality.

I could not be happier or more impressed. Alter has a first-class writing style and a first-class sense of the moment. The book, published in 2006, was not intended as a veiled memorandum of advice for the 44th president, but in some ways it may have become just that.

Alter recounts the story of an exuberantly hopeful new president—winning the White House after overcoming enormous obstacles. As he prepares to take office, the ongoing economic collapse worsens. Convinced the Depression was caused by incompetent Republican economic theories, he refuses to be used as a prop.

The failed Republican administration wanted to convince the public that the Depression was a lightning strike: random, unavoidable, and tragic. FDR knew it was a case of arson—and he made sure the country understood the man-made causes of the collapse.

In his remarkable speech the night he won the Iowa caucuses, Senator Obama spoke of a defining moment. “They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose,” he said. “But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do.”

And one of the closing ads of his campaign was called “Defining Moment.” Could this be an echo of Alter? I don’t know for certain, but this we know: Barack Obama is comfortable in the world of ideas, he is rooted in the life of the mind. And now he is charged with translating those ideas into reality.

Maybe I’m reaching, but I thought of FDR when Barack Obama wisely resisted attending George W. Bush’s G-20 economic summit. And again when he reminds the public we have one president at a time. And yet again when I see Obama preparing for a clean break and a fundamental change in America’s economic policy.

And I am comforted that the busiest man in the world has made it a priority to read history.

Paul Begala is a CNN political contributor and a research professor at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute. He was a senior strategist for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign and served as Counselor to President Clinton in the White House.