terça-feira, 4 de novembro de 2008

'How to Read Like a President '

(...) The current nominees for president also offer revealing choices when asked which books have been most important to them. John McCain has long spoken of his affection for, and identification with, Robert Jordan, the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” After I interviewed McCain this past summer — a conversation in which we discussed Jordan at some length — I reread the conclusion of the novel. The lingering image of the final scene is not one of death but of Jordan, the college professor who has come to Spain to fight the fascists, wounded yet still alive, taking aim at the enemy, his heart still beating against the forest floor. Hemingway does not kill Jordan but leaves him there, engaged to the end in the battles of his time.

McCain sees himself in the same way: as a warrior who never gives in, and never gives up, no matter how hopeless the cause. “Oh, I reread it all the time,” McCain told me. “Robert Jordan is what I always thought a man ought to be.” Jordan’s essential creed is encapsulated in a sentence that gave McCain the title of one of the books he has written with his aide Mark Salter: “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.” It’s not hard to see how the line would resonate with a romantic fatalist like McCain.

In captivity, McCain used to act out scenes from books and movies to keep his mind sharp. In addition to Hemingway, he loves the stories of W. Somerset Maugham, “The Great Gatsby,” “All Quiet on the Western Front” and James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, especially “The Last of the Mohicans” (he remembers the N. C. Wyeth illustrations). He likes William Faulkner in, as he told me, “small doses,” especially “The Bear” and “Turnabout.” McCain speaks of nonfiction less often but told me he has read — twice — Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”

Most interesting, though, was McCain’s reaction when I suggested that his father, a career naval officer who rose to be commander in chief of the Pacific forces during the Vietnam War, was rather like Victor (Pug) Henry, the hero of Herman Wouk’s “Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.” Exactly, McCain said: his father was exactly like Pug Henry. Later, I reread the last pages of “The Winds of War.” In them, Henry watches his son set sail from Pearl Harbor aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise: “He could almost picture God the Father looking down with sad wonder at this mischief. In a world so rich and lovely, could his children find nothing better to do than to dig iron from the ground and work it into vast grotesque engines for blowing each other up? Yet this madness was the way of the world.”

McCain and Obama are so different in so many ways, but they do share one thing: a kind of tragic sensibility. Judging from the books they cite as most important, they embrace hope but recognize the reality that life is unlikely to conform to our wishes. They mention Shakespeare’s tragedies, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and David Halberstam’s “Best and the Brightest.” Like Robert Jordan, they want to make things better and are willing to put themselves in the arena, but they know that nothing is perfectible and that progress is provisional. Things fall apart; plans fail; planes are shot out of the sky. Their attraction to Hemingway suggests a willingness to acknowledge unpleasant facts not always found in those who enter elective politics.

When I asked him by e-mail to send a list of books and writers that were most significant to him, Obama offered American standards: The Federalist, Jefferson, Emerson, Lincoln, Twain, W. E. B. Du Bois’s “Souls of Black Folk,” King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon.” Among writers from abroad, he singles out Graham Greene (“The Power and the Glory” and “The Quiet American”), Doris Lessing (“The Golden Notebook”), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “Cancer Ward” and Gandhi’s auto­biography. In theology and philosophy Obama mentioned Nietzsche, Niebuhr and Tillich — writers consistent with his acknowledgment that while life is bleak, it is not hopeless.

Obama, unsurprisingly, appears to be more drawn to stories sympathetic to the working classes than is McCain. Obama cites John Steinbeck’s “In Dubious Battle,” about a labor dispute; Robert Caro’s “Power Broker,” about Robert Moses; and Studs Terkel’s “Working.” But he also includes Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” and “Theory of Moral Sentiments” on his list.

Both candidates are fond of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men,” a novel about a corrupt Southern governor modeled on Huey Long, though he is also a kind of Jacksonian figure. The last line of the novel reads, “Soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.” Either John McCain or Barack Obama is about to make that same journey. “I was born for the storm,” Andrew Jackson once said, “and a calm does not suit me.” Born for it or not, the 44th president, whoever he is, is in for rough weather.

Jon Meacham, no NYTimes

Arquivo do blogue

«I always contradict myself»

Richard Burton em Bitter Victory, de Nicholas Ray.