Obama's Book List Gaffe

The White House released the president's vacation reading list—including a Tom Friedman book he already read a year ago. What to make of this strange annual presidential ritual?

Alex Brandon / AP Photo

It has become a tradition almost as established as laying a wreath at Arlington Cemetery on Memorial Day: the much-hyped annual release of the president’s vacation reading list. But how seriously can one take it?

Well, here’s a clue. Obama’s spokesman told reporters Monday from Martha’s Vineyard that No. 2 on the president’s list was Tom Friedman’s environmental bestseller Hot, Flat, and Crowded. The only problem? Obama was reading the same book, talking about it, even quoting from it a year ago on the campaign trail.

At an event in Flint, Michigan, last September, the Washington Independent noted that the book was “on his nightstand.” The then-presidential candidate tried to refute the arguments of the “Drill, Baby, Drill” crowd by touting Friedman’s environmental bestseller. “He calls it E.T., energy technology,” Obama said of Friedman.

For Obama, Friedman’s book has apparently become a renewable resource.

The New York Times columnist told The Daily Beast that he wouldn’t be surprised if Obama did some skimming the first time around.

“Given the pressure of a campaign, I doubt that the President got to read anything cover to cover,” he said in an e-mail. “And for most of his presidency, the Great Recession has really swamped debate and discussion about climate and energy. So, I was very pleased to hear that he is diving into it again. I suspect that if the economy continues to stabilize, and if some kind of health insurance package is put together, the President will be turning back to his energy/environment agenda with gusto in the coming year.”

As reader-in-chief, Obama has thrilled the intellectual classes with his frequent book talk from the days of his campaign onward. Recently, The Daily Beast catalogued the complete collection of those president-approved reads, which have ranged from literary fiction like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland to histories of those who occupied the White House before him (a favored presidential reading topic).

We like our presidents to be readers—something which even anti-intellectual George W. Bush seemed to realize. In the final days of the Bush White House, Karl Rove felt the need to underscore that point with a column in The Wall Street Journal, headlined “ Bush Is a Book Lover.” Bush’s Brain and Bush even had a little competition going: “We kept track not just of books read, but also the number of pages and later the combined size of each book's pages—its ‘Total Lateral Area.’"

Even eight years after he left the White House, Bill Clinton still seems concerned that others know what he’s reading (and that he’s reading). In the middle of a summer that saw him jetting off to North Korea and Haiti on major-league diplomatic errands, Clinton sent a list to Jacket Copy, a book news blog at the Los Angeles Times, detailing what sort of mysteries and histories he was popping into his overnight bag these days. Among them: Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air and Tom Zoellner's Uranium, a history-cum-travel-narrative of the Atomic Age. (Perfect for Pyongyang.)

For Obama, the onetime professor and two-time best-selling author, reading has become an even more significant part of his presidential myth-making. Good luck with the list, Mr. President, and don’t feel bad about putting Hot, Flat, and Crowded down for a re-read. Third time could be the charm.

***In addition to re-reading Friedman’s book on Martha’s Vineyard, Obama will also be tackling David McCullough’s John Adams, Richard Price’s Lush Life, Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, and George Pelecanos’ The Way Home. “Great list,” The New Yorker said, though one wonders how Obama, with two young kids and daily national-security briefings, will get through 2,333 total pages in a week.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

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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.