What President Obama's summer reading list says about him.

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Aug. 24 2009 8:09 PM

Barack's Book Bag

What Obama's summer reading list says about him.

All vacations have their rituals: slapping sunscreen on wriggling kids, eating ice cream after dinner, and hiding the holes in the rental-house drywall. Presidential vacations have rituals, too: peekaboo with the press corps, highly managed casual social engagements, and golf. Always there must be the golf.

Even the news media have their vacation rituals. One of them is overinterpreting the presidential summer reading list. Monday the White House obliged, offering the list of five books president Obama has packed for his trip:

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John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.
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The Way Home by George Pelecanos, a crime thriller based in Washington, D.C.; Lush Life by Richard Price, a story of race and class set in New York's Lower East Side; • Tom Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded, on the benefits to America of an environmental revolution; John Adams by David McCullough; • Plainsong by Kent Haruf, a drama about the life of eight different characters living in a Colorado prairie community.

What does this list of American authors tell us about the president? Well, it's not as fun as the year Bush decided to read Camus' The Stranger. George Bush reading a French Existentialist is like Obama reading a Cabela's catalog. Plus, it was a story about a one-time layabout turned unrepentant Arab killer, which, if you wanted to overinterpret things, gave you enough material to get you through a few packs of Gauloises.

The Obama selection is not overtly controversial. In 2006, Bush's list included The Great Influenza, about the 1918 flu. If Obama were reading that today while his White House was issuing a new report about the H1N1 virus, he'd start a national panic. But his list is also clearly not poll-tested. Women played a key role in Obama's victory in 2008. They're swing voters. And yet all of Obama's authors are white men. The subject of the longest book, John Adams, is a dead white male. Obama couldn't get away with that in an election year, and, given his aides' penchant for cleaning up little things like this, we'll soon see the president with a copy of Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women.

The Price and Pelecanos books are very similar—urban, East Coast crime stories by two authors who have also written for the HBO series The Wire. Only the Haruf provides geographical and literary diversity. The McCullough book seems like the kind of thing presidents get with the job. When presidents read presidential biographies, it must be like a user's manual for the office. Sure, Adams occupied it 200 years ago, but just as Obama read Team of Rivals when picking his Cabinet and Jonathan Alter's The Defining Moment on FDR's 100 days when forming his initial agenda, he'll probably now start dropping Adams references in the coming months.

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