Obama's little light reading: tales of spies and a Republican hero


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The Independent US

Barack Obama doesn't just spend his holidays playing golf and buying junk food for his daughters: like any good bookworm, he also finds time to plough through extremely long hardbacks at the rate of one every few days.

The White House yesterday released the President's full reading list for the 12 days he is spending with his family in a rented beach-house 20 miles north of Honolulu. The list includes three lengthy tomes, which together weigh in at a total of just under 2,000 pages.

One is a biography of one of his predecessors, Ronald Reagan, written 20 years ago. Another is John Le Carré's latest spy thriller, Our Kind of Traitor. The third is a critically acclaimed historical novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, published last year by the British author David Mitchell.

In contemporary US politics, no subject is off limits for partisan point-scoring. The announcement of Mr Obama's holiday reading list, which tends to take place during a slow news week, has therefore become part of a calculated public-relations game.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, set the ball rolling on Christmas Eve by using his Twitter account to reveal the President was ploughing through Lou Cannon's 1991 biography President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. The book about an icon of the Tea Party movement is beloved by Mr Obama's noisiest critics, and at first seemed a strange choice. But, as the President's spin doctors have been quick to point out, there are uncanny parallels between the careers of the two men: both suffered economic recessions at the start of their White House careers, and both were dealt serious blows in their first mid-term elections.

Two years into Mr Reagan's presidency, more than one in ten Americans were unemployed and his approval rating was around 35 per cent – Mr Obama's is at 47 per cent – yet Mr Reagan bounced back to win a second term. Like Mr Reagan, Mr Obama must now reach across the political divide, since the US House of Representatives is controlled by the Republicans. And as Mr Obama is often accused of seeming too aloof and intellectual, he must learn from the former film star's ability to communicate with the electorate.

The choices of the le Carré and David Mitchell bestsellers are populist gestures; Mr Obama's previous reading lists, which included works by such authors as Thomas Friedman, are said to have been too dry and academic for Middle America.

Sceptics will wonder whether the President really does have the titles on his bedside table, or whether the list falls into a long tradition of PR stunts. Karl Rove, George W Bush's spin doctor, famously claimed the president got through 100 books a year, devouring a sporting biography or history book every few days. The 43rd president also found time each year while he was leader of the free world, to read The Bible from cover to cover, Rove alleged.

Aside from burying his nose in books, Mr Obama has, with his family, spent time in Hawaii visiting soldiers, playing on the beach, golfing, and playing tennis. On New Year's Eve, according to what has become a family tradition, the Obamas staged an after-dinner talent show modelled on television programmes such as American Idol and The X Factor.

Naturally, it hasn't all been plain sailing. Although Mr Obama is personally paying $3,500 (£1,900) a night for his family's accommodation, the right-wing press has made hay with an unconfirmed report in a Hawaiian newspaper suggesting security for the trip will cost the taxpayer more than $1.5m.

On his bedside table

* Our Kind of Traitor: The latest thriller from Britain's master of the spy novel sees a young British couple travel to Antigua on holiday, where games of tennis with a Russian millionaire lead them into a world inhabited by the mobsters and dodgy dealing politicians.

* President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime: At 1,504 pages, the two-volume analysis of the life of the late Republican president is nothing if not comprehensive. One of three books about Reagan authored by the former Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon, The New York Times called it "the best study of that enigmatic presidency".

* The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: Set on a small Japanese island at the beginning of the 18th Century, when the previously isolated nation was just beginning to be exposed to international trade, this novel mixes a love story with a historical portrait of politics and corruption.