A Presidential Bookshelf

A Presidential Bookshelf

Clif Cleaveland, MD
12 February 2009

Today marks the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth. Fred Kaplan's Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (Harper 2008) provides a compelling analysis of the influence that literature had upon Lincoln's speeches and writing, and indeed his thinking on the complex issues of his Presidency. Largely self-educated, Lincoln read avidly - the Bible, Shakespeare's plays, Byron's poetry, literary anthologies to which his step-mother introduced him.

In celebration of this day, I asked friends and colleagues to suggest a single secular work, either fiction or non-fiction, which they would nominate for the bookshelf of this and future Presidents.

Robert Siskin: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro. "He was one of the best persuaders in the history of the Presidency. This tells how he gained power."

Lilli Wills: A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present (2000 edition) by Howard Zinn. "It tells America's story from the point of view of women, factory workers, African Americans, working poor, and immigrant laborers."

Rick Govan: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. "Although this novel is set in the Belgian Congo in the late 1950s, it is timely in addressing many important issues of today: poverty, green, justice, racism, wealth. Perhaps the most significant theme is that of Western culture's often misguided conviction that its way of life is, without question, suitable for others."

Wes Moore: Quiet Strength by Tony Dungy. "Some of my style is at the other end of the spectrum (loud weakness). I hope to use some of Mr. Dungy's technique. Hopefully, we can all tweak our style for the better through the great works of others."

Sue Williams, Atlanta: What Are People For? by Wendell Berry. "He believes so strongly in caring for the land, in living in community, and in doing honest work toward a sustainable future that he writes with convincing fervor and winning grace."

Neil Williams: Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Friedman. "The book is not only well written and therefore a pleasure to read, but it takes on one of our critical issues and suggests a win/win approach to addressing the environmental challenges we face around the globe."

Tom Griscom: Democracy in America by Alexis De Tocqueville. "The examination of the American democratic experiment lays the foundation for the insights into equality that frame this more than 150 year old work. Tocqueville examines the underlying principles of democracy, casting out a long view as to whether the American system of equality is better prepared to withstand the pressures that toppled monarchies in the past. He examines the fundamental tenets of the American experience and offers his glances into the future of America and its peoples. His comments on the failure of Native Americans coupled with the abolition of slavery over time provide great insights into the democratic process."

Gregory O'Dea: The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. "This vital, sharply-realized cautionary tale shows precisely how political ideology might affect our day-to-day reality, and the subtle ways in which government can cue and guide our deepest fears as well as our best hopes."

Pete Cooper: How Good People Make Tough Decisions: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living by Rushworth Kidder. "This gives a framework of ethical decision making. It recognizes conflicts between alternatives that both have value (right versus right). It discusses the decision-making involved between truth versus loyalty, individual versus community, short term versus long term, and justice versus mercy. While it does not give answers, it gives a practical framework for helping make ethical daily decisions."

Roger Brown: Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen. "It chronicles in dramatic and flesh-and-blood realism the story of the Constitutional Convention during the months of May to September 1787. Miracle at Philadelphia demonstrates that the U.S. Constitution was crafted through passionate debate and pragmatic compromise. The miracle is that it has endured as a touchstone of justice and freedom through crises and catastrophes undreamt of by the Founding Fathers."

To be continued on February 26, 2009.