George W. Bush as an Avid Reader
In what without a doubt is the most astounding op-ed piece of the year, Karl Rove reveals that his friend and former boss, George W. Bush, has read probably hundreds of books over the course of his presidency. One of them was Albert Camus' "The Stranger," with its unforgettable opening lines: "Mother died today. Or perhaps it was yesterday, I don't know." After reading Rove's Wall Street Journal column, it's clear there's much we all don't know.
Bush's choice of the Camus classic is odd on the face of it. It is a novel about estrangement, about an amoral, irreligious man (Meursault) who never shows emotion. It is a book out of my Gauloise-smoking youth, read in the vain pursuit of women of literary bent, and not something I would think an over-60 president would read. Maybe this is what happens when you have to give up jogging.
In his column, Rove says that Bush read 95 books in 2006 alone. In 2007, he read 51 books and as of last week, he had read 40 in 2008. The numbers are precise because Bush challenged Rove to a contest: who could read the most books. Rove always won, but Bush had the ready excuse that he was, as he put it, busy being "Leader of the Free World." This, though, is not an excuse. As Dwight Eisenhower once told me (I'm not making this up), he had more time as president to dabble in painting than he did in retirement. Such is the virtue of The Bubble.
Rove appreciates that he's written a caricature-buster. "In the 35 years I've known George W. Bush, he's always had a book nearby," he writes. "He plays up being a good ol' boy from Midland, Texas, but he was a history major at Yale and graduated from Harvard Business School. You don't make it through either unless you are a reader."
As might be expected, most of Bush's books have been biographies and histories. Biographies are usually about great men who often did the unpopular thing and were later vindicated. As for histories, they are replete with cautionary tales. That might explain how the 1961 classic, Hugh Thomas's "The Spanish Civil War," made it onto this year's presidential reading list. Had Hitler (and Mussolini) been stopped in Spain, much misery would have been avoided. Substitute Iraq for Spain and you have, for the president, some reassuring bedtime reading.
Still, the fact remains that Bush is a prodigious, industrial reader, and this does not conform at all to his critics' idea of who he is. They would prefer seeing him as a dolt, since that, as opposed to policy or ideological differences, is a briefer, more bloggish explanation of what went wrong. Still, in fairness to these critics (see Rove above), Bush himself has encouraged this approach. Aw shucks is an infuriating defense of a policy.
It is awfully late in the day for Rove -- and, presumably, Bush -- to assert the president's intellectual bona fides. Now feeling the hot breath of history, they are dropping the good ol' boy persona and picking up the ol' bifocals one. But the books themselves reveal -- actually, confirm -- something about Bush that maybe Rove did not intend. They are not the reading of a widely read man, but instead the books of a man who seeks -- and sees -- vindication in every page. Bush has always been the captive of fixed ideas. His books just support that.
The list Rove provides is long, but it is narrow. It lacks whole shelves of books on how and why the Iraq war was a mistake, one that metastasized into a debacle. Absent is Rajiv Chandrasekaran's "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," Tom Ricks's "Fiasco," George Packer's "The Assassins' Gate" or, on a related topic, Jane Mayer's "The Dark Side" about "extraordinary rendition" and other riffs on the Constitution. Absent too is Barton Gellman's "Angler," about Dick Cheney, the waterboarder in chief.
Bush read David Halberstam's "The Coldest Winter," which is about the Korean War, but not on the list is Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest," which is about the Vietnam War. Bush read some novels, but they are mostly pre-movies, plotted not written, and lacking the beauty of worldly cynicism. I recommend Giuseppe di Lampedusa's "The Leopard." Delicious.
My hat is off to Bush for the sheer volume and, often, high quality of his reading. But his books reflect a man who is seeking to learn what he already knows. The caricature of Bush as unread died today -- or was it yesterday? But the reality of the intellectually insulated man endures.