What Do Our Leaders Read?

In my recent read through of Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton I was astonished of how active of a reader Hamilton was in the most unforgiving environments. With the benefit of 200 years of reflection it is no surprise that Hamilton was intelligent and productive through most of his life, but his relentless dedication to building knowledge and argument for better governance is still felt in political discourse today.  As an aide to General Washington during the Revolutionary War:

Hamilton constantly educated himself, as if equipping his mind for the larger tasks ahead…From his days his days an artillery captain, Hamilton had kept a pay book with blank pages in the back; while on Washington’s staff, he filled up 112 pages with notes from his extracurricular reading. Hamilton fit the type o  the self-improving  autodidact, employing all his spare time to better himself. He aspired to the eighteenth-century aristocratic ideal of the versatile man conversant in every area of knowledge. Thanks to his pay book we know that he read a considerable amount of philosophy, including bacon, Hobbes, Montaigne, and Cicero. He also perused histories of Greece, Prussia, and France. This was hardly light fare after a day of demanding correspondence for Washington, yet he retained the information and applied it to profitable use. While other Americans dreamed of a brand-new society that would expunge all traces of effete European civilization, Hamilton humbly studied those societies for clues to the formation of a new government.

Hamilton never was President, but he was one of the principle leaders and forgers of government and the constitution (if not the writing of, at least in its adoption and interpretation). It is doubtless, as Chernow notes, that these readings had an extraordinary impact on Hamilton’s later efforts and work. To me, this is a very revealing moment of Hamilton and why he is so revered centuries later.

Thinking more about Hamilton’s reading, I wonder what similar leaders today are doing in between their duties. And if they are reading, what books or papers?

For Democratic Nominee Secretary Hillary Clinton, her reading appears to be split in two different areas: Relationships and Policy.

From a recent Vox interview and picture The Atlantic found and analyzed in 2014, Hillary Clinton’s bookshelf is strong on the stories of people. While Hamilton seemed more in the weeds of philosophy, economics and military, Clinton is more read in how groups form, how people work together, and how experiences shape people (including her opponents). Arguably, these books reflect one of her greatest strengths as a leader: her ability to make friends out of enemies, craft relationships and build coalitions.

Senator Lindsey Graham entered into the political scene in the 1990’s as one of the vocal antagonists against President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. You can imagine how awkward he feared it would be when Hillary Clinton became a Senator and Graham’s colleague. However, despite great skepticism on his and her part, she was able to build a real friendship with him full of respect and dialogue at a time of heightened partisanship. While she may not be able to construct complex financial systems from scratch as Hamilton masterfully accomplished, her bookshelf reflects her ability to establish and build respectful relationships, if not coalitions, in the workplace (or political arena, in her case).

Clinton talks about relationships more in the excellent Vox interview:

We just don’t do that. We don’t build relationships; we don’t, on the Republican-Democratic divide in Washington, spend any time with each other — even less than what I did when I was there, and that wasn’t that long ago. So I think looking at writings both by political scientists and sociologists about how America worked well and trying to sort through what did we lose that has made it so hard for people to even listen to each other.

In stark contrast, Donald Trump’s reading list seems to be primarily on Hillary Clinton. I’m skeptical about this answer, as it seems to be more of an advertisement for anti-Hillary Clinton books. When pressed to name others, he vaguely mentioned “Nixon” and All Quiet on the Western Front. Without more books it is hard and risky to make any judgments of Trump’s interest or strengths off of this information. And perhaps there is no list to make any judgments of.

At least in this unprecedented Presidential campaign, a Presidential or Vice-Presidential candidate not being well-read would not be a first. One of most memorable moments of the 2008 General Election came during an interview with Sarah Palin where she was unable to name any magazines she claimed to read often:

I won’t say today whether this is a good or bad trait of a potential executive of a country or organization, but I will say that I don’t think the United States would be here today without the reading habits of leaders like Alexander Hamilton and the other founding fathers.

From time to time I’ll look to see what our leaders read and how that may reflect how they themselves lead, act and view the world.




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