All the Presidents’ Vacation Reading; Can a modern president hope to read as much as Adams, Lincoln and Truman did?

August 9, 2013, 8:48 p.m. ET

All the Presidents’ Vacation Reading

Can a modern president hope to read as much as Adams, Lincoln and Truman did?

TEVI TROY

This month, for a fourth summer, President Barack Obama will vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. What will he read during his down time? That, too, has become something of a summer ritual. On his two most recent trips, Mr. Obama has made a pilgrimage to the Bunch of Grapes bookstore to pick up some books, the names of which, inevitably, find their way into the media, where they are dissected and debated by his allies and critics alike. Mr. Obama’s summer choices have included Daniel Woodrell’s “The Bayou Trilogy” and Ward Just’s “Rodin’s Debutante” in 2011 and Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” in 2010. For authors, the presidential imprimatur provides priceless publicity. “Freedom,” in particular, caught a wave. At the time of Mr. Obama’s visit to Martha’s Vineyard in 2010, the novel had yet to be officially released, but Mr. Obama obtained an early copy from the store, adding to the book’s cachet and, as Politico’s Karin Tanabe wrote, setting the “Web atwitter.” The book shot up the best-seller lists. Only Oprah, it seems, provides a bigger sales bump.Mr. Franzen liked the attention, to be sure, but he also wondered if reading fiction was the best use of presidential time. As he told an audience at the Hay Festival in Colombia: “[W]hen I heard he was reading ‘Freedom’ I thought, ‘Why are you reading a novel? There are important things to be doing!’ ”

Mr. Obama is far from the most voracious presidential reader. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were among the best-read people on the continent in their day. Abraham Lincoln read a great deal as a youth, albeit from a limited library, and his reading helped to propel him from his obscure origins.

Teddy Roosevelt was also addicted to the printed word, observing that “reading with me is a disease.” He could polish off two or three books a day even while serving as president, and woe betide the bore who failed to hold the president’s attention in a White House meeting. If not engaged by his interlocutor, Roosevelt was prone to pick up a book and start reading.

Among modern presidential readers, Harry Truman ranks near the top. Despite being the last president not to have attended college, he was a tremendous autodidact, especially in history. He once said that “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.” His daughter Margaret quipped that, if the world were about to end, Truman would “not look up until he got to the bottom of the page he was reading.”

In recent years, nonstop coverage of the White House has led reporters to pay careful attention to presidential vacation reading. The shelves of the California ranch house where Ronald Reagan took his holidays were filled with books, from Westerns to works of conservative thought. George H.W. Bush, widely seen as a nonreader, recounted that his 1991 vacation plans included “a good deal of tennis, a good deal of horseshoes, a good deal of fishing, a good deal of running—and some reading. I have to throw that in there for the intellectuals out there.”

Bill Clinton read so much on vacation and during the rest of the year that the journalist Elizabeth Renzetti joked, “[R]emember Bill Clinton saying that Max Weber was his summer reading? No wonder college girls threw themselves at him.” George W. Bush was a more serious reader than his cowboy image suggested. His vacation reading one summer included “Salt” by Mark Kurlansky, “Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar” by Edvard Radzinsky and “The Great Influenza” by John Barry. The Barry book in particular left a strong imprint on Mr. Bush. After reading it, he pushed his administration to develop a comprehensive influenza plan.

Political theatrics aside, the modern presidency is an enormously taxing position, and we have to be realistic about how much reading a president can accomplish in August or any other month. Mr. Obama himself cast doubt on his reputation as a reader when he admitted that, as president, “you have very little chance to really read. I basically floss my teeth and watch SportsCenter.”

At another point, in explaining that he probably wouldn’t read Sarah Palin‘s autobiography, Mr. Obama told CNN’s Ed Henry, “I don’t get a chance to read things other than briefing books very often these days anyway.” It was a deft evasion—but also a revealing window into the competing priorities that all presidents face, even the bookish ones.

—Mr. Troy, a former White House aide in the George W. Bush administration, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of the forthcoming “What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House,” from which this is adapted.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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