Twain to Goldwater to Manchester: Books That Have Influenced Congressmen

The books that have had the greatest impact on the lives of Republican members of Congress range from Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, which inspired a future Vietnam War P.O.W. when he was a boy, to biographies of a British Christian who fought the slave trade, which inspired a senator in his battles for the pro-life cause, to a management book that inspired a new senator to ask for the resignation of her entire staff.

This is what HUMAN EVENTS learned when it asked some members which book had the greatest impact on them. (More than half instantly said the Bible had influenced them the most. We then asked them if they could also name a non-religious book.)

Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) has just published his own latest book, Character is Destiny: True Stories Every Child Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember, co-authored with Mark Salter. McCain remembers that he was inspired as a boy by Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.

“The hero, Robert Jordan, is everything I wanted to be in my life,” said McCain, who later served as a Navy pilot in Vietnam and was taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese.

Conscience of a Conservative

Sen. Sam Brownback (R.-Kan.) said biographies of British abolitionist William Wilberforce have impacted his thinking. An evangelical Christian, Wilberforce was known as the “Renewer of Society” for the role he took in Parliament in fighting the slave trade.

“I’ve read two biographies on Wilberforce and both of them have had an impact, just because it was a study of his life,” Brownback said. “I think he faced in England some of the similar issues that we face here—a culture that needed renewal, the end of the slave trade. And I really think we need to end the killing of our babies. So, that would probably be one of them that have had the most influence on me.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R.-Alaska) said the book that had the greatest impact on her was Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t by Jim Collins. After she read it, she said, she was inspired to request the resignation of her entire Senate staff shortly after taking office in 2004.

“I read this as I was on holiday, just after I had gotten elected,” said Murkowski. “It is a management book and I don’t read management books but this absolutely captivated me about having, what they described, the right people on the bus, the right people working for you and sitting on the right spot on the bus to help make a difference. And it was one of those revelations that, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t have the right people on the bus and I have people sitting on the bus that are sitting in the wrong spot and as a consequence other people are having to do more work to help even things out.’ It was something that I literally got back from my vacation, called the whole staff in, asked for everybody’s resignation.”

“Believe me,” she added, “word got around on the Hill that something had knocked Lisa loose because that’s just not done here on the Hill. I went through and really asked people what it is they thought they wanted to do with their life and why was it with me. It was very, very difficult because there were some people who were very loyal. But you know, they weren’t entirely happy where they were and I wasn’t entirely happy with them being with me and…it was one of those things where I’ve had conversations with some of those people who weren’t asked to get back on the bus with me who said, ‘You know, leaving was the best thing I’ve done. You kind of kicked me out of my comfort zone. You pushed me out. I’m now doing something that I’m loving. I’m excited about it.’ But it was very difficult, very scary. Talk about changing your life reading a book.”

While not all personal ties to books were as dramatic, others were able to name books that have impacted their political careers as well.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R.-Ariz.) said Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative has shaped his service in Congress the most because “politically, that’s the tops.”

“He outlines what a real conservative is,” said Flake. “And, really it formed the basis of my campaign platform, when he talks about, ‘My aim is not to streamline government or make it more efficient for I mean to reduce its size.’”

Said Flake: “It’s just great stuff. Nothing better.”

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R.-Tex.) said she is especially partial to biographies of great leaders. “What I love are the biographies,” she said. “That’s actually what inspired me as a young girl—reading the biographies of the elementary school library—because [they] profiled people who had overcome hardships. The biographies we had when we were little were just the Founding Fathers like Jefferson and Adams and Franklin. But the ones I’ve loved in adulthood are The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt [by Edmund Morris], and John Adams, and Ben Franklin. The ones that have been the best sellers lately, I really enjoy.”

Sen. Craig Thomas (R.-Wyo.) said former President Ronald Reagan’s autobiography is at the top of his list. When asked for an explanation he said: “It was about his presidency and about his stand and mostly his views on government. And I think that, especially the little task I’m in now, it probably had more impact on me than any I can recall.”

Aside from religious books, Sen. Bob Bennett (R.-Utah) said he enjoys reading political tracks such as “Federalist No. 10” by James Madison.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.) mentioned a book he read recently that he believes pertains to his role in Congress. “What I just read is pretty important to what I do up here: The World is Flat. I think that’s pretty important,” said DeMint. Written by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, argues that globalization will be the defining force of the coming century.

After naming the Bible, Sen. Trent Lott (R.-Miss.) did a little good-humored self-promotion when he named as his favor book Herding Cats: A Life in Politics. “Which I wrote myself and it just came out,” said Lott.

While he enjoys reading Mark Twain’s Roughing It, Sen. George Allen (R.-Va.) said that for leadership and direction he turns to Stephen R. Covey’s Principle-Centered Leadership.

The Last Lion

Some members of Congress struggled to come up with a book off the top of their heads. But Sen. John Thune (R.-S.C.) had no such problem.

“I really like William Manchester’s books on Winston Churchill,” he said. “I just read the one covering the period from 1932 to 1940.” [The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone 1932-1940.] His life is very inspiring to me. I think he had a profound courage when it comes to a politician who had to lead his nation during tumultuous times. I’ve loved and read a lot of Chuck Colson’s works over the years. I’m kind of a big fan of his. He had a book called How Now Shall We Live, and that one was very good. I enjoyed reading the book on John Adams by David McCullough. So those have been really good. Those are fascinating reads. Kind of an inside-the-locker-room look at the Founding Fathers and how the nation came into existence.”

“Those are just a couple off the top of my head I guess,” said Thune. “If I gave it some thought I might have a different answer.”

Thune wasn’t the only senator who had trouble narrowing his top pick to just one book.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah) couldn’t name a specific book outside the religious sector. “Now if you get beyond religious books,” he said, “I’d had have to say that there are so many that have had great impacts on my life, it’s hard to pick any one out. But, I’d just have to say the Scriptures. Those are more important to me than anything else.”

Sen. Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.), who has been waging battles on the Senate floor to stop pork barrel spending, cited Peter G. Peterson’s Running On Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It.

When asked to name the book that had the greatest impact on her, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y) said: “Oh I can’t answer that question on the fly like this,” she said. “If you are trying to do a survey, or a study like that, why don’t you call my office and we’ll get back to you.”