George Bush – A Literary Man

It is always amusing to run across a story that tells us as much about the people commenting on a story as about the immediate subject of the story. The recent Wall Street Journal column by former Bush presidential adviser Karl Rove represents just such a story. In the column, Rove reveals that President George W. Bush is not just voracious reader, but a competitive industrial-strength reader, averaging over a book a week. Apparently, Rove and Bush competed on who could read the most books in a year. Rove was the victor, but Bush was able to find time to read:

“… biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, Babe Ruth, King Leopold, William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, LBJ, Genghis Khan. ” Other nonfiction included “Andrew Roberts’s A History of the English Speaking Peoples Since 1900, James L. Swanson’s Manhunt, and Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower.” Bush’s reading tastes also extended to “eight Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald, Mr. Bush tackled Michael Crichton’s Next, Vince Flynn’s Executive Power, Stephen Hunter’s Point of Impact, and Albert Camus’s The Stranger, among others.”

What is most interesting is how people reacted. Of course, some simply did not believe the column because it ran so counter to the image of Bush in the media and painted by his political enemies. How could such a dolt or disinterested frat boy be so attracted to books? The best way to deal with inconvenient evidence is to ignore it or dismiss it.  Interesting, no one questions whether Rove, also a very busy person, read the number of books he reports reading. But, of course, Rove is an evil genius.

For Bush supporters, the story does provide some evidence of the intellectual capacity of the President. However, their opinion of the President would not have changed if he had read only  a few books while President. A president is a very busy and might be expected to primarily read work-related material. He would have to rely on the well of intellectual capital acquired before reaching office.

For those who dislike Bush — at least the ones who believe Roves’s reports — are compelled to spin the news negatively. On the basis of this evidence, you don’t here anyone saying, “Perhaps I was wrong in my estimation of Bush’s intelligence.” One approach is to criticize Bush for reading too much and not spending enough time actually implementing  policy. Another is to criticize his reading list as not sufficiently introspective or is in some other way inadequate. Yet another is to assert that Bush feigned being a good-old-boy to hide his trues intentions.

The truth is that the Left and the press has always found it rhetorically convenient to paint Bush as an idiot. The problem is that for the most part, Bush politically defeated his opponents, winning the presidency twice. To reconcile this success with the caricature, Bush had to have clever evil henchmen who did his thinking for him. The usual candidates where political adviser Karl Rove or  Vice-President Dick Cheney.

If the same story came out about Barack Obama, with the same list and volume, we would all be amazed at his commitment to pursuit of intellectual enrichment. It would be additional evidence that he is a thinking man.

Anyone who followed Bush carefully with an open mind should have realized how profoundly he is affected by books. Natan Sharansky, was a former Soviet dissident who managed to emigrate to Israel and rose the position of Deputy Prime Minister of Israel. Sharansky advocated a compelling thesis articulated in his book The Case for Democracy. The argument is that many of the world’s political problems were a consequence of the lack of true democracy, freedom, and the rule of law. The lack of these was the source of political disruption that leads to war and terrorism. Democracies do not fight one another.

Hence, one goal of American foreign policy should be to encourage democratic ideals. These arguments are part of the underpinning of Bush’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. One working definition of an intellectual is a person who takes ideas seriously. By this definition, Bush is an intellectual who put into practice ideas he acquired through reading, study, and reflection.

The tactic of painting a political adversary as not just wrong, but stupid, was applied to President Ronald Reagan. Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of defense Clark Clifford once referred to Ronald Reagan as an “amiable dunce.” Ironically, Clifford died just  ahead of an indictment in a scandal surrounding Bank of Credit and Commerce International. He whined that in his defense,  “I have a choice of either seeming stupid or venal.” Claiming stupidity (not even amiable stupidity) was Clifford’s best defense.  By contrast, after Reagan left office, a compendium of his writings revealed a thoughtful and eloquent person.

Similarly, former President George H. W. Bush (41 to friends) was ridiculed for his mangled verbal expressions while in office. However, it turns out that Bush was an inveterate letter writer. The collection of these letters also reveals a delightful and intelligent writer, not consistent with his public persona.

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