The line -- the semiofficial one, that is -- has changed on George Bush. Where once he was supposedly the sort of guy who eschewed books and even thinking and favored instead a decision-making process that was almost entirely the product of instinct, we are now told that the president reads books -- really and truly. Among those cited, and famously so, is Natan Sharansky's "The Case for Democracy," which supposedly enthralled Bush because up to then, we may deduce, the case for democracy was not obvious to the man who heads the world's most powerful . . . er, democracy. Better late than never, I suppose.
But better yet to take all of this with a grain of salt. Bush was never the Texas dolt he was made out to be -- he is blessed with a quick and keen wit -- and he is not now a blinkin' intellectual. The former image was useful in its time, a contrast to the omnivorously intellectual Bill Clinton, who devoured books the way he did Big Macs and of whom America had tired. The antidote was a man who mulled not and had the sort of knowledge that Malcolm Gladwell writes about in his book, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" -- instinctive, instantaneous wisdom. Bush famously said he did not do nuance.
He still doesn't. Not really. But two presidential elections and a war have shown Bush what he must have long suspected -- that he has vast leadership abilities and that he has been called (and you know by who) to his historic role. It must seem to Bush that greatness is in his reach because great presidents must live in great times -- and Sept. 11, 2001, made this one of those times. He could reach for greatness, seize history in his two hands and bend it. But if you are going to change history -- take it on -- then you have to show that you know it. Thus, the books. In George Bush, reading is an ominous sign.
Thus also the rhetoric and the agenda for Bush's second term. First and foremost comes all this talk about freedom and democracy, a goal for the Middle East, for instance, that is either bold or foolish -- or both. Whichever, it is not one that suggests containment, a policy supposedly resigned to reality, but one designed to change the very reality of the region and its threats (the home office of terrorism, after all), seize it by the throat and shake the corruption and despotism out of it. Good luck, I say -- and a good start, too, at the moment.
At home, Bush is also reaching, or overreaching, in ways that suggest greatness must be on his mind. His attempt to modify Social Security by introducing personal savings accounts does not, obviously, approach what Franklin Roosevelt did by creating the program in the first place. But if this wee bit of privatization turns out, as conservatives hope and liberals fear, to be the beginning of the end of government-provided pensions, then Bush has indeed done something big. Undoing Roosevelt would be BIG, Rooseveltian in its own way.
Indeed, across the board Bush has proved to be unorthodox in his approach to government. Although a conservative, he either initiated or condoned a great expansion of federal authority in education (No Child Left Behind), in security (the Patriot Act), in corporate governance (Sarbanes-Oxley) and in the beefing up of the Securities and Exchange Commission. And he provided support for the secular programs of religious institutions with his faith-based initiative. This is not exactly the New Deal, but it's much more than most people once expected, and it has changed the image of Bush. In his first campaign, when Bush said he was reading James Chace's biography of Dean Acheson, he was riddled with a near-fatal burst of scoff. The scoffing, if not the scoffers, are fading.
Because Bush is certain he can bend history his way, he just might become one of those American presidents who is thought to have made a difference. The most recent was Ronald Reagan, who had many of Bush's qualities and won the Cold War not merely because he was there near its end but because he thought it would end and would end soon and would end on his terms.
This quality, this firm and unmistakably American belief that history is our pal, our angel -- ours, and not anyone else's -- and that we can alter it, bend it and embrace it for our own needs, explains why Bush has emerged, and been accepted, as a book-reader. It's not because he fears reliving history, either as tragedy or farce. It's because he intends to change it.