Interest has arisen again in the reading habits of President Trump, who recently disclosed that he is a “very stable genius.”
The topic of his literacy first arose during the presidential campaign. The Washington Post’s Marc Fisher asked Trump whether he had read any presidential biographies. Nope. No time. “I never have,” Trump said.
TV host Joe Scarborough pushed the question a bit further:
“Can you read?”
“I’m serious, Donald. Do you read?” I continued. “If someone wrote you a one-page paper on a policy, could you read it?”
Taken aback, Trump quietly responded that he could while holding up a Bible given to him by his mother. He then joked that he read it all the time.
Now comes Michael Wolff’s bombshell and much-attacked book, which examines Trump’s White House reading habits by quoting an email from Gary Cohn, the president’s top economic adviser.
Listen to this story on “Retropod”:
“It’s worse than you can imagine,” the email reportedly says. “Trump won’t read anything — not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers, nothing.”
Trump’s reading habits, when ranked against previous presidents, place him about near Zachary Taylor, who may have been illiterate, and far, far away from Republican Teddy Roosevelt, who read entire books before breakfast, which sometimes consisted of 12 eggs.
Unlike Trump, Taylor did not attend a private boarding school. His father was a planter.
“Zachary’s formal education was limited,” a biography of him says, “and his earliest surviving writing suffers from poor spelling and unusually bad grammar, while his hand was that of a near illiterate.”
Taylor became president after his heroic military leadership in the Mexican-American war. He died 16 months into his presidency, so he didn’t have time for much White House reading, anyway.
In taking measure of presidential reading habits, it’s probably worth noting that the president Trump is sometimes compared with — James Buchanan, widely ranked as the country’s worst leader for letting the South secede — was a serious reader throughout his life. He especially loved biographies of George Washington.
“His reading embraced all classes of literature, and he conversed intelligently on all subjects,” according to an 1883 biography by George Ticknor Curtis, which also quoted a letter from his nephew describing precisely how Buchanan read, including his love for being read to:
He had a very peculiar way of reading at night. No matter how many lights might be in the room he always had a candlestick and candle, which he held before his eyes, and by that means read his paper or book. As he grew older we often felt quite anxious for fear his paper might take fire, and, occasionally, on the next morning a hole would be found burnt in it, but, as far as I can recollect, nothing more serious ever came of his reading this way.
Trump wouldn’t have that problem. He could use his iPhone light.
As reading candles go, nobody could hold one to Teddy, who was left with one working eye after a White House boxing match that didn’t end in his favor.
“Reading with me is a disease,” the 26th president once said.
Edmund Morris described Teddy’s reading habits in his three-volume biography:
He succumbs to it so totally — on the heaving deck of the Presidential yacht in the middle of a cyclone, between whistle-stops on a campaign trip, even while waiting for his carriage at the front door — that he cannot hear his own name being spoken. Nothing short of a thump on the back will regain his attention. Asked to summarized the book he has been leafing through with such apparent haste, he will do so in minute detail, often quoting the actual text.
At minimum, Teddy read a book a day — history, poetry, philosophy, novels.
He devoured newspapers and magazines, too, Morris wrote, though in a somewhat predatory way: “Each page, as he comes to the end of it, is torn out and thrown onto the floor.”
This went all night, every night, until Teddy’s one good eye had enough. Then he would leap from his rocking chair, get into his cozy pajamas, and place next to his pillow “a large, precautionary revolver.”
Teddy would then “energetically fall asleep,” Morris wrote, “there being nothing further to do.”
Like watching Don Lemon on CNN.
Read more Retropolis: