In January 2005, George W. Bush sat down with C-SPAN's Brian Lamb, longtime host of Booknotes. When Lamb asked the president how much reading he does on a given day, Bush replied, “I read, oh, gosh, I'd say, 10, maybe, different memoranda prepared by staff.” When Lamb clarified that he was asking specifically about books, the president explained, “I'm reading, I think on a good night, maybe 20 to 30 pages,” before segueing into an explanation about his rigorous exercise schedule.
Given the history, it came as something of a surprise this month when the White House began a not-so-subtle public-relations campaign suggesting that the president not only has a great fondness for books, but has actually become a voracious reader who finishes challenging texts at a stunning clip.
It began when the White House noted that Bush's summer reading list included Albert Camus' existentialist novel The Stranger. Press Secretary Tony Snow was cagey about details, but told reporters that the president “found it an interesting book” that ultimately led to discussions with aides about “the origins of existentialism.” Bush once famously said, “I don't do nuance,” but apparently he does do absurdist philosophical parables.
The Bush-the-bookworm narrative became more aggressive when Bush aides leaked word to U.S. News & World Report's Ken Walsh that the president “wants it known that he is a man of letters.” Walsh reported that Bush has allegedly entered a “book-reading competition” with Karl Rove, with the president currently in the lead, having read 60 books so far this year, 10 more than his controversial aide.
Around the same time, C-SPAN published a list of more than two-dozen titles provided by the White House Press Office, purporting to show the president's “summer reading list.” It had its share of breezy baseball titles, but the list also included plenty of serious, thought-provoking books, including John Barry's The Great Influenza, Geraldine Brooks' Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, Gordon Wood's Revolutionary Characters, and two Shakespearean classics, “Macbeth” and “Hamlet.”
Driving the public-relations offensive is a newfound desire to boost perceptions of the president's intellectual prowess. U.S. News' Walsh wrote that “portraying Bush as a voracious reader is part of an ongoing White House campaign to restore what a senior adviser calls ‘gravitas' to the Bush persona.” It's not an unreasonable goal. When MSNBC's Joe Scarborough did a 10-minute segment on the president's dimwittedness two weeks ago, with an all-caps “Is Bush An ‘Idiot'?” caption along the bottom of the screen, it reinforced the fact that the president's lack of intellectual depth undermines his credibility.
Exaggerated reading lists and a phony presidential interest in books, however, are hardly going to help. For one thing, the White House's claims about the notches on Bush's literary bedpost are almost certainly false. Using lists provided by the White House, the 60 books the president is alleged to have read since January total tens of thousands of pages. (The Stranger may be fairly short, but many of the titles on the list were lengthy treatises. Kai Bird's American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, for example, is almost 800 pages.)
The boasts simply strain credulity. We're talking about a man who, by his own admission, likes to get to bed early, insists on a two-hour midday exercise break, and reads maybe 30 pages of book text a day. He also ostensibly oversees the executive branch of government during a war. If we expand the definition of “read” to include Cliff's Notes, abridged books on tape, and skimming over a book's jacket, then maybe the claims are plausible. Otherwise, they're demonstrably ridiculous.
But even if political observers are willing to accept this public-relations gambit as little more than election-year spin, and even if everyone assumes that the president didn't actually read The Stranger or much else from his reading list, the image makeover itself makes very little sense.
The president's aides, led by Bush's book-reading competitor Karl Rove, have worked tirelessly for more than six years to cultivate the president's image as that of a “regular guy.” Al Gore told Oprah that his favorite novel is Stendhal's The Red and the Black, but Bush has always wanted the nation to see him as folksy and simple. Reading was never part of the narrative. For years, the president has practically reveled in anti-intellectualism, routinely mocking people with Ph.D.s. At one recent forum, Bush introduced an economics professor to his audience by saying, “It's an interesting lesson here, by the way. He's an adviser. Now, he is the Ph.D., and I am a C-student -- or was a C-student. Now, what's that tell you?”
Indeed, Bush's facade has never been about reading much of anything. He has admitted that he doesn't read newspapers, telling Fox News' Brit Hume, “I glance at the headlines just to kind of [get] a flavor for what's moving. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who are [sic] probably read the news themselves.” He's not even fond of reading government reports -- Newsweek noted a year ago that the seriousness of the Hurricane Katrina crisis “sunk in,” not when the president pored over FEMA reports, but when communications aide Dan Bartlett put together an easy-to-understand video montage for Bush on a DVD, a few days after the levees in New Orleans broke.
The public is now supposed to believe that Bush is a book-reading machine, picking up French existentialism in his leisure time between brush-clearing and bike-rides? The fact that the White House gang is experimenting with a new persona at all reeks of desperation. Bush isn't supposed to be about book learnin'; he's about governing by instinct and relying on the advice of aides who tell him what he wants to hear.
For the president to open a new chapter, characterizing himself as a learned “man of letters” is not only literally unbelievable, it's pointless. Bush may not like the ending, but the book on his intellectual aptitude has already been written.
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