In the run-up to Barack Obama's inauguration, the New York Times has run several articles praising the President-elect's "eloquence," the most visible being Monday's front-page story by the paper's lead book critic (and prominent Bush-basher) Michiko Kakutani, "From Books, New President Found Voice," who praised Obama for...reading:
In college, as he was getting involved in protests against the apartheid government in South Africa, Barack Obama noticed, he has written, "that people had begun to listen to my opinions." Words, the young Mr. Obama realized, had the power "to transform": "with the right words everything could change -- South Africa, the lives of ghetto kids just a few miles away, my own tenuous place in the world."
Much has been made of Mr. Obama's eloquence -- his ability to use words in his speeches to persuade and uplift and inspire. But his appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading have not only endowed him with a rare ability to communicate his ideas to millions of Americans while contextualizing complex ideas about race and religion, they have also shaped his sense of who he is and his apprehension of the world.
Kakutani set up an unfavorable contrast of President Bush's reading habits with Obama's. (Though it's a marvel that Kakutani admits Bush reads at all.) Obama actually gets credit for a "love of fiction and poetry," one that has "imbued him with a tragic sense of history and a sense of the ambiguities of the human condition," as opposed to Bush's "prescriptive" reading, which has provided him only a black-and-white "Manichean view of the world." (That's bad.)
His predecessor, George W. Bush, in contrast, tended to race through books in competitions with Karl Rove (who recently boasted that he beat the president by reading 110 books to Mr. Bush's 95 in 2006), or passionately embrace an author's thesis as an idée fixe. Mr. Bush and many of his aides favored prescriptive books -- Natan Sharansky's "Case for Democracy," which pressed the case for promoting democracy around the world, say, or Eliot A. Cohen's "Supreme Command," which argued that political strategy should drive military strategy. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, has tended to look to non-ideological histories and philosophical works that address complex problems without any easy solutions, like Reinhold Niebuhr's writings, which emphasize the ambivalent nature of human beings and the dangers of willful innocence and infallibility.
What's more, Mr. Obama's love of fiction and poetry -- 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" -- has not only given him a heightened awareness of language. It has also imbued him with a tragic sense of history and a sense of the ambiguities of the human condition quite unlike the Manichean view of the world so often invoked by Mr. Bush.
How convenient for Kakutani that Bush and Obama's reading matter drop so neatly into pre-formed ideological categories that are flattering to liberals.