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10 Leaders in Business, Politics and Arts Share Their Favorite Books of 2019 – The Wall Street Journal



Flea, Zadie Smith and Robert Iger

Each year we ask more than 50 leaders and luminaries from literature, business, politics and the arts to name the best books they’ve read during the year. You could spend all day reading the full list—and all year reading the books.

Robert Iger

Ta-Nehisi Coates has become one of my favorite authors—he also writes the “Black Panther” comics—and his searing debut novel, “The Water Dancer,” will stay with me forever. I’m fortunate to work with some supremely talented writers and I certainly appreciate the immense power their stories have to develop empathy and an appreciation for the human condition. Our world needs great storytellers to teach us, to enlighten us and to open our minds to our differences. “The Water Dancer” is such a story and solidifies Mr. Coates as one of our great storytellers. The historian Yuval Noah Harari’s profound books have allowed me to consider the state of our world through the prism of the past. But in “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” Mr. Harari uses history to explore what our future may hold—and makes the case that we should not be afraid of change or disruption, but should rather embrace its inevitability and use it to move us forward. In a business as dynamic as ours, this is a vital lesson.

— Mr. Iger is the CEO of the Walt Disney Co. and the author of “The Ride of a Lifetime.”

Téa Obreht

In preparation for 2019 I found it necessary to break my lifelong habit of reading at bedtime. (It had grown troublesome as I became someone who works way too late and doesn’t realize she’s drifted off, then half-dreams her way through intricate plots at the disastrous pace of one chapter a night.) The rewards have been glorious: My afternoons were spent with Kathleen Alcott’s daringly inventive “America Was Hard to Find” and Karen Russell’s wild and wonderful “Orange World” and Lauren Wilkinson’s genre-bending “American Spy.” I was blown away, too, by

Salvatore Scibona’s

“The Volunteer,” which might be the first book I’ve ever read whose beginning made me cry. It starts with a tiny, desperate boy found at the Hamburg airport speaking an unknown language, and leads us from Latvia to Vietnam, New Mexico and Cambodia, through lifetimes and family myths, memories, upheavals and betrayals of mind and body.

— Ms. Obreht is the author of “Inland.”

Marc Benioff

This year, three extraordinary leaders remind us that we can all be a platform for change. In “The Ride of a Lifetime,” Robert Iger chronicles his amazing career—including his 15 years leading Disney. I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes stories illustrating key moments that shaped Disney’s history and Bob’s 45-year career. His “Lessons to Lead By” will help everyone, from new hires to chief executives. My good friend David Rubenstein brings us “The American Story,” applying his incredible interviewing skills to draw out deep insights from our nation’s top presidential historians. David’s book shows us how the past informs our understanding of the present and can shape our future. Roger McNamee’s “Zucked” captures the disastrous consequences of one of our most powerful companies not making trust its No. 1 value. Every page is a reminder that businesses can do more than make a profit; it should be a corporate responsibility to serve stakeholders as well as shareholders and improve the state of the world.

— Mr. Benioff is chairman and co-CEO of Salesforce and co-author, with Monica Langley, of “Trailblazer: The Power of Business as the Greatest Platform for Change.”

Zadie Smith

I reread “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison and reremembered it’s a masterpiece. I read “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” by

Shoshana Zuboff

and “Re-engineering Humanity” by Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger and wished everyone would read both before the re-engineering is total. I read “Potiki” by the Maori author Patricia Grace and thought she should get the Nobel. I read “Voices From Chernobyl” by Svetlana Alexievich and was glad she already has one. I read “Fleishman Is in Trouble” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner on a plane to Australia: I laughed and cried. The flight was so long I also read “A Month in Siena” by Hisham Matar. Everybody should get to spend a month with Mr. Matar, looking at paintings. I read “Black Lives: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition 1900,” edited by Julian Rothenstein, and felt thankful for Du Bois. I read “The Politics of Pain: Postwar England and the Rise of Nationalism” by Fintan O’Toole and wished I’d written it. I read “The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes”—that 16th-century servant who revealed the corruption of all masters—and marveled at how a long-departed consciousness could still feel present. I read “Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing” and wished that particular consciousness had not departed. I read “Out of Darkness, Shining Light” by Petina Gappah and “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang and felt delighted by fiction. I read “Feel Free” by Nick Laird and felt lucky to have a poet in the house.

— Ms. Smith is the author of “Grand Union.”

HR McMaster

It is difficult to overstate the threat from a nuclear-armed North Korea. Not only as a direct threat to humanity, but also because a nuclear-armed North Korea would lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. If

Kim Jong Un

gets them, who doesn’t? The Kim family has never built a weapon it did not try to sell. As North Korea’s third-generation dictator threatens a “Christmas present” if the U.S. doesn’t accede to his latest demands, we would do well to understand better the emotions, ideology and worldview that drive and constrain his behavior. A great starting point is Anna Fifield’s “The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un.” The book is impeccably researched. The prose is lively. Ms. Fifield writes with wit and dark humor about a murderous and increasingly dangerous dictator. Through first- and secondhand accounts, she fills in the gaps of Mr. Kim’s life to paint a less-unfinished portrait of the man. He is smarter and more calculating than anyone gives him credit for, securing power by ramping up the nuclear and missile programs started by his predecessors. This book provides a valuable perspective on this formidable adversary and one of our most vexing foreign-policy challenges.

— Mr. McMaster is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Susan Packard

As I turned the final pages of Patti Callahan’s novel “Becoming Mrs. Lewis,” I couldn’t believe the two main characters had only known each other for a decade. The victim of an abusive husband, Joy Davidman flees America with her two small sons and sets up life in England. She becomes a writer and takes the chance to correspond with

C.S. Lewis,

author of the “Chronicles of Narnia” novels. Davidman wants to know more about Lewis’s conversion to Christianity from atheism. She, too, is a convert, from Judaism. Lewis writes her back, and the two become friends. Over the decade of their fierce and growing love, Davidman’s spirit and self-worth grow: “It wasn’t until England I saw who I could be: a brilliant light, cherished for who I was.” Her love in turn transforms Lewis from a man living only in his intellect. “Logic takes no account for the heart,” she tells Lewis. “How can you tell a heart what to do?” She opens him up to the grace of living fully and vulnerably, and changes this brilliant writer forever.

— Ms. Packard is a co-founder of HGTV and the author of “Fully Human.”

Andrew Yang

Artificial intelligence and other new technologies have the potential to change our economy and society in unpredictable ways. Even techies don’t know what’s going to happen. Kai-Fu Lee’s “AI Superpowers” recognizes the power that will come from these technologies and the dangers of falling behind other countries, especially China. The book has shown itself to be particularly relevant and prescient. Few observers, even two or three years ago, could have predicted the current state of U.S.-China relations. The U.S. needs to invest in these areas to catch up, while also bringing the world together in an organization like the WTO for data.

— Mr. Yang is the founder of Venture for America and a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate


Despite my dismay around the dystopian takeover of science fiction and the loss of hope, optimism and fascination that buoyed my Ray Bradbury childhood, I set my petty whining aside to tell you that Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” is a stunner. It’s a terrifying vision of a dismal future brought on by the willful ignorance, racism and greed of human beings, and an eerily dangerous parallel to our present path. Ms. Butler gives us a satisfying protagonist in the hypersensitive teenager Lauren, whose courage and wits are an infinite source of inspiration. Paulette Jiles’s “News of the World” is the only book I’ve read that caused me to yell out loud in the solitude of my bedroom. Young Johanna, displaced by the wildly shifting world around her, shows courage and spiritual depth beyond her years and filled my heart with purpose. It’s a history book and the most profound love story between Johanna and an elderly man named Capt. Kidd. Toni Morrison’s “Sula,” the first book I read together with my then-fiancée in our two-person book club, is an absolute epic. Love and yearning, pathos and racism, a deep friendship connection forged in secret trauma, it was the last Morrison book I read before her passing and must be held in the highest esteem.

— Flea plays bass for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and is the author of “Acid for the Children.”

Twyla Tharp

Three books recently gave me hope that consensus can be reached in our radically divided culture, emphasizing the optimism and courage to be had when we debate our differences. John Sexton’s “Standing for Reason” demonstrates the commitment needed from adults to support the development of knowledgeable and inquisitive young thinkers. Mr. Sexton, a former president of New York University, insists on the power of logic in dialogue to weld the silos of a large urban university into one force. It can be done. In “A Month in Siena,” Hisham Matar’s study of paintings found in this Italian city help transform the brutal loss of his father into a rebirth of faith. The iconography of three Sienese painters gives Mr. Matar his metaphor. In the first half of the 14th century, Ambrogio Lorenzetti portrayed a democratic Siena ruled through individual civic responsibility. In the latter half of that century, following the Plague, Bartolo Battiloro showed Siena’s community spirit deteriorating; its collective guilt and terror made the city susceptible to a hegemonic ruler. Then a century after the plague, Giovanni di Paolo represented individuals once again capable of communicating directly, without intermediaries, in a work appropriately titled “Paradise.” Józef Czapski’s “Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp” is just that. Czapski, a Polish officer, was captured during World War II and taken to a Russian hard-labor camp. At the end of each harsh day, the prisoners maintained their sanity by giving one another lectures on the subjects they knew best. As there were no written documents allowed, these recitations were entirely from memory. Czapski’s almost literal recall of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” is incredible in its detail; yet even more impressive is his insistence that we can maintain humanity through communication with one another. May we all so triumph in the New Year.

— Ms. Tharp is a choreographer and the author of “Keep It Moving.”

Will Hurd

In “American Carnage,” Tim Alberta explains why our political system is where it is. He illuminates how trends like a widening chasm in incomes, a shredded national identity and a dissipating sense of societal cohesiveness have blurred together into an expression of outrage and how politicians have responded to these changes. He details how “elections in modern America are won principally by mobilizing the base, not persuading the middle.” This is dangerous: The only way we have solved problems in this country is by working together. “American Carnage” helps us understand how and why we’ve forgotten the basic truth that way more unites us than divides us.

— Mr. Hurd is a congressman from Texas.

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Plenty of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are obsessed with U.S. politics, Donald Trump – The Telegram



ST. JOHN’S, N.L. —

Rosie Mullaley

The Telegram



Even as Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball announces he’s quitting, it seems nothing gets people in this province more riled up than politics south of the border.

“There’s nothing like American politics. I’m obsessed with it,” Kenny Hanlon of St. John’s told The Telegram.

“I can’t help but to look and see what (United States President Donald) Trump is up to. My girlfriend makes fun of me because that’s all I watch (on TV).”

Hanlon’s not alone. It seems the mere mention of Trump in conversation or on social media can spur emotional responses and strong opinions. Many wonder how the outlandish, Twitter-loving, wall-building, near-impeached multimillionaire businessman is fit enough to run a reality show let alone the world’s most powerful nation.

“Everyone knows he’s a crazy lunatic,” Hanlon said.

“But we all watch because I think it’s the fact that he’s such a liar and gets away with so much. I mean, the man should be in jail. So many people went to jail because of him, but he walks away unscathed.”

Love him or hate him, people just can’t turn away.

“I think many of us are afraid the far-right sentiment will spread to us,” Bob Symonds of Conception Bay South said. “I think we hate him and want to see him fall.”

Symonds keeps up on Trump, but he’s certainly not a fan.

“I keep hoping he falls into a wood chipper,” he said jokingly.

Symonds’ distaste of Trump is so strong, he said he doubts he will ever go to the U.S. again.

“For 50 years, I’ve been hearing about the greatest constitution and the three equal branches of government, but this idiot pissed on all of that. Their country will never be the same.”

Donna Bonnell of St. John’s is still shocked Trump was elected president, given his reputation with women and after he made fun of a disabled journalist.

“How did any female in the United States vote him in?” she said. “Still puzzles me, but I’m not convinced it won’t happen again.

“I think the United States deserves better.”

Jamie Pretty of Blaketown has a different view of Trump. He believes the American president has done great things for his country.

“What he might say from time to time makes him look bad, but you know what? None of us are perfect,” he said.

“I’d vote for him if I could. … I don’t base my opinion on what I read or hear. I base it on action.”

Pretty credits Trump with having strengthened the U.S. economy, with the country having the lowest unemployment rate (to 3.6 per cent) it’s seen in decades.

“Numbers never lie,” Pretty said. “As far as I can see, he’s looking after the middle class, the backbone of any country.”

Scott Matthews, associate professor of political science at Memorial University, where he specializes in American politics, said while U.S. presidents generally are seen as global celebrities, Trump stands out.

“He really is a very unusual figure as a U.S. president in all the obvious ways. The way he comports himself is very remarkable,” Matthews said. “He’s violating all the expectations of how a president is supposed to behave and sound.”

Matthews said Trump represents something quite distinctive in American politics, with a resistance to elite politics that is perceived as anti-establishment and a reflection of a global concern regarding immigration.

Another significant point about Trump, he said, is the way he’s threatening to change American democracy in ways that are concerning. He noted how Trump recently used his presidential pardon power to grant clemency to 11 individuals, inserting himself into justice matters.

“This goes to the core of a very important democratic principle, which is the rule of law,” Matthews said. “Everyone is subject to the law on equal terms, and when the president intervenes in a way that seems to be rewarding or favouring people … that offends the principle of the rule of law very directly.

“That’s an example of the really extraordinary behaviour that’s unprecedented in modern democracy.”

Matthews pointed out that the American media’s obsession with Trump has played a big role in spurring emotional engagement. He added that seeing a president often behave so irrationally and stray from political norms concerns many people in this province.

“(Trump) really is doing some shocking things,” said Matthews, who added that he offends Canadians, who value democratic principles.

“We have good reason to be (concerned), given our economic relationship and our many shared cultural elements. Many Canadians are fearful of consequences of having someone like Trump in the White House and it’s not an unreasonable position to have. … He makes things uncertain for us.”

Matthews said while Canadian politics may not seem as entertaining or as sexy as American politics, there are issues in this country worth being interested in, such as the protests over the natural gas pipeline in British Columbia.

“It’s hard to look to away (from U.S. politics),” Matthews acknowledged, “but I think sometimes we should.”

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Amy Klobuchar Embodies the Politics of No – Slate



Amy Klobuchar speaks into the microphone at a campaign event.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) speaks during a get out the vote event at Dartmouth College on February 8, 2020 in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

A curious thing happens when you search among Senator Amy Klobuchar’s supporters for the positive case for her candidacy for president: there doesn’t seem to be one. New recruits to a campaign sometimes register something like the zeal of the convert—a passionate rationale for their choice now that they’ve finally decided. And there are, to be sure, some Klobuchar mega-fans. “She’s everything that I’ve been hoping for in a candidate,” one supporter who teared up after meeting Klobuchar told The New Yorker, “and I haven’t been able to say that in a really long time. And she’s a woman, and she’s so nice.” But by and large, voters who switched to Klobuchar from another candidate in New Hampshire were uniquely poor at explaining why their allegiance shifted. Take this Nevada resident, a former Warren voter, who told CNN “We weren’t really considering her. We were firmly with Elizabeth Warren. (New Hampshire) changed our mind.” This isn’t an explanation, it’s a reassertion. (This interview happened before Warren’s blistering debate performance.) Even when explanations for Klobuchar do materialize, they tend to be relational rather than substantive. Another voter, asked why she supported Klobuchar, gave what CNN called “one key reason:” “she is still viable.”

These aren’t especially inspiring arguments. They’re barely arguments at all. That seems to be the point: the senator appeals to those who claim to value pragmatism over passion. This position has its merits—Klobuchar won 19.8 percent of the vote in New Hampshire—but given how much we all rationalize our preferences, the lack of defense is odd. Many voters who’ve recently tuned in to the election seem to be turning to Klobuchar not out of any positive attraction, but out of a very American distaste for what they see as the extremity or bellicosity of the rest. In a column ostensibly championing her at the Daily Beast, Matt Lewis called her “the Goldilocks candidate,” a phrase one can read as either the perfect compromise or a sagging embrace of averages. Lewis’ argument would seem to tilt toward the “tepid porridge” reading: “She’s young, but not too young. She’s philosophically moderate (for today’s Democratic Party), but won’t lose progressives.” This last seems unlikely, especially given her lack of support among minorities, but the column as a whole reflects a broader tendency to describe Klobuchar as the solution to a logic problem.

This is largely the candidate’s doing. It’s unjust to say Klobuchar has no plans—she does, and the New York Times editorial board laid them out in their endorsement of her—but her supporters, the pundit class, and the senator herself have framed her campaign as the Not-That candidate. She’s not a man, she’s not a socialist, she’s not a New Yorker, she’s not gay, she’s definitely not a firebrand or a reformer or a visionary. She has no online army—two subreddits dedicated to her campaign have fewer than 1,000 members each. She’s not Hillary and she’s not AOC. She’s not Bernie and she’s not Warren. She not rich and she’s not poor. She’s not legible as a “wife” or “mother” in ways that can hurt female candidates who seem too feminine or nurturing. Nor can she be slotted into the Tracy Flick or Lisa Simpson tropes that so often plague political women: She’s not a try-hard. Yes, she shared that her Spanish name was “Elena,” but she also forgot the name of the president of Mexico. (This last may ironically have saved her: We don’t really have a category for a less-than-perfectly-prepared Tracy Flick.) She’s not funny (sorry) but she’s not humorless. She’s not a political novice but she’s also not D.C. She does have proposals, but those proposals largely reflect her strategy to run on a “politics of no”—mainly to reject her opponents’ ideas. No Medicare for All, no pandering. And though she’s also a moderate Midwesterner, she’s also tried to make it clear that she’s not Pete. And of course, she’s not Trump.

Can an appetite for compromise with Republicans, among Democrats, win a presidential election against Republicans’ insatiable appetite for power? Klobuchar’s theory seems to be that it can: that the polarization of the United States is overstated and that there’s a middle ground to recapture, powered by distaste for the other options on offer. “If you are tired of the extremes in our politics, of the noise and the nonsense, you have a home with me,” Klobuchar said in New Hampshire. If there’s a base out there with a passion for political compromise, she’ll find it. She’s pinned her case on electability, her “Real American” authenticity as someone from a state that doesn’t touch a coast, and her history of winning elections and passing bipartisan bills. To say this isn’t exactly an attention-grabber is putting it mildly; even columns that are explicitly about Klobuchar frequently drift off into analysis of her opponents. An op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times titled “Amy Klobuchar—the Democrats’ only hope” mentions the senator in question a grand total of three times, and only at the very end. Here’s the case it makes for her in full: “Amy Klobuchar is rumored to be tough on her staff. That’s it. She’s a solid, midwestern senator who wins in her home state by double-digit margins. She’s sane and centrist. And she’s the Democratic Party’s only hope.”

It’s a little unfashionable, in this political environment, to suggest that compromise can amount to a win-win—we’ve all gotten used to zero-sum thinking—but Klobuchar isn’t remotely worried about being fashionable. Some of her supporters in the wild have found this not just persuasive but legible as an actual campaign promise. Perhaps her ability to compromise could translate to an ability to heal. “She’s honest, super smart, hard working, down to earth. I live in MN and she actually does reach out to everyone. She’s been ahead on issues like environment, healthcare, was the first to go up against pharma years ago. Amazing energy level, gets things done. She’s not a divider,” one person wrote on Twitter when asked why they supported her. “3 My Senator is smart; quick on her feet; an experienced stateswoman but able to connect to the average person. She is caring but tough; confident but flexible; and wise enough to choose a good team. Most importantly she is the only one I feel that can heal our divided country,” Tweeted another.

It’s hard to square these sunny assessments of the senator’s capacity for compassion and rift-mending with reporting that shows that she has been cruel and even abusive to her staff. This hasn’t seemed to matter much to voters; virtually every endorsement she’s received praises her empathy. The New York Times Editorial Board handwaved their own reporting on this issue away, noting that it “gives us pause” but that Klobuchar “pledged to do better.” “To be fair,” they added, “Bill Clinton and Mr. Trump — not to mention former Vice President Biden — also have reputations for sometimes berating their staffs, and it is rarely mentioned as a political liability.” This is anti-aspirational rhetoric, more or less of a piece with other aspects of a compromise candidacy: the message seems to be why bother aiming higher, laced with a slim hope that an established politician might change, and a gesture at sexism to cover up the hall pass they’re granting.

Klobuchar’s recent debate performance make it harder to filter out claims that she takes things too personally and misdirects her rage. The senator took some criticism (over her failure to name the president of Mexico and mistakes made as a prosecutor) well enough during the Democratic debate Tuesday night. (She was certainly more controlled than Sanders, for instance, whose anger at Bloomberg’s cheap shot about Communism was justified but almost medically concerning in its intensity). But as the questions wore on, her amiability became more strained until her responses devolved into petty sniping at her favorite target, Pete Buttigieg. This was probably at least somewhat strategic. Attacking Pete has historically worked for the senator; after her victory in New Hampshire, my colleague Will Saletan described how Klobuchar’s deliberate (and repeated) misrepresentation of something Buttigieg said about the Senate impeachment trial helped save her campaign. Klobuchar’s animosity toward Buttigieg is obvious: They’re both vying for the same middle-lane voters and she seems to especially resent the ex-mayor, whose experience pales next to her own. But on that debate stage, Klobuchar wasn’t, as her recent San Francisco Chronicle endorsement would have it, ”a listener with a wickedly quick sense of humor that can make her point effectively and with civility.” Her attacks weren’t pointed or astute or rhetorically lethal; they were childish and ineffective. “Are you trying to say I’m dumb? — are you mocking me, Pete?” she said at one point, her voice seeming to crack slightly. And rather than respond to Buttigieg’s charge that she voted to make English the national language, she said “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete.” This was hardly gladiatorial conduct (despite Klobuchar’s repeated references to her experience “in the arena”). In fact, what it drove home was her understanding of what the “arena” requires: not perfection but an emphasis on “getting things done” that requires detachment from anything like a strong and unyielding stance.

Whether compromise is the same as healing is still an open question. So is whether a candidacy that has leveraged the negative space of the electoral field can flip into the foreground. So far, the results of a Not-That candidacy seem mixed. Yes, Klobuchar picked up a few delegates, and keeps getting endorsements. But even the pundits championing her seem unable to focus on her. What they and other Klobuchar supporters seem to want is an abstract principle of moderation that will drag an alienated Midwest back to the Democrats and make unity (of a very specific kind) possible. They consider this “pragmatic” even if the definition of unity they’re using leaves voters of color—a crucial demographic without which no Democrat can win—behind. It’s a gamble. Today, as voters head to the polls in Nevada, we’ll find out if the “politics of no” pay off.

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Politics: From Church to City to Nation, a Beacon of Freedom – Wall Street Journal



‘The Arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers’ (ca. 1864) by Antonio Gisbert.


Bridgeman Images

‘For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” So remarked

John Winthrop

in “A Model of Christian Charity,” a sermon given in 1630 aboard the Arbella as it sailed to the New World. Winthrop, the great Puritan leader and early governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, understood from the start that America was to be a monumental experiment in freedom for the rest of the world to observe and follow.

That, in any case, is what political commentators, politicians and historians have led us to believe over the past half century. The words “city upon a hill” showed up most famously in

Ronald Reagan’s

1989 farewell address. “The phrase comes from John Winthrop,” Reagan said, “who wrote it to describe the America he imagined.” Wrong on two counts. The phrase comes from Jesus: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14). And Winthrop had no notion of America as a nation.

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In his 2012 study “In Search of the City on a Hill,”

Richard M. Gamble

documented the curious life of this biblical phrase in American politics. It lay almost completely forgotten from the time Winthrop first used it until 1930, when a slightly fuller version of the quotation was carved on a monument in Boston Common to commemorate the city’s 300th anniversary. Three decades later, in January 1961, President-elect

John F. Kennedy,

perhaps having seen the engraved monument, used Winthrop’s sermon in a speech in Boston bidding farewell to his home state. Since then the phrase, usually attributed to Winthrop rather than Jesus, has become an easy rhetorical device for any American pundit or officeholder wishing to convey the notion that America has a transcendent mission to model and spread political freedom around the globe—the chief version of an idea commonly termed “American exceptionalism.”

In 2018,

Daniel T. Rodgers

expanded on Mr. Gamble’s analysis with “As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon” (Princeton, 355 pages, $29.95). Mr. Rodgers, an emeritus professor of history at Princeton University, offers tantalizing but inconclusive evidence that Winthrop’s “sermon” was never preached, on or off the Arbella, and emphasizes the ways in which Winthrop’s words contributed to the “invented foundation” of American nationalism. Now

Abram C. Van Engen

has published “City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism” (Yale, 379 pages, $30). Mr. Van Engen’s study is a hefty work of scholarship, involving a close exegesis of Winthrop’s sermon and other related texts, an account of the antiquarians unwittingly responsible for preserving his sermon and the scholarly debate over the extent to which American culture is a product of New England Puritanism.

Mr. Van Engen, an associate professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, raises two main objections to the modern political use of Winthrop’s famous sermon. He insists, first, that Winthrop’s “city” was not a nation or any other kind of worldly polity, but the church, as he understood it. “For most of American history,” the author observes, “when people heard the words ‘city on a hill,’ they were discussing discipleship, not citizenship.” Winthrop meant to exhort his fellow dissenting Puritans to a life of love and solicitude, not to impress upon them a sense of their historical importance as founders of a new nation.

I take his point, but Mr. Van Engen judges political rhetoric too fastidiously. Political pronouncements are not elucidations of ancient texts but evocations of images and sentiments. Hermeneutic slapdashery is a part of the game. I wonder, in any case, if the interpretive jump from Winthrop’s “city” to American exceptionalism is really so great. Let’s assume for the moment, pace Mr. Rodgers’s argument, that Winthrop did in fact preach “A Model of Christian Charity,” or relayed some part of it, to his fellow emigrants. If so, he addressed it to some of the New World’s earliest inhabitants and warned them not to make a mess of things because if they did the world would scorn the whole enterprise. That strikes me as conceptually related to modern America’s self-appointed but noble mission in the world. If I were a politician, I’d use it.

Mr. Van Engen objects, second, to the assumptions, as he sees them, behind the misuse of Winthrop’s sermon. His book chronicles the ways in which intellectuals and historians—

Alexis de Tocqueville,

Max Weber, the historian

Perry Miller,

the literary critic Sacvan Bercovitch—have portrayed the United States as having begun with the Puritans of New England. I find Mr. Van Engen’s analysis of these figures and their works engaging and substantive. He is a careful scholar and does not offer facile summaries (his demolition of Bercovitch is deftly done).

Yet it’s never clear what all the fuss is about. Why are we mistaken to think of America as, in chief respects, an outgrowth of 17th-century Puritanism? Mr. Van Engen more than once raises the chronological objection: The Spanish in Florida, the settlers of Jamestown and of course Native Americans were all present in North America before the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in 1620. Well, OK. But surely it’s too obvious to argue that Plymouth was the first Anglophone colony to survive in the New World, and that New England went on to exercise an unrivaled cultural and economic influence over the rest of the nation.

I’m even more puzzled by the book’s penultimate chapter, an insightful essay on

Donald Trump’s

nonuse of Winthrop’s lines and concomitant rejection of American exceptionalism. Unlike other politicians, liberal and conservative, Mr. Trump almost never speaks of America’s Puritan origins or its unique role in the world. “He has offered no story or memory of the nation at all, apart from a vague notion of lost greatness.” The president speaks instead of American “sovereignty,” a word his presidential precursors almost never used about the United States. It’s an excellent point, but it is plain from Mr. Van Engen’s language that we are not to deduce from it that Mr. Trump’s vision of the world is the truer one. We’re left to conclude that all those politicians who badly misinterpreted John Winthrop’s sermon nonetheless had the better argument. The Gipper, though technically wrong, was basically right.

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