One of the strangest moments in Mitt Romney’s uncomfortable interview with Fox News’s Brett Baier a couple of weeks ago came when Baier asked him for the name of the last book he’s read. “I’m reading sort of a fun one right now,” he explained, “so I’ll skip that.” Then he hurried on to say he just finished George W. Bush’s Decision Points. (Which, as Jon Stewart noted, he also said he had “just finished” six months ago.)
But wait: what’s such a guilty pleasure that Mitt dares not speak its name? Japanese cartoon porn? One of those novels about adolescent vampires? (A cute answer if you’re a 15-year-old girl, but kinda creepy if you’re a grandfather running for president.)
But maybe the answer’s worse. When he was asked by Fox to name his favorite novel back in 2007, Romney said Battlefield Earth, the magnum opus of sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard. Hubbard is perhaps best known as the founder of Scientology—a religion that many Americans consider a cult. Given the lamentable but real anti-Mormon prejudice that afflicts many Americans—and especially Republican primary voters, many of whom also consider Mormonism a cult—citing a novel by the founder of Scientology is loading a lot of freight on the old wagon. Perhaps that’s why Mitt was so reluctant to reveal to Baier what he’s currently reading for fun.
“What books are you reading?” is hardly a trick question. JFK famously identified with reg’lar guys of his generation when he let it be known that he loved Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel From Russia With Love. Bill Clinton loved mysteries, especially by Walter Mosley, Sarah Paretsky, and the original Texas Jewboy, Kinky Friedman. Barack Obama has reportedly read every Harry Potter novel.
Predictably, the current GOP nominees have more.?.?.eclectic tastes. National Journal has reported that Ron Paul quotes Ayn Rand on the House floor more than any other member. Rand was a virulently anti-Christian über-libertarian whose turgid prose and supremely selfish philosophy has inspired decades of trust-fund kids to smoke dope at boarding school and mock homeless people.
Newt Gingrich is better known for writing than reading books. He never tires of telling us he has authored or coauthored something like 30,000 of them. His latest work of nonfiction, To Save America, claims (with elegant understatement) that “The secular socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.” Newt’s own recommended reading runs from military texts like Sun Tzu to Buzz Lightyear–style future-babble from Alvin Toffler.
And then there are the really out-there choices. Michele Bachmann, who seems to love to go right to the brink of crazy and then leap, has cited J. Steven Wilkins’s Call of Duty: The Sterling Nobility of Robert E. Lee. I’d never heard of it either. But Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker tells us that “Wilkins is the leading proponent of the theory that the South was an orthodox Christian nation unjustly attacked by the godless North.” Why a Minnesotan born in Iowa would embrace a crypto-Confederate manifesto is beyond me. But much of Bachmann is beyond me.
Poor Rick Santorum has struggled with literature as well, taking his initial campaign slogan, “Let America Be America Again,” from Langston Hughes. But he later disavowed it after learning that the African-American poet was pro-union and reportedly gay. Should have Googled it, Rick.
Which brings us to Rick Perry, who got a C in animal breeding at Texas A&M. He’s not a big reader. But he claims to have been influenced by The Five Thousand Year Leap: 28 Great Ideas That Changed the World by W. Cleon Skousen. Glenn Beck, who went from Fox News stardom to oblivion, has pushed Skousen’s book relentlessly. It is stridently anti-Washington, tracing the decline of federalism to the 17th Amendment, which allows citizens, rather than state legislatures, to choose senators. Skousen, a John Bircher, is so far right that even National Review’s Mark Hemingway has called him an “all-around nutjob.”
Maybe Mitt Romney should embrace his L. Ron Hubbard fantasies more openly. Compared to what his competitors are reading, they’re downright mainstream.