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John Lundberg

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Your Presidential Candidates by the Book

Posted: 01/06/08 12:40 AM ET

I was excited to learn that most of our presidential candidates have released lists of their favorite books (yes, I'm kind of a dork). Does this provide us with some more personal insight into their character? Probably not. But it gives us insight into how the candidates want to be perceived. The right answer to "What's your favorite book?" can help define a political persona while the wrong one can provide critics with some serious ammunition.

During the 2004 election, Washington Monthly's Brent Kendall wrote how "the slightest stumble on the book question can come back to hurt a candidate." He recounted how John Edwards' choice of I.F. Stone's The Trial of Socrates led to this McCarthyesque rant by Bob Novak on CNN's Capitol Gang: "That's incredible! Did Senator Edwards know that Izzy Stone was a lifelong Soviet apologist? Did he know of evidence that Stone received secret payments from the Kremlin?" Did he know his father's mill was a haven for the proletariat!? Geesh. To Edwards' credit, he stuck with the book this election cycle.

What books did the rest of the '08 candidates choose? And what do their choices tell us about them? Here are my '08 candidate book choice superlatives:

Most Predictable:

Hillary Clinton for Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver; Rudy Giuliani for Profiles in Courage by JFK and Their Finest Hour by Winston Churchill.

Unfailingly on script, Clinton chose books by women that appeal to a wide audience of women. And while she didn't get Oprah, she did select a book from the Oprah Book Club. Rudy's choices are meant to remind us of his leadership on 9-11 (because Lord knows he hasn't reminded us enough).

Most Esoteric:
Ron Paul for Human Action: A Treatise on Economics by Ludwig von Mises and The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich A. Hayek.

I'm guessing these aren't helping him connect with the average voter.

Most Representative:
Mike Huckabee for The Bible by er,... God?, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, and anything by Dr. Suess.

Just like Mike: hyper-Christian with a dash of non-threatening.

Most "Are You Kidding Me?!":
Mitt Romney for Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard.

This choice was so dumb it caused a media stir. As if the Christian right wasn't leery enough of him already. Maybe he's trying to lose?

Most Apathetic:
Fred Thompson for nothing.

Fred doesn't have a list (that I could find). Maybe he doesn't read? More likely he doesn't care enough.

Best Selection(s), Republican:

John McCain for For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.

This is a great choice for McCain, making him seem more human and sophisticated than his stump speeches. Hemingway's novel is a manly and complex story of duty and love set in the Spanish Civil War.

Best Selection(s), Democrat:

Barack Obama for Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison and Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

Morrison's novel is perfect (a rich, young black man discovering his roots!). Also, Obama cheats a bit and includes his favorite music, namely Bob Dylan and Miles Davis. Sophisticated, yet very cool. What's that? His handlers picked this stuff for him? Well then his handlers are cool.

So which candidate is really the most literary? I did a little more digging. Hillary Clinton probably prefers plaid to Plath, but she did win the official endorsement of Maya Angelou.

Joe Biden is known for reciting poetry on the senate floor and quoting Irish poets on the campaign trail (a nod to his Irish roots). This thrilled my signif, who thinks he's dreamy. Biden apparently started reciting poetry in front of a mirror to help overcome a speech problem he had as a child. He likes to quote a line from Yeats' Easter, 1916 about the Easter Rebellion in Ireland: "All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born." He even quotes the contemporary Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Ok, ok. So maybe that is a little dreamy.

Barack Obama has actually published some poetry. Last year, Huffington Post columnist Steven Barrie Anthony tracked down a couple of poems Obama placed in an Occidental College literary magazine. They aren't too bad. Here's an excerpt from Pop which sheds some light on Obama as a young man. It describes a tense moment with his maternal grandfather with whom he lived for some years:

Pop switches channels, takes another


Shot of Seagrams, neat, and asks

What to do with me, a green young man

Who fails to consider the

Flim and flam of the world, since

Things have been easy for me;

I stare hard at his face, a stare

That deflects off his brow;

Accusing Obama of being "A green young man/ Who fails to consider the/Flim and flam of the world"? "Pop" could be a stand-in for the Washington DC establishment! The poem also gives us some insight into the young Obama's character, addressing his discomfort with a life of relative privilege but affirming his connection to his roots:

Pop takes another shot, neat,


Points out the same amber

Stain on his shorts that I've got on mine, and

Makes me smell his smell...

The poem moves nicely and Obama shows a good ear, which doesn't surprise me after hearing his speeches. All in all, I think he might make a pretty good poet. As for the rest of them, I'm not so sure. I'm just thankful none of them are reading My Pet Goat.