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Behind Charlotte Simmons' Burqah: What Bush Reads

By November 1, 2007

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A little less than two years ago, when President Bush was navigating the latest tumbles in his approval ratings (compliments of his Pet Goat-like reaction to Hurricane Katrina) and the White House scrambled at anything to make him look presidential, Karl Rove hit on an idea: why not make the president seem like a really, really serious reader who devours books? Big, fat books. Not only that: why not manufacture a contest between the ever-competitive Bush and the ever-machinating Rove? Feed the fiction to the press and see what happens. It worked, as expected.

Beginning in early 2006, stories began to appear about Bush's reading habits until the myth hit its stride that summer, when the papers and magazines were chatting up the Bush-Rove reading contest. "White House aides say the president has read 60 books so far this year," US News & World Report, which not infrequently makes politics sound like something out of Us magazine, reported, "while the brainy Rove, to Bush's competitive delight, has racked up only 50." (The story was inaccurately titled, "The Humble Presidency."

This was mid-August, mind you, which would have had Bush reading more than two books a week. At 350 pages for the average book, that's more than 700 pages a week. Assuming the man reads 30 pages an hour, that's at least three hours a day of book-reading--for a man who notoriously demands from his aides that briefing memos not exceed one page. Am I assuming too little of the guy?

Don't take my doubts for it. In February 2005, before the myth of Bush as a one-man Library of Alexandria hit the newsstands, the New York Times' Elizabeth Bumiller, in her weekly White House Letter, was reporting that the president "does his reading for pleasure on Air Force One, on weekends and before bed at night." Not much time there for a 100-page-a-day regimen (although Bush apparently had made it through, with tumescent enthusiasm, I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe's sopping 676-page rendition of what a 74-year-old dandy's idea of an American coed's lives and lusts may be). And a few days earlier, on Jan. 30, 2005, C-Span's Brian Lamb had interviewed the president himself--this was immediately after Bush's second Inaugural--and asked him about his book-reading habits. The president's answer: "I'm reading, I think on a good night, maybe 20 to 30 pages. I'm exercising quite hard these days, and I get up very early. And so the book has become somewhat of a sedative. I mean, maybe there are some other old guys like me who get into bed, open the book, 20 pages later you're out cold."

One hundred pages a day? Sixty books in eight months? Seriously doubtful. Then again, Harold Evans, the writer and former editor of the UK Times, had noted in the other Times in the waning days of the Clinton administration (an "omnivore," that one, when it came to books) that "not being much of a reader hardly affected the ascent of George W. Bush or his father." To the contrary: when Al Gore revealed that his favorite book was a French novel (Stendhal's The Red and the Black), his poll numbers took a dive.

But as the Bookworm Bush story began to spread wings, it wasn't enough to just say he read lots. And Charlotte Simmons, bless her stupid heart ("I know they'll be older than I am, I know they'll be better dressed than I am, cooler cooler cooler oh so much cooler than I am, but please, God, don't let them be blond and skinny, don't let them be cute and bitchy, don't--please, God!--don't..."--and that's the relatively mature Charlotte, 424 pages into the wolfish ordeal) doesn't count. So Bush started dropping names: "I was in Crawford and I said I was looking for a book to read and Laura said you oughtta try Camus, I also read three Shakespeare's. [sic.]" This, by the way, while walking in the ruins of New Orleans on the first anniversary of Katrina and talking to NBC's Brian Williams who, true to form, just fawned.

But Bush's aides had also been on a name-dropping kick. A Bumiller White House Letter from January 2006 had let us in on Bush's munching at Mao: The Unknown Story, the 814-page biography by Jung Chang, a Doris Kearns Goodwin book on Lincoln, and--surprise, surprise--Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, by Geraldine Brooks. The book was published in 1995, but it's still the single-best one-volume, accessible and useful book on the subject. Brooks was the Wall Street Journal's Middle East bureau chief for several years. Last year she won a Pulitzer for fiction. She should have won one for non-fiction. She could spot and smash a stereotype in nine lines flat:

In seventh-cenruty Arabia the Koran's formula was a giant leap forward for women, who up until then had usually been considered as chattels to be inherited, rather than as heirs and property owners in their own right. Most European women had to wait another twelve centuries to catch up to the rights the Koran granted Muslim women. In England, it wasn't until 1870 that the Married Women's Property Acts finally abolished the rule that put all a woman's wealth under her husband's control on marriage.

Odd. I don't recall hearing insights like that from His You're-Either-With-Us-Or-Against-Us Excellency, the Right Honorable Reader Bush. Maybe, with Charlotte beckoning from a liquored up frat house basement, he didn't make it to page 186 in the Brooks book. It's still worth every page, and don't believe the Ayatollah Khomeini, who famously said, "There's no fun in Islam." Not as long as there's writers like Brooks to prove him, and the legions who fear his successors, wrong. Here's my review of Nine Parts of Desire.


November 2, 2007 at 12:40 pm
(1) Michael Dawson says:

The claim that Bush reads ANY books is preposterous. For one thing, actual readers constantly refer to things they’ve read. The only thing behind W. in his press appearances is the chimpanzee-level coaching he gets from his handlers on the bullet-points in the one-page memos he can’t comprehend.

If we had any real journalism in this corporate chicken coop, somebody would ask him to name a single point ever made by somebody like Doris Goodwin. He couldn’t, of course, because the books on his nightstand are just like Saddam’s WMDs and Iran’s h-bombs…

P.S. Alexander Cockburn once reported on spending the night in GHW Bush’s Maine house, when GHW was running for VP with the Gipper. Only book in the house? _The Fart Book_.

November 3, 2007 at 9:54 am
(2) William says:

Considering the numerous unscripted moments of the last 7 years, I can find no evidence that this president does, or has in the past, read anything one might consider literature. The manner in which he has expressed himself, when not reading from prepared text, suggests he is closer to funtional illiteracy. Just one of the many reminders that our country deserves far better in its leadership. I’m embarrased for him.

November 8, 2007 at 12:18 am
(3) ohdave says:

How did I miss this?! One of my favorite things you’ve ever written. That whole Bush reading thing has been a joke every time they’ve tried it. Don’t forget he toted around a biography of Teddy Roosevelt for weeks, too.

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