With the Obama family vacation just around the corner, we’d like to offer a refresher to anyone who is behind on their Barack Obama reading list. When the president landed in Oaks Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard last August, he loaded his bedside table with 2,333 pages of reading for the week.
Of course he had a little help: One of the books that his staff said he was reading, he’d been quoting from since the campaign: Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded. When we asked The New York Times columnist how he felt that his energy-policy book had become a renewable resource at the White House, he played it cool. “Given the pressure of the campaign,” Friedman said, “I doubt the president got to read anything cover to cover.” (Friedman’s prediction last August that the president would “be turning back to his energy/environment agency with gusto in the coming year” has yet to bear out.)
As reader-in-chief, Obama has thrilled the intellectual classes with his frequent book talk from the days of his campaign onward. The two-time bestselling author has shown a taste for the literary by name-checking the likes of Joseph O’Neill, Richard Price, and George Pelecanos. Since this fall, though, as the governing got tough, the president has been avoiding fiction for some hard-boiled history.
In September, as the administration tottered toward a new policy for Afghanistan, the White House let it be known that Obama was reading Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster, a chronicle of McGeorge Bundy and the national-security team that led America to the Vietnam War. Something of a book fight broke out in the West Wing and the Pentagon as a rival book—Lewis Sorley’s A Better War—became a must-read for those who said the real lesson of Vietnam was about political failure, not a military one.
“It is obvious that this commander in chief is assuming leadership in Afghanistan with a deep respect for the wisdom—and failures—of his predecessors,” Goldstein wrote in The Daily Beast.
Then this spring, as Obama squared both shoulders behind health-care reform, he let it slip that he’d been reading about the efforts of Theodore Roosevelt. “We've been talking about health care for nearly a century. I'm reading a biography of Teddy Roosevelt right now. He was talking about it, Teddy Roosevelt,” Obama told a crowd in Glenside, Pennsylvania. The book, the White House said later, was Edmund Morris’ The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, part of the historian’s trilogy on the Colonel.
Morris wrote in The Daily Beast that he was flattered to have a new reader but wasn’t sure how much of the book the president had actually read: “Well, that’s nice, but the president can’t have gotten very far into it, because right there in the prologue it says how TR detested being called ‘Teddy.’ Maybe a blob of cigarette ash obscured that particular sentence.”
Here, then, is the entire Barack Obama Book Club—as culled from newspaper archives and peeks into Air Force One tote bags since the beginning of the 2008 campaign. Let us know in the comments if we’ve missed anything.
Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam by Gordon M. Goldstein — ABC News, Sept. 22, 2009.
Lush Life by Richard Prince —Announcement, August 24, 2009.
Plainsong by Kent Haruf —Announcement, August 24, 2009.
The Way Home by George Pelecanos —Announcement, August 24, 2009.
Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America by Thomas L. Friedman —Announcement, August 24 2009. — Washington Independent, September 8, 2008.
Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope by Jonathan Alter. — The New York Times, November 18, 2008.
Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 by Steve Coll. — The New York Times, November 2, 2008.
Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age by Larry Bartels. — MSNBC, September 3, 2008.
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. — Time, June 18, 2008.
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.