Throwback Thursday: What’s your favorite book?

This week’s offering dives deep into the campaign question that you’re sure to hear in the next year, one that can seem inane or insightful depending on your tolerance for the presidential horse race. In our April 2003 issue, Brent Kendall looked back at the history of candidates being asked for their reading lists and the real effects their answers can have. It can seem like there’s no right answer — pick one that’s too intellectual and you’ll be an elitist phony, pick one too rudimentary and you don’t have the smarts to lead. Is honesty the best policy? Kendall writes:

Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey took the opposite approach, tackling the book question headfirst when he sought the 1992 Democratic nomination. Kerrey readily offered that his favorite book was Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, a novel that depicted the aimless existence of a soldier-turned-stockbroker named Binx Bolling. His answer may have revealed too much. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd pounced, claiming Kerrey’s confession would worry voters, given that Percy’s work was an “anthem of alienation” about a war veteran “out of touch with the rest of America.” As The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert later put it, with 20/20 hindsight, “Here was a man proposing himself as the next leader of the free world while apparently identifying with a character who, to all outward appearances, seems to have completely lost his sense of direction.” Ouch.

Kerrey holds no grudge against the press for engaging in such psychoanalysis. In fact, he says, there was some truth to it. His advice to the current candidates? Be authentic, but be prepared. “If you don’t want to think about your answer ahead of time … don’t run for president. Because it’s part of what you have to do,” Kerrey told me. “No candidate is going to be successful by being themselves.”

For a look at more answers, you can read the whole thing right here.

Matt Connolly

Matt Connolly is digital managing editor of the Washington Monthly.