Saturday 24 Feb 2018 | 19:09 | SYDNEY
Saturday 24 Feb 2018 | 19:09 | SYDNEY

The president's reading list



12 January 2009 08:34

A Boxing Day op-ed by Karl Rove in The Wall Street Journal stirred up a lot of chit-chat here in the US. Rove revealed (not for the first time) that he and his former boss, President George W Bush, engage in an annual competition to see who can read the most books. The op-ed is a perfect storm of vanity and loyalty, in which Rove preens under the guise of praising his boss.

Rove reports that Bush read 40 books in 2008 (compared to his own 64), including biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S Grant, lots of history and the Bible (although this year there is nothing as avant-garde as Albert Camus’s The Stranger, which made the president’s 2006 list).

Rove’s op-ed has been cited by conservatives who dispute the conventional wisdom that Bush is self-satisfied and incurious. On the other hand, The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen argued that the contents of the list revealed Bush’s intellectual weakness, not his strength:

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.’

Cohen is overly harsh here. I am certainly no Bush groupie, but I’m delighted that he spends his spare time reading books rather than, say, watching the repetitive inanities of cable television. If Bush doesn’t go out of his way to read books which berate him, well, he’s only human.

However, a couple of caveats must be lodged. First, it is frankly weird to compete over the number of books you have read over the course of the year, let alone the ‘combined size of each book’s pages – its 'Total Lateral Area'. This is not the point of reading, and it leads to a second objection: It's not clear to what extent (if at all) any of these books have actually influenced the way Bush perceives the world.

To give one example, stories appeared in the media in 2002 about the influence of a book by Elliot Cohen called Supreme Command on Bush’s approach to Iraq. The thesis of Cohen’s book is that political leaders often need to prod and probe reluctant military officers in the waging of wars.

Supreme Command was supposedly important in shaping Bush’s thinking. If that was ever true, it is no longer so. This much was apparent in a Q&A session the president undertook a couple of weeks ago at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. AEI president Chris DeMuth bowled up the gentlest of full tosses, plainly expecting it to be lofted over the Members’ Stand:

MR. DeMUTH: Another book that you famously read was Eliot Cohen's “Supreme Command.” And he later went to work for you.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, he did.

MR. DeMUTH: Do you think he got it right in that book?

THE PRESIDENT: I can't even remember the book. (Laughter.) I remember reading it, but give me a synopsis. (Laughter.)

MR. DeMUTH: That --

THE PRESIDENT: You can't remember it either. (Laughter.)

MR. DeMUTH: No. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: Just teasing. Did he work for you at AEI? Is that why you're --

MR. DeMUTH: He was on our Council of Academic Advisers.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, okay. I did read it.

MR. DeMUTH: The essential point is that in history, in wartime, Presidents do well not leaving the war to the military, but being the supreme commander themselves.

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, that's right, yes...’

No doubt the Bush-Rove read-off will continue in 2009. Perhaps this time the participants will forget about their books’ Total Lateral Area and focus instead on a more old-fashioned metric: reading comprehension.

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