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Spencer Rendahl: Politics By The Book

08/29/12 5:55PM By Suzanne Spencer Rendahl
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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 example.

(Spencer) 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 thinking.

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

It 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 linguistics.

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.

In 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.

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

"Just 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.

History 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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