Gratuitous advice

The author of "Blind Ambition: The White House Years" and former counsel to President Nixon picks five favorite nonfiction books for the next POTUS to read.

By John W. Dean
September 15, 2000 11:59PM (UTC)
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If our next president should be a non-reader of books, but a lover of baseball and an occasional autobiography, he should at least give this one a try: "Wait Till Next Year" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which is only 257 pages. When I happened to mention to a friend how much I'd enjoyed this great historian's book (her works include "Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream," "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys," "No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II"), he told me it was his 11-year-old daughter's all-time favorite. Thus, it's perfect. If Goodwin's story of a young girl growing up in the 1950s, with the polio scare, McCarthyism and A-bomb drills at school ameliorated by a father-daughter love affair with the great Brooklyn Dodgers teams (Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanela, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider and Gil Hodges), is not of interest to the president, he can pass it along to his twin daughters. I hope, however, the unbookish president will tough through these pages, for it's a pretty painless way to acquire a bit of historical perspective.

For the president who enjoys books, these works should not be overlooked:

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Leadership by James MacGregor Burns
This political and psychological examination of leadership by the prolific Williams College government professor and biographer has held up well over the years, probably because he uses as vivid examples people like Moses, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, Gandhi, Mao and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, leaders who have never been surpassed. While the book is scholarly, maybe even at times stodgy, the rich ore buried in its readable pages is well worth mining.

Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville (Vols. 1-4)
Having recently reread this classic report on our nation's formative years by the astute Frenchman who traveled throughout a young America for nine months in 1831 and 1832, I found there is little he observed that is not worth remembering today. To understand where we are going, no book better reminds us of what our predecessors had in mind when this great experiment started. Every reading of Tocqueville's masterpiece provides new insights.

Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics by Suzanne Garment
No one has ever done a better job of sifting and studying the rubble of scandals past to understand why they have become a recurring obsession for the tribes living within the Beltway. Nor does anyone show more clearly the personal and cultural effects of scandals. Suzanne Garment understands how these beasts are born, grow and ultimately exhaust themselves amid the whimper of ruined lives. To comprehend the physiology of contemporary Washington scandals, a president should start with this book.

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Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Weighing 10 pounds and running to 2,095 pages, this single volume, an A-to-Z catalog of black history, literature, music, art and experiences in America and countries such as France, India and Russia, is unprecedented, with its essays and entries giving not just information but a good read. Obviously, this is not a book the president can tuck under his arm while heading for Air Force One. (It is 3 inches thick and almost a foot tall.) But I guarantee that if kept handy and regularly visited, no matter what he thinks he already knows he will be delighted at what he learns, not to mention embarrassed at how little, in fact, he understands about these great people -- from the burdens they've borne with unending dignity to the triumphs they've attained without true recognition. For example, we learn at Page 1,960 that it was not just French architect Pierre L'Enfant who laid out the nation's capital but self-taught African-American scientist and mathematician Benjamin Banneker, who actually did the survey work, and quite obviously guided L'Enfant.

Justices, Presidents and Senators: A History of the U.S. Supreme Court Appointments From Washington to Clinton by Henry Abraham
All but four presidents (Harrison, Taylor, Andrew Johnson and Carter) have sent at least one nominee to a seat on the Supreme Court. These 108 justices (two African-Americans and two women -- to mention embarrassing history) have influenced life in America, several for almost 35 years. The next president will probably have several picks, not unimportant presidential decisions. This book tells what all previous presidents have done, how they made their choices and how those choices have performed on the High Court. No president can truly understand the full implications of the making of a justice without reading this book. Incidentally, Abraham found that 20 percent of the justices confirmed proved to be ideological disappointments to the presidents who appointed them. No president's selection is a sure thing; that lifetime job security can free a mind of a lot of dogma.


John W. Dean

John W. Dean served as counsel to President Nixon from 1970 to 1973. He now writes a column for Findlaw and is the author of several books, with the next to be published in January 2004, a biography of Warren G. Harding. .

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