| History Desk |

Readers in Chief

Biden and Trump, two unliterary leaders


oe Biden and Donald Trump are headed for a rematch this fall, one that 70 percent of Americans do not want. Among the many implications of this matchup, one in particular might go unnoticed. Both men share the distinction of not being book readers. While they both read newspapers, neither shows much serious or regular interest in books. We seldom hear about how a book has sharpened their thinking or expanded their horizons.

Biden seems oddly lacking in cultural interests of any kind, besides keeping up with the news. He does not appear to love movies or reading. Even his former chief of staff Ron Klain has observed, “Biden is not a recreational reader.”

As for Trump, he makes little bones about his lack of reading. In 2016, he freely admitted that he does not read full books, saying, “Oh, no, it’s so long, because now I read passages. I read — I read areas, I read chapters. I just — I don’t have the time.”

When asked which biographies he was reading to get ready for the presidency, he did not mention any. Of course, Trump’s lack of reading is regularly mocked by comedians. One joked that “the Washington Post published an entire biography of Donald Trump that’s 431 pages long. Trump said it’s a little longer than the books he likes to read by about 431 pages.”

This lack of interest in books represents a significant deviation from much of the preceding half century of American presidents. Trump replaced Barack Obama, who made a big show of going to a bookstore in Martha’s Vineyard annually and letting people know what books he was getting. Obama still posts his annual book recommendations, a designation that could get someone’s book a nice sales bump.

Before Obama came George W. Bush, who would read 60 to 90 serious works of nonfiction a year. Between 2006 and 2008, Bush read 186 books, dwarfing the typical book consumption of the average American, who reads four books annually. As president, Bush devoured biographies and read 14 Abraham Lincoln biographies. He also read the entire Bible annually, as well as a daily devotional.

Bush even had a reading contest with presidential advisor Karl Rove to see who could read more books, an impressive prioritization of reading, considering that he was also leader of the free world at the time. And Bush’s reading long predated his presidency. As Rove wrote in 2008, “In the 35 years I’ve known George W. Bush, he’s always had a book nearby.”

Bush also deserves credit for reading both liberal and conservative authors, in contrast to Clinton and Obama, who read mostly liberals. Bush even read books by authors who despised him, such as Mark Kurlansky. When Kurlansky heard that Bush was reading his Salt: A World History, he sneered, “Oh, he reads books?” He sure did.


efore that was Bill Clinton, who inhaled books, sometimes reading three to four a week. Clinton particularly loved mysteries, telling C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, “I love mysteries. I’m an addict. That’s one of my little cheap thrills outlets. I’m always reading mysteries.”

In addition to mysteries, Clinton would also read serious policy works and occasionally call up the author to discuss it, something he did with the think tanker and former White House speechwriter Ben Wattenberg’s 1995 book Values Matter Most. Wattenberg got a sales bump from the ensuing attention.

George H. W. Bush did not read as much as his son, but he did note in a letter that he read David McCulloch’s magisterial biography of Truman, admiring “how Harry put it in perspective.” Ronald Reagan had a reputation as an “amiable dunce,” but the reality is that he was an avid and serious reader of books and magazines, taking copious personal notes from both.

Interestingly, Reagan once stopped his press secretary Marlin Fitzwater from advertising the fact that he was reading a weighty nonfiction book, thinking it wouldn’t be politically beneficial. Reagan told an eager Fitzwater, “No, Marlin, I don’t think we need to do that.” Reagan also had the ability to help make a book a best-seller, something he did for obscure insurance salesman Tom Clancy. Reagan called Clancy’s 1985 Cold War thriller The Hunt for Red October “a perfect yarn,” which helped launch Clancy’s career.

Jimmy Carter not only read a lot, but he even took a speed reading course  as president to improve his ability to take in information quickly. His diary is filled with mentions of books he read as president.

Before Carter came Gerald Ford, who is not at the top of the reading charts, but he would at times find a book that spoke to him. He was particularly taken by George Reedy’s The Twilight of the Presidency, about Lyndon Johnson, which he read twice and recommended to members of his staff.

Richard Nixon was a big fan of biographies and would take recommendations from staff members, including Harvard professor and urban affairs advisor Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Nixon started this half-century streak of reading presidents, as before him came Lyndon Johnson, our last nonreading president. Johnson had force of personality on his side, but reading was not among his interests. It’s too bad. Reading humbles you, expand your horizons, and opens you up to differing points of view — something that Johnson struggled with, just like Biden and Trump.

Reading is not a partisan thing; we’ve had great reading Republicans and great reading Democrats in office. Unfortunately, this challenging period in our nation’s history has brought forth two dominant political figures who are not readers. Maybe their disinterest in reading reflects the era of TikTok, when the public is less inclined to read books and instead indulges their endless fascination with their apps and devices.

The lack of interest in reading is unfortunate, because Trump and Biden could set a different example. Both are around 80. They can remember a time before the Internet, when reading books was a way to get informed, increase understanding, and improve how you live and serve others. Over the past 50 years, America faced many challenges, but from Nixon through Obama, we had presidents who read. Despite those challenges, that same period was likely the safest and most prosperous period in our history. Being governed by a string of readers in chief may have had something to do with it.


Presidential historian Tevi Troy is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at Yeshiva University’s Straus Center, and a former White House aide. He is the author of five books on the presidency, including the forthcoming The Power and the Money: The Epic Clashes between American Titans of Industry and Commanders in Chief, which will hit bookshelves in August.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1009)

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