In the run-up to Barack Obama's inauguration, the 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 Bush-basher) Michiko Kakutani, "From Books, New President Found Voice," who praises 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.
Mr. Obama's first book, "Dreams From My Father" (which surely stands as the most evocative, lyrical and candid autobiography written by a future president), suggests that throughout his life he has turned to books as a way of acquiring insights and information from others - as a means of breaking out of the bubble of self-hood and, more recently, the bubble of power and fame. He recalls that he read James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and W. E. B. Du Bois when he was an adolescent in an effort to come to terms with his racial identity and that later, during an ascetic phase in college, he immersed himself in the works of thinkers like Nietzsche and St. Augustine in a spiritual-intellectual search to figure out what he truly believed.
Kakutani set up an unfavorable contrast of Bush's reading habits with Obama's. (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 that provided him only a black-and-white "Manichean view of the world."
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 that Bush and Obama's reading matter both drop so neatly into pre-formed ideological categories flattering to liberals like Kakutani.
Kakutani concluded with the seemingly inevitable comparison of Obama to Abraham Lincoln:
The incandescent power of Lincoln's language, its resonance and rhythmic cadences, as well as his ability to shift gears between the magisterial and the down-to-earth, has been a model for Mr. Obama - who has said he frequently rereads Lincoln for inspiration - and so, too, have been the uses to which Lincoln put his superior language skills: to goad Americans to complete the unfinished work of the founders, and to galvanize a nation reeling from hard times with a new vision of reconciliation and hope.