As the media go into overdrive dissecting the political candidates entrenched in the upcoming Presidential election, it makes sense to take a look at the two presidential nominees from a literary standpoint.
Why? Because Barack Obama and John McCain have something fundamental in common other than big plans and ambition. They both embody a literary truism demonstrated in former presidents and politicians from Abraham Lincoln to the Kennedys: the greats read the greats.
The Washington Post recently ran a piece describing the upbringing of Democratic nominee Obama, citing the influence of his mother, anthropologist Stanley Ann Dunham, who passed on to her children a deep appreciation for challenging, classical writers and philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Hegel, Mill and Marx.
As Post education columnist Jay Mathews points out, “She prepared them to appreciate such teaching themselves, excel at demanding colleges and embrace careers — law for Obama, history teaching for his sister — that depended on aggressive thinking, the epitome of what a good president or a good educator does.”
A look at the literary background of Republican nominee McCain reveals a similar exposure to the work of deep thinkers and classical writers. His father and teachers made sure he tackled rigorous works like Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”
Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy, brother of and Attorney General to John F. Kennedy, left behind written testament to his self taught, rich literary nature in Make Gentle the Life of This World: The Vision of Robert F. Kennedy, a collection of journal entries and the literate speeches for which he was known. In it, we see how familiarity with the Greek classics, Camus, and other literary greats translates into powerful words, no matter what era we live in.
So do the greats make men and women great? In the words of a perhaps not flowery but astute person, “Garbage in, garbage out.” It’s always under debate whether young people should be forced to read and report on “the classics.” (As an English major, of course, I’m with the classics, but I actually liked them.) And most young people need to be able to enjoy the fun stuff along with the brain-bending in order to cultivate a reading habit.
But I don’t think it’s any surprise that thinking people who are exposed to lofty ideas from the youngest of ages include the two formidable men the entire nation is comparing and contrasting to determine our country’s future.