If you plan to run for president, you have to get your reading list straight. Inevitably a reporter will ask you to name your favorite book or a book you’re currently reading, hoping to uncover a truth about your inner self. Candidates quickly learn to name either biographies of heroic ex-presidents or safe best sellers like Einstein. If a candidate is going to take a risk and go with fiction, it must be an affirming airport novel or a classic like Bleak House safe enough to be adapted by PBS. A candidate wants to show depth, but not so much depth that people hide their daughters. Even Barack Obama wouldn’t want to have to explain his love for Portnoy’s Complaint or Lolita to a gymnasium full of Iowa caucus-goers.
The modern media addiction to this trope appears to have started with John F. Kennedy, who said he liked reading Ian Fleming’s novels. * The dashing president who liked the ladies seemed to be mirrored in his choice of books, so journalists kept asking the question. Bill Clinton, a man of wide appetites, couldn’t name just one book and thereby reaffirmed the idea that by their books ye shall know them.
Answering this question correctly can be helpful to a would-be president. If you’re Rudy Giuliani and you want people to think you’re like Churchill, it’s a good idea to tell reporters you were reading a biography of the prime minister on the night of 9/11. (The only less subtle hint would be nicknaming yourself Winston.) But naming the wrong book can send dangerous signals. Last summer, President Bush reportedly readThe Stranger. Having launched an unpopular pre-emptive war in the Middle East, it can’t possibly be helpful to announce that you’re reading a book where the main character is an unrepentant Arab-killer.
Recently, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney was asked to name his favorite books. Romney is a man who likes to prepare. In the months before announcing his presidential bid, his foundation donated to social conservative groups that he now hopes will support him. He once seemed to enjoy distancing himself from the NRA, but before running for the GOP nomination he joined the influential gun lobby. So, it was a pretty good bet that among the current crop of candidates, Romney would have the most calculated reading list. Or perhaps, in keeping with his other policy evolutions, he’d say in his youth Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge was his favorite but now he reads only Edmund Burke.
What books did Romney claim as his favorites? The Bible is his favorite book. His favorite novel is Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard, the science-fiction writer and Scientology founder. The first we would have expected, but the second is so wacky, it breathes new life into the tired old reporter’s trope: There must be something we can learn about Romney by examining this answer.
For those of you who didn’t study it in school, Battlefield Earth takes place in the year 3000, when the human race is nearly extinct and the planet stripped of its natural resources. Mankind has been enslaved by evil aliens with very bad breath that explodes when it comes into contact with radioactive material. A young slave wielding lasers and draped in a tennis cardigan leads a rebellion and retakes Earth, only to be attacked again by a series of foes including a race of interstellar bankers trying to collect on bad debts. (There may be kung-fu fights and a championship football game, too; I confess that I haven’t read it all.)
Everything about the book is bad. Just a few sentences into the first page, you’re confronted by this sentence: “Terl could not have produced a more profound effect had he thrown a meat-girl naked into the middle of the room.” (A clothed meat-girl apparently gets a big yawn.) Hubbard’s soundtrack for the book, when played, either attracts mice or repels dogs, or both. The movie, which starred John Travolta, is what therapists show to the producers of Ishtar and Glitter to help them feel good.
The whole tumbling horror of the Battlefield Earth experience is so profound it nearly comes out the other side and achieves a kind of perfection of awfulness. Is Romney being ironic, then, like those people who buy clown art? Unlikely. There’s not a big irony bloc in the GOP and Battlefield Earth is a thousand-page book. No one can sustain irony for that long. (At 13,000 words per dollar it is a great value, though, which might appeal to notoriously frugal New Hampshire voters.) Romney was quick to point out that he disagreed with Scientology, so he wasn’t going for that vote, or the smaller, untapped, creepy-Hubbard- ascot- fetish vote. Is Romney trying to act like he’s a regular guy? Only 8 percent of the words in the book are considered “complex,” so he can’t be labeled an elitist, but no one trying to look like a common Joe would pick this book. You simply need a deep level of weird to like Battlefield Earth. The speed with which some of his aides tried to distance the governor from his remarks suggests they think he now looks a little too weird.
But I think they should stop covering up for the governor. Let him embrace his choice. There is no obvious stratagem behind it, which means Romney, the most meticulously arrayed and perhaps the most careful of the candidates may be giving us a peek at a robust inner goofball. Voters like to get a little glimpse of the authentic core in their candidates and Romney’s team has been trying to show this side since their candidate can appear affected. It’s why the campaign Web site still shows him joking around with Don Imus even after the radio host’s fall from grace (how long will that clip stay up?) and why Romney and his wife joke about his corny sense of humor. Nothing could be more regular than the irony-free love of schlock found in overwrought thrillers written by self-aggrandizing madmen. Sure there are dangers—legions of former high-school film-projector operators may start attending Romney rallies, and in the wake of Dick Cheney, voters may not want to vote in another administration that believes in alternative realities—even if it’s just in their nighttime reading—but these are minor concerns.
Alas, Romney is probably not courageous enough to continue embracing his literary favorites. My guess is he’ll be selecting a safer favorite right quick. But if nothing else, he’s shown that you can still learn something about candidates if you ask them about their favorite books. And he may have even given reporters a new way to ask the question, inspired by Char’s request of Terl in Battlefield Earth: “What in the name of diseased crap are you reading?”