When President John F. Kennedy faced a potentially disastrous standoff with the Soviets over nuclear missiles in Cuba, he received urgent and determined advice to bomb from his military and political staff. But Kennedy thought of an example from ancient history he had read and did not bomb, saving the world from a catastrophe.
From the earliest part of American history, leaders who were well versed in literature used their exposure to books to guide their world-shaking decisions. That was the focus of a Nov. 6 Morning Forum of Los Altos presentation by Joseph Luzzi, Ph.D., professor of comparative literature at Bard College, who spoke on “The Presidential Library: Books That Shaped Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Other Commanders-in-Chief.”
Luzzi grew up in Italy in a house without a tradition of books. He said his mother was worried about him because he was always reading. After he arrived in the U.S. in the 1960s and in the years since, he found another place where many people did not see the value of reading. Today, he said, the average American reads 17 minutes a day. Children read an average of 4 minutes a day, and the relationship between reading and leading is not often understood. We are in a literature crisis, Luzzi claimed.
Illustrating the importance and connection of reading and political destiny, Luzzi highlighted U.S. presidents whose reading habits shaped their actions, their characters and the fortunes of the country. He emphasized that reading literature widely brought perspective and history to presidents confronted with unfathomable decisions. He wanted to explore what it is about literature that illuminates the decisions and the office of a thoughtful president.
Leaders and readers
George Washington’s formal education was not extensive. Luzzi describes him as a man of action and a general, but he was also an extensive reader. Washington collected books, some very expensive, and he even designed his own bookplate for his library. Washington particularly loved etiquette manuals to help him convey the dignity of his public office.
According to Luzzi, Washington was especially obsessed with the Roman playwright and philosopher Cato, who spoke of the fall of Rome. Cato wrote that in its prime, Rome had 30 public libraries; however, after 700 years, when Rome ceased to become a democracy, it went into a descent that ended the empire – and there were no more public libraries.
Washington even had Cato’s play performed for the soldiers at Valley Forge. Cato’s thinking was a dominant part of the American Revolution experience. Luzzi believed that Washington looked to Cato as a warning for the American experiment. Patrick Henry’s famous quote – “Give me liberty or give me death” – came from the writings of Cato.
Luzzi referred to Thomas Jefferson as America’s “bookworm-in-chief.” Jefferson’s library became the basis of the libraries of both the Library of Congress and the University of Virginia. Luzzi said Jefferson’s writing reflects his reading. Jefferson’s reading of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Plutarch gave him ideas about the role of man and his place as an equal participant in society. Luzzi acknowledged the imperfection of Jefferson’s views on slavery but still believed Americans should celebrate and recognize the ideas that guided Jefferson’s role in the formation of the country.
Luzzi described Abraham Lincoln as the ultimate self-educator and an avid reader of Shakespeare. “Macbeth” especially spoke to Lincoln, because Lincoln, like Claudius, felt he had blood on his hands. Shakespeare helped Lincoln understand the tragedy he was living in and come to terms with the guilt he felt for so many deaths. Many of Lincoln’s speeches about the war and its disastrous effects were inspired by Shakespeare, including the quotations “prayers of both sides could not be answered,” “everyone a loser” and “let us not judge but come together as one people.”
Franklin Roosevelt looked to literature for inspiration and was a voracious reader. Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” was a mantra to Roosevelt. Luzzi said Kipling helped Roosevelt realize that his disability was not an intellectual impediment.
Kennedy wanted to be a writer and even came to Stanford University for a year to write and read. Luzzi said Kennedy was especially inspired by Lincoln’s inaugural address and by “The Guns of August,” a historical account of World War I by Barbara Tuchman.
Presidents who were serious readers enhanced their ability to understand and work through difficult, complex problems, Luzzi noted. It helped them make more thoughtful and prescient decisions.
He concluded by suggesting that reading gave leaders tools for leadership, including humility, curiosity, collaboration and perspective.
Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets at Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. The series is open to new members. For more information, visit morningforum.org.