How to Read Like a President

The New York Times has an interesting essay by Jon Meacham on Oct. 31, 2008, on what presidents read, and what books influenced their lives. Andrew Jackson was, to put it kindly, no scholar. When Harvard voted to give him an honorary degree in 1833, a Massachusetts newspaper wrote that he deserved an “A.S.S.” along with his “L.L.D.” From afar, the man Jackson had defeated for the White House, John Quincy Adams, was horrified his alma mater was recognizing a barbarian who could barely spell his own name. As usual, though, the press and Jackson’s enemies did not have the man exactly right. I just finished five years of work on Jackson and his White House years, and I found that the reconstruction of his literary interests, from youth to old age, illuminated much about the arrangement of his intellectual furniture. His heroic sense of possibility? He loved Jane Porter’s novel “The Scottish Chiefs.” His thunderous rhetorical habit of posing a question and then answering it? He grew up memorizing the Westminster Shorter Catechism of the Presbyterian Church. His provincial obsession with manners, bearing and etiquette? He was a fan of Lord Chesterfield’s letters. His reflexive characterization of enemies like Henry Clay as “Judases” and his dependence on imagery from the Old Testament? He cherished the Bible and his late wife’s copy of Isaac Watts’s translation of the Psalms. His shrewd political sense? He was an unlikely admirer of the French philosopher Fénelon’s “Telemachus,” a kind of Machiavellian guide to ruling wisely. .. Harry Truman was obsessed with Andrew Jackson, and one can trace the origins of Truman’s plain-spoken populism to Jackson’s ideology and style of a century before. (Truman read so many books about Old Hickory that his haberdashery partner, Eddie Jacobson, later said the failure of their business was due in part to the fact that Truman was always off in a corner with his nose in a Jackson biography.) John F. Kennedy favored David Cecil’s life of Melbourne, a cool statesman, and his fondness for Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels mirrored the New Frontier’s self-image of dashing idealism masquerading as cynicism. Read more about it at: