The two contenders for president are avid readers. But they don't know everything. Presenting the presidential reading list: five books each should read to round out his intellect, cover his weakness, and learn more about the country he might take over
McCain: Book 1
With the Old Breed
by E. B. Sledge
It’s common to think of McCain as the Great American Über-Veteran, a man whose experience in Vietnam made him an authority on war. In reality, the opposite may be true. As his colleague in the Senate, Chuck Hagel, has pointed out, the young McCain spent almost none of his Vietnam years on the battlefield, suffering the private hell of a prison camp instead—honorable, to be sure, but a long way from the front line. It may not be a coincidence that so many men who did see combat, like Hagel, Colin Powell, and Jim Webb, men who killed and watched their friends die each day, are less eager to send in troops now.
To remind McCain of what those men can’t forget, nothing evokes the horror of war like Sledge’s World War II memoir. A college dropout who enlisted at 19, Sledge found himself in 1944 on the far side of the world, fighting 13,000 Japanese soldiers on the forgotten island of Peleliu. For ten weeks, the U.S. invasion force lived and died in one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific theater. Two thousand died, more than 6,000 were injured, and some simply lost their minds. “Replete with violence, shock, blood, gore, and suffering,” Sledge writes after watching a crazed Marine hack apart a Japanese soldier, “this was the type of incident that should be witnessed by anyone who has any delusions about the glory of war.” Thanks to Sledge, McCain can witness it—even if he wasn’t there.
Obama: Book 1
Nickel and Dimed
by Barbara Ehrenreich
It may be true that poor white Americans are frustrated and bitter and cling to guns and religion. It may also be true that many of them are not going to vote for a black man no matter what. It may even be true that Barack Obama will win anyway, forging a new coalition of the urban black, the Prius Collective, hippie college brats, and that skanky ho from YouTube. Even so, if Obama truly wants to be transformative, he’s gotta reach out to the folks who didn’t vote for him, all those hardworking, patriotic…aw hell, rednecks.
A good place to begin is Ehrenreich’s studio incognito. A decade ago, Ehrenreich—not content to be just another guilty liberal—decided to go a step further. She stashed her money, packed her bags, and set out to do what every liberal dreams of: serious slumming. In the course of a couple years, working crappy jobs and missing rent payments, suffering the depths of faux poverty and simulated distress, she had an epiphany: Being poor sucks. Lucky for her, it was all a sham, and she went back to her normal life. The same experience could only help Obama, who never saw a bespoke shirt he didn’t need. Since it’s unlikely he’ll actually do any slumming—unless you count breakfast with Senator Robert C. Byrd—reading Ehrenreich may be his last, best hope to crack the NASCAR set. Or at least, like Ehrenreich, fake it.
McCain: Book 2
The Case Against Congress
by Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson
If McCain wins, he will be the third sitting senator ever elected. Of course, the same could be said of Obama, but Obama isn’t really a senator—having spent fewer than four minutes in the Capitol since his election five minutes ago. McCain, by contrast, is the Senate, a fixture since roughly the Pleistocene epoch. But after so many years of wheeling and dealing across party lines, it may be difficult for the senator to reposition himself as a strong, singular Republican president—reining in the Democratic Congress and standing in the way of real progress.
To inspire that transition and remind him of all he has to leave behind, there is no better resource than the great forgotten American classic The Case Against Congress. In the 1950s and ’60s, Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson were the consummate Beltway insiders, as deeply ingrained in the culture of Capitol Hill as the elected members of Congress they covered. Then, in 1968, they lifted the curtain, exposing the simmering, simpering, venal beast around them—all the padding of expense accounts, the raking in of favors, and the construction of a vast egolopolis in the Capitol basement, with a free post office and complimentary barbershop. If there’s anything that could encourage McCain to walk away from his Congressional cronies, it’s a good, long look at them.
Obama: Book 2
Faith of My Fathers
by John McCain
As everyone knows, John McCain and George W. Bush have a lot in common: disastrous ideas about foreign policy, disastrous ideas about the economy, a crush on Sarah Palin. But what most people don’t realize is that they also had the same childhood: deadbeat kids of distinguished families who drank their way through school, failed at everything they ever tried, and still managed to succeed on the basis of the family name. (There’s hope yet for Paris Hilton.)
What makes McCain’s autobiography worth reading is not that story, or the writing, or for that matter the ideas—though it does help that McCain didn’t write any of those things and left the task to longtime aide Mark Salter, who is fluent in English. The real value of FOMF is the glimpse it provides into a certain type of American—old, white, moored in tradition, and resistant to “change”—who is not only Obama’s opponent but also his most sought-after voter. Especially in places like Kentucky and West Virginia, where he got mopped up by a boring old white woman.
McCain: Book 3
The Wastrels of Defense
by Winslow T. Wheeler
For thirty years, Winslow Wheeler was a cog in the Pork-Industrial Complex, inserting wasteful “earmarks” into bill after bill, watching the national debt balloon, and feeling guiltier by the day. Finally, in 2004, he blew the whistle—on himself, his boss (Republican senator Pete Domenici), and most intriguingly the man he believed was enabling it all: Senator John McCain.
In Wheeler’s telling, the famously anti-earmark McCain was actually just a grandstanding phony, a “press-release paper tiger” who enjoyed delivering righteous speeches against earmarks while doing nothing whatsoever to stop them. “Senator McCain has unilaterally disarmed himself,” Wheeler writes. “From the large menu of tactics available to him...[he] has selected to sit on his hands.”
With an almost endless list of examples, anecdotes, and recollections, Wheeler makes a compelling case that the Pork-Buster-in-Chief is actually nothing of the sort (putting him comfortably in step with his running mate, who was stridently in favor of the Bridge to Nowhere earmark before she was stridently against the bridge). It’s difficult to know whether McCain is really as disingenuous as Wheeler claims, or if he’s merely trying and failing to stop earmarks. Either way, if he hopes to do better in the White House, there’s no better place to start than with Wheeler’s book, hearing from a reformed porker about the opportunities missed and the ones he may face in the future.
Obama: Book 3
The Triumph of Politics
by David A. Stockman
Had George Orwell lived through the Reagan years—had he actually experienced 1984—he might have written The Triumph of Politics instead.
Ronald Reagan arrived in Washington with a mandate for reform, promising economic responsibility and budgetary restraint. Within a year, all that was forgotten and he was knee-deep in reelection gimmickry: slashing taxes, jacking up military spending, and watching the national deficit blossom. By the fall of 1984, the deficit was at a record high, but taxes were at record lows; he would win 49 states in the fall and leave the country with a debt that is still unpaid today. The only price would come from his budget director, David Stockman, who resigned in horror and wrote a 500-page exposé on the reasons.
“Only one conclusion is possible,” Stockman wrote. “The American economy and government have literally been taken hostage by the awesomestubbornness of the nation’s fortieth president.”
If Obama wants to avoid the same pitfalls—turning his first term into a campaign for the second—he’ll need to strike a more meaningful balance between policy and politicking. To remind him of what’s at stake, there is no better cautionary tale than Stockman’s memoir, a story of pigs and cutlery.
McCain: Book 4
The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers
by Paul Kennedy
There are five stages of grief—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance—and for Americans today, there’s good reason for all five: astronomical unemployment, evaporating home prices, perma-deployment for long-suffering servicemen, Sarah Palin’s résumé. But many of us have hit speed bumps on the grief superhighway. There’s McCain adviser Phil Gramm, convinced the economy is wonderful and we’re just “a nation of whiners.” (That’s Denial.) There’s deposed presidential candidate Duncan Hunter, outraged at “Red China” for having the audacity to rise from poverty.
But here at GQ, we’re still hoping to Bargain our way out. After all, there must be a way to rebuild the dollar, regain global prestige, and keep the cheap shit at Wal-Mart cheap. All it takes is a clear idea of where we went wrong. That’s where Kennedy’s book comes in. Published in ’87, it preceded many of the biggest geopolitical developments of our time (including the Soviet collapse, the rise of China, the war on terror), yet it predicts nearly all of them. What’s more, looking at these developments and studying America alongside other Great Powers, like Ming China, and Imperial Britain, Kennedy sees an underlying pattern: the relationship between deficit spending, military adventurism, and political collapse.
Obama: Book 4
For Whom the Bell Tolls
by Ernest Hemingway
The war in Iraq may dominate the campaign, but if Obama wins, his biggest military challenge might not be the withdrawal from Baghdad but the impossibility of sending troops anywhere else.
After so many years of lies and deception by an administration hell-bent on war, many of Obama’s supporters—and indeed a huge swath of the left in general—have drifted squarely into the trendy vogue of pacifism. If, by some awful chance, the United States were attacked again (if a skyscraper came down, or a suitcase bomb detonated, or Kim Jong Il desperately needed to have his 1970s pimp ass kicked), it is difficult to imagine the MoveOn crowd doing anything other than an impromptu chant of “War is not the answer.”
Even if, for a change, war really is.
Luckily for liberal warmongers everywhere, we’ll always have Hemingway—a reminder of a time when Democrats fought, and fought some more, and when they were done fighting shot guns into the wee hours of the night just for the damned pleasure of the noise. As a champion for the idea that some things really are worth dying for, there is no better model than Papa himself, who traveled to Spain in 1937 and supported the guerrillas, then wrote his most lyrical, heartbreaking novel about the tragedy of war—and the necessity of it.
McCain: Book 5
The Audacity of Hope
by Barack Obama
What John “Juan” McCain wants is for every Mexican citizen to come streaming across the border tonight, receive welfare checks on the way in, take every job from every American, and never be deported, no matter what. This, anyway, is how Lou Dobbs explained it to us. Still, if there’s one thing that even Dobbs must enjoy about McCain, it’s his oratory. Politics aside, there is nobody in America who makes a stronger case for English as the national language—simply by opening his mouth. As anyone who has ever listened to McCain knows, if there was a fluency requirement for the White House, the senator from Arizona (who was actually born in Panama—gasp!) would almost certainly be deported. To help McCain master the mother tongue, nobody sets a better example than his opponent, Barack Obama, who despite being a devout Muslim raised by Al Qaeda terrorists in the mountains of Waziristan (probably what Dobbs thinks) has nevertheless picked up English surprisingly well. It’s time for McCain to do the same, and a good place to start is by soaking up the post-racial candidate’s pre-race memoir.
Obama: Book 5
The Age of Reason
by Thomas Paine
The lesson of the Jeremiah Wright scandal wasn’t that Obama’s pastor is scary—it’s that all of them are. Sure, Wright thinks the government invented AIDS to kill black people, but every other pastor believes that an invisible dude named Yahweh did it. Which is more ridiculous?
Regardless of the political implications, the Wright scandal also gives Obama a priceless opportunity: to leave behind the faith of the masses and return to the faith of his fathers—atheism. After all, this is a man whose biological father was avowedly antireligious, whose mother was at least agnostic, and who was himself (until the lure of politics) a lifelong skeptic, calling religion “just a comfort to the weary.”
Even the most devout believer should take no offense at the prospect of an atheist in the White House. As clergy of all denominations have pointed out, the wall of separation between church and state was designed to protect both. What’s more, the tradition of secular politicians in this country is as old as the founding—indeed, it was Thomas Paine who wrote the manifesto: “My own mind is my church.” Somewhere in heaven (if Paine was wrong and there is one) the Voice of the Revolution is watching the Wright clips on an iPhone, hoping Obama will see the light.
wil s. hylton is a gq correspondent.