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The Sunday Newspaper Test Of Presidents
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June 11, 2012, 03:34 PM
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A very old way to summarize politicians` personalities is to speculate upon which section of the Sunday newspaper they would most look forward to reading. I believe Teddy Roosevelt joked that he always read the sports section first because it was the only place he had a 50% chance of being right.

For the rather opaque Mitt Romney, it seems likely that he would turn first to the business news.


Off the top of my head, I`ll give my impression of some other famous politicians:

Richard Nixon would likely have been most interested in the NFL news (he was well ahead of the rest of the country in his pro football obsession), international news, and domestic politics. 

Bill Clinton would read the entire newspaper, but would be most interested in the movie news.

Ronald Reagan would be most interested in the Op-Ed page. (Nobody seems to remember this about Reagan, but he really liked arguing. He made a perfectly good opinion page pundit himself between being governor and president.)

George W. Bush would turn to the sports page first during baseball season.

George H.W. Bush would be interested in the international page, the baseball, tennis, and golf news, and the business news.

More than other presidents, John F. Kennedy would turn to the society page. 

What about Obama? During NBA season, the sports page would be a priority. But I think what would be distinctive versus other presidents is that Obama would turn quickly to the book reviews, especially the new novels. The man has really good taste in contemporary literary fiction. 

One thing to note about Obama`s literary tastes are how WASP, even Congregationalist they are. According to Michiko Kakutani, his Facebook page during the last election said his favorite books were: "Shakespeare’s plays, Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” and Marilynne Robinson‘s “Gilead” are mentioned on his Facebook page, along with the Bible, Lincoln’s collected writings and Emerson’s “Self Reliance“"

Obama`s is about the WASPiest list imaginable. What`s interesting about this is not the politically obvious, unthreatening choices: Bible, Shakespeare, Lincoln, but the other three. There`s no diversity, other than that Marilynne Robinson is a woman, but she`s from Idaho and is a convert to Congregationalism. Indeed, Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize for 2004, is about an elderly Congregationalist minister in small town Iowa. I haven`t read any of Robinson`s three novels, but a few weeks ago I read the preface she`d written for some proto-feminist cult novel and ... yes, she is an excellent essayist. 

I read Emerson`s "Self-Reliance" when I was 13 or 14 for Brother John Doran`s American Literature class, and I have to say that was the worst piece of prose style I`ve ever seen. I asked Br. John if we should try to write our essays in the manner of "Self-Reliance" and he half laughed, half harrupmhed: "Well, of course not. I`d flunk you if you wrote like Emerson. But, it`s an American classic, so you have to read it."

We all read Melville`s most famous short story Bartleby the Scrivener, about a clerk who starves himself to death, which was a big hit with Br. John`s class. Bartleby`s relentless response to any and all entreaties:  "I would prever not to" quite appealed to the 1970s adolescent male mind.

When Obama went to the Martha`s Vineyard bookstore last summer, he bought Daniel Woodrell`s latest mystery novel. He`s the author of Ozark crime stories, such as Winter`s Bone, which provided most of what was good in the successful indie movie that launched Jennifer Lawrence`s career as a hillbilly hardass.

One recent book Obama has announced he is reading is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by English author David Mitchell, author of the acclaimed Cloud Atlas. This is an attempt at a more commercial Shogun-style historical novel about the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki harbor during the Shogun period of 1601-1853. It helps you learn a little bit about the Dutch, a nationality whom Americans tend to think we must know all about, but generally don`t, and the Japanese. But the novel really takes off in the last quarter when an English Royal Navy frigate sails in (modeled upon the 1808 Nagasaki Harbor Incident).

Mitchell ought to think about taking up the sea story mantle of C.S. Forester and Patrick O`Brian. He`s brilliant at putting you inside the head of an extremely competent captain as he weighs courses of action and makes decisions in real time.

Obama`s two favorite things to do in the whole world are:

  • walking to the bookstore and spend a leisurely afternoon browsing through the new titles;
  •  being President.


It`s kind of an odd combination.