Karl Rove gives us an interesting column in the Wall Street Journal today, in which he describes a book-reading competition he conducted with President Bush over the past three years.
Their rough goal was to read at better than a book-a-week pace. To make sure that neither cut corners with slim volumes, they would measure a book's physical, as well as intellectual, heft.
Rove disappoints, in that he doesn't list the books that he has been reading, but he does provide a rather lengthy list of what the president has read on Air Force One or in quiet time at the White House and Camp David.
There are immediate observations to be made about the Bush reading list. It is classic and conservative in its selections and heavy in biography and history. Bush and Rove are apparently believers in the Great Man view of things, in which leaders like Andrew Jackson and Mao and Lyndon Johnson transform societies, and not so much the other way around.
I'm a little from that school myself. I love narrative and heroics. And I surely don't belong among the postmodernists, who believe that the past is unrecoverable, no more than a hollow construction.
But what's lacking in the presidential reading list, it appears, are contributions from the historians who study us common folks—in all our complexity—and tell stories of our past as cultural history.
Rove names just a few of the books that Bush has read on contemporary events or foreign affairs, so it is not possible to tell much about the president's openness to criticism or his curiosity about new ideas.
I must admit that I reacted with a mix of envy and alarm as I read the column. As a writer, my job is to promote the written word, so I am all for cheering Bush on as a model for young folks and book-buyers.
But 95 books a year? Wow. That is a lot of time spent curled by the fireplace for the Leader of the Free World.
Sure, there are some mysteries and thrillers on the presidential reading list, but there are also mammoth histories—we're talking 600-800 pages or more for some of these volumes, like the wonderful Doris Kearns Goodwin's excellent Team of Rivals. Or the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Or The Great Upheaval by Jay Winik.
As an historian, it is part of my daily duties to read a lot about the era I plan to chronicle. And I also read for enjoyment, and as a working journalist. But 95 books in a year? While being an engaged spouse and father and homeowner and wage-earner? Where does he get the time?
Granted, Bush has servants and job security, his kids have grown and left home, and he doesn't waste so much of his life in traffic. But he also has wars and recession and natural disasters to contend with—and I spent enough days on White House press pool duty to know that the president makes the necessary investment of time to maintain his proficiency as an off-road bike rider as well.
I guess he really did need Dick Cheney as co-president.