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Bush the Bibliophile

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In an act of spectacular revisionist chutzpah, Karl Rove is now portraying George W. Bush as a devoted bibliophile. The man who marketed Bush as a good ol' boy from Midland, Texas exuding righteous disdain for elitist intellectuals has just published an article in the Wall Street Journal titled "Bush Is a Book Lover". The former presidential advisor describes a friendly annual competition with his boss to determine the champion reader. In 2003, Bush told Fox News that he does not read even newspapers: "I glance at the headlines just to get a flavor for what's moving. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who are probably read the news themselves." Yet according to Rove, Bush read 95 books in 2006, 51 in 2007, and 40 in 2008. With 110 books in 2006, 76 in 2007, and 64 in 2008, Rove claims victory, though he concedes: "I've won because he has a real job with enormous responsibilities."

If either Bush or Rove had been stuck in a "false" job, like librarian or teacher, he might have been able to compile longer reading lists. But whatever their vocation, grownups do not devour books as if they were hot dogs in a speed-eating contest. They do not read in order to acquire gold stars for civic virtue. They do not even read in order to be graded, though in 2001 the president assured a group in Townsend, Tennessee that: "You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test." The formidable titles that Rove cites, largely in history and biography, seem designed to impress. "Mr. Bush loves books, learns from them, and is intellectually engaged by them," he claims. However, no evidence exists that turning the pages of any of those impressive volumes has had any effect on the policies, rhetoric, or personality of the man who, until the invention of Sarah Palin, was the nation's leading public yahoo. "Joe, I don't do nuance," he told Joe Biden in 2004.

We do know for certain that George W. Bush read at least part of one book. On September 11, 2001, he was reading The Pet Goat to a group of schoolchildren in Sarasota, Florida and, despite the enormous responsibilities that his real job entails, continued his blithe recitation for another seven minutes after being informed of the attack on the World Trade Center. Rove characterizes Bush as a faithful reader of the Scriptures, "from cover to cover," and the president himself affirmed, on November 12, 2008, that: "I've been in the Bible every day since I've been the president." He must have been in Genesis, in the Garden of Eden, before the Tree of Knowledge is encountered. "Reading is the basics for all learning," explained this profoundly unlearned man, on March 28, 2000.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals was, according to Rove, on the 2006 White House reading list. Nevertheless, unlike Abraham Lincoln, Bush has continued to insulate himself with a claque of sycophants. The fact that he read a biography of Leopold, the Belgian king who pillaged the Congo, has not dampened his enthusiasm for imperialist adventures. And, despite Rove's claim, it is hard to believe that anyone who actually read "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number," Jacobo Timerman's searing account of his torture by the Argentine military régime, would not immediately close down Guantánamo and outlaw waterboarding and extraordinary rendition. Nor does the appearance of Albert Camus' The Stranger on Bush's reading list square with his enthusiasm, as governor and president, for capital punishment.

A biography of Lincoln, his pensive, self-effacing predecessor, has had no discernible effect on Bush's character. And a book about Mark Twain has not kept Bush from continuing as a Niagara of malapropisms, more like a rustic character in Huckleberry Finn than its sophisticated author. Rove is most credible when he omits the United States Constitution from the lists of what Bush read in 2006, 2007, and 2008. "One of the important things about history is to remember the true history," Bush declared last June 6. When the true history of the Bush administration is written, its author will not be Karl Rove. And George W. Bush will not likely be its reader.