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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here's a way that both of this year's presidential candidates stand out. John McCain and Barack Obama have both written, or at least co-authored, best-selling books.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It is hard to write thousands of words without revealing something about yourself. So we have been rereading the works of the men who would be president.

MONTAGNE: Today and tomorrow, we'll hear about a key experience of each candidate, and we begin with Barack Obama's childhood in Indonesia. An Indonesian stepfather brought the family there in the 1960s, and we'll talk about that experience with Jon Meacham, an author and editor of Newsweek.

INSKEEP: Obama arrived in Indonesia during a period of turmoil. A U.S.-backed military ruler had just taken over. And as Barack Obama tells the story in "The Audacity of Hope," that government killed or imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people.

Mr. JON MEACHAM (Author; Editor, Newsweek): You did not know from day to day or week to week which side of the regime you would be on. It was a fickle regime. And that very directly affected Obama's stepfather. He and his mother had waited a good while to come to Indonesia from Hawaii. And the reason was, his stepfather had gotten on the wrong side of the regime and had been sent off. So I think it's a very tactile experience of foreign policy.

And I think the takeaway is that foreign policy has real-life consequences, and it's not something that is simply talked about at the Counsel on Foreign Relations or in the hearing rooms on Capitol Hill. Obama has been right in the thick of a messy, asymmetrical, fluid situation in a country where power moves quickly and which can be a pawn in a larger game, in this case, the Cold War.

INSKEEP: He makes a few basic points about this complicated country. He points out that it is the world's largest Muslim country in terms of the number of Muslims who were there; that it is, in his view, a very important country, rich in natural resources; that it is nevertheless a country that most Americans could never find on a map. And yet, he says, it's a country where the U.S. has had enormous influence.

Mr. MEACHAM: When you look at how he wants to govern if he were to win, he is someone who I think is more conscious of what American power feels like on the receiving end than on the giving end. And Americans are accustomed to being, since - I would argue - since the summer of 1945, to being the person who sits in the control seat and decides what other people are going to do.

INSKEEP: We're in charge of the world, or imagine that we are.

Mr. MEACHAM: Right. And occasionally, that crashes into reality, as it did in Vietnam. But interestingly, I think that Obama has experienced the implications of America's Cold War policy in his own life in a distant land in a way that, you know, Ronald Reagan or Walter Mondale or George Herbert Walker Bush simply did not.

INSKEEP: What insights do you think from his writings - or any other sources - what insights do you think he draws from this that are relevant to some of the problems of today: how, if at all, to try to spread democracy around the world, how to deal with terrorism, other issues?

Mr. MEACHAM: I think he understands the law of unintended consequences. Because if you spend part of your childhood in a country in chaos in which America has played some role in creating or trying to capitalize on that chaos, I think you have more empathy with the people whose lives we are affecting. I'm not saying that you're sympathetic to them, let me be very clear, but I think you can imaginatively put yourself in the position of another country, of another region, and how that region or that country may respond to overtures of American power.

INSKEEP: You hit an important distinction there between empathy and sympathy. I suppose you want someone who totally understands the other side, but is still acting in American interests.

Mr. MEACHAM: Exactly. And I think that's something that has been lost in the hurly-burly of the autumn campaign, as things tend to get lost. But I do think that's an important distinction because empathy suggests that you will be able to think a couple of moves ahead of what the implications of an expression of American power would be. And so I think the direct lesson of what Obama has written about, both in "Dreams from My Father" and "The Audacity of Hope," is that what we do is often uncontrollable. When you unleash forces abroad, it's very, very hard to manage them.

INSKEEP: He writes about Franklin Roosevelt's famous "Four Freedoms," four freedoms that Roosevelt considered important: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. Obama seems to suggest that while they are all important, that freedom from want and freedom from fear are the things that have to come first.

Mr. MEACHAM: Yes. If you are hungry, you're not that interested in freedom of the press. If you are impoverished, you are interested in keeping yourself warm against the cold, and it's harder to think in Jeffersonian Rights of Man terms. Once those first two freedoms are secured, the others tend to follow. It's a very conservative argument that without order, nothing else is possible. That idea has not appeared to be part of the strategic approach to our desire to transform parts of the world that have wished us active harm.

INSKEEP: It's interesting the different directions you can take that line of thinking, though. You can say, well, I'm not going to be an idealist and demand that everyone have a democratic election, which sounds nice and realistic. But it can also be, I'm not going to be an idealist, and I'm going to embrace whatever dictator brings stability, as long as they're relatively friendly to us. You can go to places that people would find dismaying in different ways or delightful in different ways.

Mr. MEACHAM: Yes. And I would say, welcome to a fallen world and diplomacy in a world that is destined to some extent to disappoint us. This is something that interests me about both Obama and McCain, is they are both essentially tragic figures. They understand that the world does not conform to our wishes. The fact that Obama's religious views are as informed by Abraham Lincoln and Reinhold Niebuhr as they are the Gospels, to some extent, I think that comes from having grown up and seeing firsthand that the world's more complicated than it seems in headlines. It's a messy, unfinished world out there. And America can be a force for good. But as he's quoted before, we'll always want to make sure we're constantly checking ourselves. As Lincoln would have it, we know that God isn't on our side, but to try to make sure we're on God's side.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Jon Meacham is editor of Newsweek, and he's been reading books by Barack Obama. You heard him mention Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian who struggled with how we should involve ourselves in a world full of evil. That same American thinker figures in books co-authored by John McCain. And we'll hear more about that tomorrow as we continue our discussions about the candidates' books with Jon Meacham, whose own books include "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House."

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