Spencer Rendahl: Politics By The Book

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(Host) Books often make political headlines, and a favorite book of
commentator and former journalist Suzanne Spencer Rendahl is a recent

I devour history books like some of my friends devour pints of Ben
& Jerry’s ice cream. Each one adds new flavor to my sense of the
world. And I’m always interested to hear what if any history books
politicians like.

So my ears perked right up when I heard that
on his trip to Israel this summer, Republican Presidential candidate
Mitt Romney mentioned Jared Diamond’s "Guns, Germs and Steel" – one of
my all-time favorite history books – as a major influence on his

"Wow," I thought. "Mitt Romney and I have a book in common."

was more than a decade ago that my best friend from college and fellow
history major loaned me her copy of "Guns, Germs and Steel." In just a
few pages, I realized this was unlike any other book I’d ever read.
Diamond set out to explain why Eurasian societies developed into empire
builders who took over entire continents, easily dominating other
populations. To tackle this ambitious question, he looked at human
history through the lenses of biology, geography, genetics and

Among many other things, Diamond is an evolutionary
physiologist, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for "Guns" in 1998. Though
the book is often categorized as "popular science," I consider it a
history book in a broad sense.

But Mr. Romney said other things in that speech that made me wonder if he had read the book at all.

what became a highly publicized statement, Romney told his audience of
wealthy donors in Jerusalem that Israel has more "economic vitality"
than adjacent areas under the Palestinian authority because, he said,
"culture makes all the difference."

He didn’t mention the fact
that Palestinians live under deep trade restrictions and frequent
border-closures put in place by the Israeli government, both of which
have a direct impact on the Palestinians’ economic well-being.

a few days later, in a New York Times editorial, Diamond took Romney to
task for misrepresenting his views and ignoring the larger history.

as a happy marriage depends on many different factors," Diamond wrote
"so do national wealth and power." He reiterated that geographic
advantages – including latitude, access to the sea, and agricultural
productivity – compounded over time – help states become dominant. And
yes, culture is a big part of the equation, but not the only one.

books can be complex and daunting, but they tend to come in handy for
world leaders. President John F Kennedy kept Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns
of August in mind in his dealings with Nikita Khruschev during the 1962
Cuban Missile Crisis.

So he was well aware of the series of
miscalculations, misunderstandings and simple grandstanding that led to
the senseless bloodbath we call World War I. And when military advisors,
congressional leaders – even his Vice President – urged him to
retaliate, Kennedy instead repeatedly offered Khruschev ways out of the
stalemate and avoided nuclear war.

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