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by William H. Benson

November 13, 2008

     In the June 1, 2008 edition of the New York Times Book Review, nineteen living authors were asked to suggest certain books for the, at that time, three Presidential candidates: Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama, and John McCain.

     The authors’ suggested reading list is worth repeating here and now and might be appropriate reading material for all the recently elected officials—including our next President as well as the incoming Senators, and Congressmen and women. They have two months to read and prepare themselves for the extraordinary jobs ahead.

     One author suggested Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “the timeless tale of how untethered ambition and early predictions may carry a large price tag.”

     Another suggested Joe Haldeman’s novel based upon events in the Vietnam War, The Forever War, lest we forget “the young people we’ve damned to this folly we call Iraq.”

     Scott Turow offered Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, saying it is “the fullest rendering I know of the complexity of human motivation and thus a precious warning against seeing the world as full of villains.”

     His second choice would be any book about the Swedish warship Vasa that was “completed in 1628 and envisioned by King Gustavus Adophus as the most formidable military vessel in history. It sank after sailing less than a mile, drowning dozens of crew members. Many were aware that the vessel was unstable, but all were terrified of breaking the news to the king.”

     Another author suggested any volume by Miss Manners, “who reminds a reader that civility matters, even in presidential campaigns.”

     They should read, one author said, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, written by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. “A half-century of research in psychology has shown that we all overtrust our memory, judgment, and rectitude. Nothing could be more important in a president than an awareness of this universal flaw.”

     Garry Wills offered Samuel Johnson’s essays. “To John McCain he suggested Rambler No. 11, on anger in old age; to Obama he suggested Rambler No. 196, on the illusions of young hope; and to Clinton he presented Rambler No. 79, on demonizing one’s opponents.”

     John Irving thought that McCain should read Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn, an account of the utter folly of Gen. George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. “With any luck, and stubborn though he is, he might learn that engaging the enemy isn’t always such a swell idea.”

     Francine Prose suggested the Norton Anthology of American Literature and read the words and thoughts of Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Mark Twain, as “a crash course in who—as a nation—we are, and how we got to be this way.”

     Another author thought that she should personally hand out copies of Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly, examples of great nations who defied their own self-interest and ended up committing egregious mistakes: Great Britain losing its North American colonies, and the United States fighting to a loss in Vietnam.

     To the above list, I would suggest that President-elect Obama reread The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith’s astonishing idea that an “invisible hand” guides businessmen best. “By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”


     Finally, I would recommend that he pick up Carl Sandburg’s three-volume biography on Abraham Lincoln, especially upon the sixteenth president’s handling of the war against the rebellious states and how he maneuvered his cabinet and his generals and how he controlled his own emotions. Contained within these volumes are timeless lessons upon diplomacy, recognizing others’ feelings, and dedicating oneself to a goal. “[A]s God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”