Lawmakers choose a little light reading after hours

During the tense months of President Clinton’s impeachment trial, no senator was without a copy of Grand Inquests, by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Just after his reelection, President Bush threw an ideological curveball by publicly praising an Israeli author whose position on the Palestinian conflict clashed with the White House.

Now, with Congress facing one of its busiest seasons in years, lawmakers’ reading choices suggest two chambers extremely eager to learn from history.

“I’m reading the biography of Henry Jackson, the legendary Democratic senator from Washington state also known as ‘Scoop,’” said Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.). “He was very bright, but the most boring person I’ve ever read a biography of.”

Unlike many members, who are less likely to pick up a New York Times best seller than to read a dense Joint Committee on Taxation binder, Feeney is a voracious book reader. He estimates that he finishes six to eight books a month, sometimes tackling them two at a time. Another recent purchase was The White House Years, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s account of his time with President Nixon.

“I rarely read fiction. If I do, it tends to be classics: Dickens, Dostoevsky,” Feeney said. “I’m sure I’d read a John Grisham novel, but I’m more likely to read an economics textbook.” Among his favorite recent reads are The Pentagon’s New Map, by U.S. Naval War College professor Thomas Barnett, and the alarmingly subtitled Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, by conservative British historian Niall Ferguson.

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) demonstrates a similar penchant for authors who share his ideological bent. Dodd is in the thick of a book by Irish Democratic politician Maurice Manning, who also headed his country’s human-rights commission.

Dodd could not recall whether his Manning book was The Blueshirts, about a pseudo-fascist subgroup in the Irish Republican Army, or Manning’s more staid biography of Irish parliamentarian James Dillon. “If I remembered the title, I’d tell you,” Dodd said.

Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) had no such trouble recalling his favorite title. “Sports Illustrated,” he said. “We have that [at home], but I don’t know if it’s fiction.” Allen is elated over the start of football season: “If you want a distraction from all this, it’s football.”

And for Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), it’s thrillers. Roberts just finished Robin Cook’s medical potboiler Marker, and he wound through its circuitous plot with the eagerness of a true novel junkie.

“It’s about a big insurance company figuring out what people have a predilection for through human-genome markers,” Roberts said. “They end up with a bunch of relatively young people who went in for routine operations who end up dead, who had markers in their genes for maladies that, to insure, would be very expensive.”

Marker also features crackling tension between pretty medical examiner Laurie Montgomery and the mysterious Jack Stapleton, according to published reviews, but Roberts was far more interested in the health-insurance element while devouring the book on a recent flight.

“I usually read on the airplane,” like many other far-flung lawmakers, Roberts said. “If I get to Kansas and I’ve done my homework for the next day, I usually read a book. I can manage about 30 pages before I get to sleep,” he added with a rueful chuckle.

Some members favor books that speak to their heritage over books that speak to their partisan affiliations. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) gave a rave review of How the Scots Invented the Modern World, an accessible history of Burns’s ancestors written by Arthur Herman, a historian of the Enlightenment.

“It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read,” Burns said. “We see things today in this country without truly understanding their Scottish influence. We don’t know where we’re going until we know where we’ve been.”

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has singled out Leon Uris’s Trinity and Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage as favorite tomes, which puts him in bipartisan company with Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who is also an Ambrose fan.

“He was a guy who could write historical nonfiction, but it reads like a novel,” Shuster said, taking a moment to mourn Ambrose’s premature death in 2002. Other titles on Shuster’s list follow the congressional norm, mixing books fellow Republicans have praised with books fellow Republicans have written.

“Over break I read Natan Sharansky’s A Case For Democracy,” Shuster said, the same book that hooked Bush late last year. “And [Rep.] Curt Weldon’s [R-Pa.] book,” the title of which Shuster could not recall, though “it’s sitting on my table every day.”

Weldon’s book, Countdown to Terror, sits squarely in 6,298th place on Amazon.com’s sales chart.

“You can’t escape that we live in a nonfiction world,” Shuster said, echoing Burns’s defense of the congressional preference for historical and ideological tomes over novels. “We’ve got to deal with the realities of today. … The last time I read fiction was the last time I read The New York Times.”

Kerry is one of 28 sitting senators who have moonlighted as authors at some point in their careers. A select few have had best sellers, with Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) memoir Dreams From My Father selling like hotcakes in recent months, while others have made less of a splash (don’t look for Sen. Sam Brownback’s (R-Kan.) Kansas Agricultural Law, Second Edition, at any local Borders because it’s no longer in print).

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has confined his published work to reprints of law articles written while he served as attorney general of Texas. Cornyn keeps track of his latest book choices on a “big, long list next to the bed,” he said, at the top of which is The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America.

Cornyn’s reading habits could turn out to shed quite a light on the direction of his party’s international agenda, as The Persian Puzzle was written by Kenneth Pollack, a former National Security Council adviser whose previous work on Iraq helped convince many fence-sitting Democrats to support toppling Saddam Hussein.

Cornyn is also clued in to the member trend of reading colleagues’ recent releases.

“I just finished Trent Lott’s Herding Cats,” he said. “It was surprisingly well-written.” Lott’s book briefly made waves on the Hill for Lott’s unapologetic prose accusing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) of abandoning him during the crisis that led to his resignation from leadership.