Turning a Page

What should the president-elect study between now and the inauguration? Scott McLemee presents a reading list.

November 5, 2008

Ideas have seldom been the currency of American politics. (Most of the time, currency is the currency of American politics.) But this seems like a moment in history when new thinking is a matter of some urgency.

Over the past few days, I've been conducting an utterly unscientific survey of academics, editors, and public intellectuals to find out how -- if given a chance -- they might try to influence the incoming occupant of the White House. The question was posed by e-mail as follows:

"Imagine you are invited to a sit-down with the president-elect and given the chance to suggest some recommended reading between now and the inauguration.Since we're trying to keep this fantasy of empowerment at least slightly plausible, I'd ask you to limit yourself to one book. (He will be busy.) Something not yet available in English is fine; we will assume a crack team of translators is standing by. Journal articles, historical documents, and dissertations also acceptable.

"What would you propose? Why? Is there a special urgency to recommending it to the attention of the next Chief Executive at this very moment? Remember, this is a chance to shape the course of history. Use your awesome power wisely...."

I tried to cast a wide net for potential respondents -- wider than my own political sympathies, in any case. Not all who were invited chose to participate. But everyone who did respond is included here. The suggestions were far-ranging, and the president-elect would no doubt benefit from time spent reading any of the nominated titles. (To make tracking things down easier on his staff, I have added the occasional clarifying note in brackets.)

In reality, of course, it's a long shot that the new president will take any of this advice. But the exercise is serious, even so -- for it is matter of opening a wider discussion of what books and ideas should be brought to bear on public life at this pivotal instant. An election is a political process; but so, sometimes, is thinking.

Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at the University of California at Davis and author of The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction, recently published by Oxford University Press.

If they were asking me I'd suppose they were familiar with my own modest works, so I'd try to point out a perhaps neglected or forgotten classic.

Suppose it's John McCain, who has often expressed admiration for Theodore Roosevelt. I'd humbly suggest President-elect McCain revisit the chapters in George Mowry's classic Era of Theodore Roosevelt dealing with Roosevelt's first full term of office (1905-1909), when he worked hard with Congress to craft landmark legislation regulating business, affording protection to consumers, and providing for workers' compensation.

Suppose, conversely, it's Barack Obama, who would be the first northern Democrat elected since the party sloughed off the South in the Civil Rights era (i.e., since John Kennedy) and who would, like the greatest northern Democrat and perhaps the greatest president of all, Franklin Roosevelt, take office in a time of profound crisis. I would humbly remind him of Isaiah Berlin's classic essay on Roosevelt, in which he describes how much could be accomplished by a deft politician, sensitive even to minute ebbs and flows in political opinion, who while not lacking vision or integrity nevertheless understand—as Berlin wrote—"what to do and when to do it."

[The essay on Roosevelt can be found in the Berlin omnibus collection The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays, published ten years ago by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Or here, while the link lasts.-SM]

Elvin Lim is an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush, published by Oxford University Press and discussed recently in this column.

The president-elect should read Preparing to be President: The Memos of Richard E. Neustadt (AEI Press, 2000), edited by Charles O. Jones. Richard Neustadt was a scholar-practitioner who advised Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton, and, until his passing in 2003, also the dean of presidential studies. Most of the memos in this volume were written for president-elect John Kennedy, when the country was, as it is now, ready for change.

At the end of every election, "everywhere there is a sense of a page turning ... and with it, irresistibly, there comes the sense, 'they' couldn't, wouldn't, didn't, but 'we' will," Neustadt wrote years ago, reminding presidents-elect that it is difficult but imperative that they put the brake on a campaign while also starting the engine of a new administration. Campaigning and governing are two different things.

Buoyed by their recent victory, first-term presidents have often over-reached and under-performed, quickly turning hope into despair. If there is one common thread to Neustadt's memos, it is the reminder that there is no time for hubris or celebration. The entire superstructure of the executive branch - the political appointees who direct the permanent civil service - is about to lopped off, and the first and most critical task of the president-elect is to surround himself with competent men and women he can work with and learn from.

In less than three months, the president-elect will no longer have the luxury of merely making promises on the campaign trail. Now he must get to work.

Jenny Attiyah is host and producer of Thoughtcast, an interview program devoted to writers and academics, and available via podcast.

We don't have to agree with everything we read in this country. Reading is not unpatriotic. So may I suggest that the future commander-in-chief actually read the speeches by Osama bin Laden? At a minimum, he can read between the lines. As Sun Tzu said, "know thine enemy". But we know so little about bin Laden. We don't even know where he lives. Supposedly, he "hates our freedoms" – but he would argue that what he hates is the freedom we take with our power.

After these videos were released, it usually took some effort to dig out a transcription. In the end, I had to go to Al Jazeera for a translation. What I remember most clearly is grainy video of the guy, holding his index finger aloft, but with the volume silenced, so our talking TV heads could impart their wisdom in peace. Let's hope the next president is willing to turn off the mute button on our enemy. Ignorance is no longer an excuse.

[Verso Press made this much easier three years ago with the collection Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden, which provides as much OBL as anyone should have to read.-SM]

Daniel Drezner is a professor of international relations at Tufts University. He also blogs.

I'd probably advise the president to read the uber-source for international relations, Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. Too many people only read portions like the Melian Dialogue, which leads to a badly distorted view of world politics (the dialogue represents the high-water mark of Athenian power -- it all goes downhill after that). The entire text demonstrates the complex and tragic features of international politics, the folly of populism, the occasional necessity of forceful action, the temptations and dangers of empire, and, most importantly, the ways in which external wars can transform domestic politics in unhealthy ways.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra is a visiting scholar at New York University and a founding co-editor of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.

Given my own views of the corporatist state-generated roots of the financial crisis, I'd probably recommend The Theory of Money and Credit by Ludwig von Mises, so that he could get a quick education on how the credit policies of a central bank set the boom-bust cycle into motion. Perhaps this might shake the new President into a truly new course for US political economy.

Irving Louis Horowitz is professor emeritus of sociology and political science at Rutgers University and editorial director of Transaction Publications.

While I seriously and categorically doubt that any one book will shape the course of history, and even less, do I feel touched by a sense of "awesome power" much less preternatural wisdom, I will recommend a book that the next president of the United States would, or better should, avail himself of: On Thermonuclear War by Herman Kahn. Released first by Princeton University Press in the dark days of the Cold War in 1960, and reissued by Transaction Publishers in 2007, this is the painful reminder that peace in our time is heavily dependent of the technology of war in our time. The howls of dismissal that greeted this book upon first blush have been replaced by a sober appreciation that the global threat to our Earth are very much a man made product.

Kahn's book can serve as a guide in the stages of diplomatic failure and its consequential turn to military activities at maximum levels. Kahn does not presume pure rationality as a deterrent to war, and in light of the nuclear devices in the hands of dangerous nations states such as Iran and North Korea, where notions of life and death may give way to Gotterdamerung and the preference of destruction and self-immolation, such presumed rational behavior discourse may prove dangerous and even delusionary.The unenviable task of the next president will be to avoid taking the world to the proverbial brink - and making sure others do not dare take the fatal step to do likewise. Oddly, for all of its dire scenarios, Kahn's classic is a curiously optimistic reading, rooted in realistic policy options. It deserves to be on the shelf of the next head of the American nation.

Dick Howard is a professor of history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and editor of the Columbia University Press series Columbia Studies in Political Thought/Political History.

I'd have him read Polanyi's The Great Transformation. Why? It's short, clearly argued, and makes a simple but fundamental point: capitalism is not the natural way that people relate to one another (including in their "economic" relations). It is the result of several political decisions that create the framework within which it can emerge. The next president will have to recognize that he too will make political decisions with economic consequences (and should not deceive himself into thinking that his decisions are simply a reaction to economic "necessities").

To be noted as well: Polanyi, a former banker in Austria, was writing in the wake of the Great Depression, whose causes he was trying to understand. It was the inability of "economics" to understand what had happened to the world economy that led Polanyi to his pathbreaking and brilliant study.

A hubristic final note: I of course recommend this only because my own study of the history of political thought from the Greeks to the American and French revolutions, titled The Primacy of Politics, will not yet be on the market.

[ Primacy will be published by Columbia University Press in late '09.-SM]

James Marcus is the book-review editor for The Columbia Journalism Review and has translated several books from Italian.

It's not often that the POTUS asks me what to read next, and at first I thought I should rise to the occasion with something suitably canonical. I considered Democracy in America, The Federalist Papers, maybe even The Education of Henry Adams (although I'd allow the leader of the free world to skip the virgin-and-dynamo stuff at the end). Then I decided that it made more sense to submit a narrow-gauge production: a book that grappled with public issues through the prism of personal experience, not unlike Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father or John McCain's Faith of My Fathers. If, like the two titles I just mentioned, it included a dash of Oedipal ambivalence, so much the better.

What I came up with was Tobias Wolff's In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War. As the next president ponders the best way to extract the United States from its Iraqi quagmire, a memoir of Vietnam seems like a useful reality check. The author, a self-confessed screw-up, spent part of his enlistment in the Mekong Delta, advising a Vietnamese artillery battalion. There are very few heroics in his book, and no argumentation about the wisdom of being there in the first place. What we do get is the endless confusion of fighting a popular insurgency. And an insistence that even the survivors of such a conflict are permanently marked: "It's the close call you have to keep escaping from, the unending doubt that you have a right to your own life. It's the corruption suffered by everyone who lives on, that henceforth they must wonder at the reason, and probe its justice."

Over the next four years, the president will almost certainly order U.S. troops into battle. In its modest, personal, anti-rhetorical manner, this book reminds us of the price to be paid.

Claire Potter is a professor of history and American studies at Wesleyan University, and is also known as Tenured Radical. She contributes to the history blog Cliopatria.

My contribution to President Obama's reading list is Nancy Cott's Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (2000). While the history of marriage has been augmented considerably since this book came to include important volumes on the history of interracial marriage, the demand for gay marriage, and the fraught relationship between Christianity and marriage, all other scholars have relied, more or less, on Cott's argument that marriage is first and foremost a contract with the state.

It's not primarily a contract with another person – although it is that; it is not a contract with your local community – regardless of their approval and disapproval; and it is in no way a contract with any religious hierarchy – although it can be critical to the terms of inclusion in a religious community.

Marriage, President Obama, is about citizenship. You, along with nearly everyone who hedges his bets on gay marriage, reiterates that the most important fact about marriage is that it is between "one man and one woman." But that's not true. In the United States, as Cott shows, marriage has been primarily about the qualifications of a man "to be a participating member of a state."

While over time political authorities in the United States have allowed marriage to "bear the impress of the Christian religion," if marriage is a public institution at all, its function is to mirror the political community and to be the arm of the state that functions to "shape the gender order." In other words, Mr. President, the history of marriage is a political history, not a religious one; and it is a history of inclusion or exclusion from political power.

George Scialabba is the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For?, a collection of essays forthcoming from Pressed Wafer in March 2009. He was profiled in this column two years ago .

Dear Citizen Obama (I'm afraid the overly deferential "Mr. President" encourages the aggrandizement of the Executive Branch):

More than thirty years ago, your predecessor Jimmy Carter described America's tax system as "a national disgrace." Since then, it's gotten much, much worse. It is now so complex and irrational that only two groups of Americans understand it: tax lawyers and readers of David Cay Johnston, Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times reporter and author of Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super-Rich -- and Cheat Everybody Else. The abuses and evasions detailed in Perfectly Legal (and its companion volume, Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense – and Stick You with the Bill) may raise your blood pressure dramatically. You should read them, but only under a doctor's supervision.

Continued tax avoidance at current staggering levels by the wealthy is your mortal enemy. Unless the tax code is drastically reformed -- and effectively enforced -- there will simply not be enough money to accomplish your goals. It will take courage, persistence, and all your celebrated rhetorical skills to vanquish this dragon in your path. But unless you do, your hopes will be thwarted and your administration will be no more than a ripple on the surface of American history.

Good luck and Godspeed.

James Mustich is editor ofThe Barnes & Noble Review.

Since I have more than once in the past few months mourned the unkind timing of Norman Mailer's death this year -- What might the author of one of our finest war novels have made of the trials of Senator McCain on the campaign trail? How would the instigatory commentator on so much of our nation's cultural, political, and existential foment make sense of the long and disciplined loneliness of Senator Obama? And, last but by no means least, how would an imagination precocious and peculiar enough to have set a novel called Why Are We in Vietnam? in Alaska have illuminated the passage of Sarah Palin through the national psyche? -- I'd recommend to the new chief executive Mailer's piece on the 1960 Democratic convention, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket."

Coming out of the exhaustions of electoral combat, I might even give him a pass and ask him only to read the first paragraph -- forgive me, Norman -- if he promised to spend some time thinking about it:

"For once let us try to think about a political convention without losing ourselves in housing projects of fact and issue. Politics has its virtues, all too many of them -- it would not rank with baseball as a topic of conversation if it did not satisfy a great many things -- but one can suspect that its secret appeal is close to nicotine. Smoking cigarettes insulates one from one's life, one does not feel as much, often happily so, and politics quarantines one from history; most of the people who nourish themselves in the political life are in the game not to make history but to be diverted from the history that is being made."

Jodi Dean is a professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and author of Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, forthcoming from Duke University Press.

I would recommend that President Obama read Our American King by David Lozell Martin.First, Obama is already familiar with Marxist, feminist, structuralist, and post-colonial theory from his days as a student at Harvard. So there is already some coverage here. Second, Obama has lots of advisors providing lots of advice on policy matters. Anything added here would end up just another item in the mix. Third, the new President faces so many enormous challenges that it is highly unlikely he'll have much time to devote to pondering a complex text, no matter how important.So I recommend a novel published last year, bedside reading that will provide the new President with food for thought. It captures, I think, the fears of many of us for the future of democracy in a time of extreme inequality, the sense that our country is leaning heavily on the wrong side of a precipice.

Our American King depicts what remains of the United States after a great economic calamity: the top .1 percent of Americans have appropriated all the wealth and goods for themselves and left the rest of the country to fend for itself. As the super-rich live in heavily defended enclaves, the suburbs and cities descend into violence, starvation, and death. Social order collapses. The President and Vice President that oversaw the calamity, that presided over the great transfer of wealth from the many to the few, are hung upside and backwards on the White House gates. The central drama of the novel involves the man who comes to power next. He is set up as a king, a uniter, the great hope of the people. Through him, they begin to work together, to imagine again the possibility of collective responsibility. The new king's authority draws from the people's fear and desperate longing for hope, a fear and a longing that, as Martin makes clear, may not always lead to the best outcomes.

My hope is that President Obama will read this book and recognize that people's longing for a leader, the One, is powerful but precisely because of that power should be redirected toward common projects, toward faith in each other and belief in equality, toward a renewed conviction that the conditions of the least well off--not the best--tell us who we are.

Richard Byrne is the editor ofUMBC Magazine. His play Burn Your Bookes premiered last year in Prague. He blogs at Balkans via Bohemia.

As a playwright, I want the next president to read a play. Plays are perfect fodder for the chief executive-to-be: they are short, can be digested in one sitting, and offer the advantage of distilling larger currents of thought into character, dialogue and action. And such an opportunity should not be wasted on agit-prop (Bertolt Brecht, Clifford Odets) or classics that should already have been imbibed by the civilized soul. (So let’s shelve Henry V and Major Barbara for now.) The play should talk to the president about the human cost of tough times, the dignities and foibles of ordinary citizens, and the dire alternatives to forceful and human courses of action.

For such times, the German playwright Odon von Horvath is just the ticket. Before his tragic death on the cusp of World War II, Horvath offered a window on the brutalities of economic collapse and the roots of fascism in desperation and human folly. But which Horvath to select? Tales from the Vienna Woods is Horvath’s masterpiece, but I’d worry that its deep subtleties and epic canvas of pre-war Austria would confound a reader pressed for time. So I’d opt instead for Horvath’s tiny jewel of human desolation: Faith, Hope and Charity.

In a mere 52 pages, the play follows Elisabeth, an ordinary young woman down on her luck, as she is hounded to death by close encounters with unfeeling bureaucracy and casual cruelty. It is a succinct and powerful play with a simple lesson: if our political institutions are not suffused with the moral values of the play’s title, they can be perverted into engines of personal annihilation. It is a message the new president should consider as sweeping changes in government and its powers are proposed and enacted.


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