Election Countdown: 206 days
Even though I start each entry in this blog with a countdown to the election, this is not primarily a page about electoral politics — the countdown is more of a brief reminder of an important upcoming event before we pass on to the topic at hand. So I’d prefer not to have two posts in a row dealing with the election, but sometimes when you’re in the midst of a political campaign events are dictated for you.
So before I go on, three promises:
- First, I will try to take an event from the Mexican election and extend it beyond Mexico’s borders, connecting it to other places and events.
- Second, I will try to make a useful, practical suggestion for improving the electoral campaign.
- Third, my next post will deal with something entirely different — I have several arts topics planned.
No doubt just about everyone in Mexico — and many people beyond — have heard by now about Enrique Peña Nieto‘s embarassing performance at recent news conference at the Guadalajara International Book Fair when he fumbled at length, trying (and mostly failing) to find an answer to a question about books that had influenced him.
The most concrete thing he managed to say without error was that he had read “parts of” the Bible. He also ventured that he liked a novel by Enrique Krauze called The Eagle’s Throne (La Silla del Aguila), only to be reminded that it was actually written by Carlos Fuentes.
The response was immediate, and on social media it combined outrage over Nieto’s incompetent answer with humour at his expense. Mexico’s tuiteros (tweeters) used the hashtag
#LibreríaPeñaNeto (“Peña Nieto’s bookstore”) to mark tweets addressing his gaffe.
To his credit, Nieto tried to recover with outward good humour, tweeting “I am reading your tweets about my mistake yesterday, some are very critical, some are even funny. I thank everyone. Let’s continue working for Mexico.”
Things reached a new low, however, when Nieto’s 16 year old daughter retweeted a nasty — an transparently elitist — tweet from her boyfriend, reading “Greetings to that bunch of idiots who form part of the proletariat and only criticize those they envy.”
To be fair, Nieto can’t be held responsible for his teenage daughter’s Twitter habits — if he were, and if that rule were applied to all of us, there would be some very mortified parents out there.
More to the point, Nieto isn’t alone among political leaders and candidates who have a troubled relationship with books. Lets do a quick survey of the rest of North America.
The current U.S. President, Barack Obama, fares pretty well, being an author several times over of well respected books that, by all accounts, he actually wrote himself.
President George W. Bush, on the other hand, had his memoirs ghost-written by someone more capable of strucuting a sentence. In a moment that was a public relations disaster and betrayed a lack of leadership skills, he also infamously sat reading a children’s book, The Pet Goat, to a class of students for several minutes after being informed of the attacks on the World Trade Center. If you wonder about his understanding of issues like education and literacy and look up what he’s said about them, you find cryptic statements like “You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.” (Townsend, Tenn., Feb. 21, 2001)
Texas Governor Rick Perry, currently trying to become the Republican presidential candidate in the United States, has written a book so badly executed that it’s hard to believe an editor ever saw it before it was published, and he’s reported to be reading a book which advocates converting all the Jews and Muslims in the United States to Christianity as a cure for society’s ills. He has also written that that climate change is a “contrived, phony mess,” that the creation of a federal income tax scheme was a “great milestone on the road to serfdom,” and that the Boy Scouts of America are under attack by “a radical homosexual movement.”
Finally, to round out the North American picture — and to get to my suggestion — let’s take a quick look at Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper. I don’t know of a major literary gaffe he’s made (if you know of one, email me), and even his detractors don’t tend to accuse him of being stupid or illiterate (although they do accuse him of being contemptuous of the arts).
Even so, Harper’s public relationship to books is not as harmonious as that of, say, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who had a reputation as an intellectual, who was a founder and editor of an influential political journal called Cité Libre, and whose memoir was one of the most successful Canadian books ever published.
Harper has a restless energy, which is apparently focussed almost exclusively on bringing a Reagan/Bush-style conservative revolution to Canada. Author Yann Martel, who among other things has a Man Booker Prize to his credit, decided that Harper needed more “stillness” in his life.
Martel decided to help the Prime Minister out. Beginning in 2007, Martel sent Harper a new book every two weeks that would help him achieve that stillness, accompanied by a personal letter. The books range from Book Number 1: The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy to Book Number 101: In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, in a six-volume box set. The entire enterprise is recorded on a web site called What is Stephen Harper Reading? and the first 50 letters are available as a book.
So, on to my suggestion. Enrique Peña Nieto claims to be willing to listen to people who wish to comment on his candidacy. He also claims to actually read what is written about him. I propose that in addition to tweeting, Mexican voters communicate more directly with him on the subject of books by sending him some. It would establish an interesting interchange between the candidate and the people if voters were to start a campaign similar to Martel’s. Let’s start a real Librería Peña Neto.
To be clear, I mean a campaign that is less ironic than Martel’s. Martel is clearly aware that the Canadian Prime Minister is not reading the books he sends and his project is really about communicating with other Canadians about the Prime Minsister. I am talking about something more direct and sincere.
What book do you think should have come to mind for the candidate at the book fair? In your opinion, what book should he read in order to be a good president? Got your answer? Now go out, get a copy (I’m sure he won’t mind a used one if you don’t have a lot of money), and send it to him.
Or maybe you think one of the other candidates is more in need of the wisdom of your favourite book. I’ve focused on the Mr. Peña Neto because he’s in the lead and is the most likely of the candidates to become the next president, but my suggestion is intended to be non-partisan so there’s no need to limit your contributions to him.
If you do send a candidate a book, write me with the details. I’ll post an update if anyone takes up my suggestioon.