The bookworm in the White House

THE BOOKWORM IN THE WHITE HOUSE…. Last week, the president addressed the American Enterprise Institute, with some fairly boilerplate rhetoric. During his discussion, Christopher DeMuth, the group’s president, mentioned, “Another book that you famously read was Eliot Cohen’s ‘Supreme Command,’ and he later went to work for you.” Bush responded, “Yes, he did.” DeMuth added, “Do you think he got it right in that book?” The president replied, “I can’t even remember the book,” before asking DeMuth to hum a few bars.

I mention this because Karl Rove devoted his latest Wall Street Journal column to bragging about George W. Bush’s impressive ability to read an enormous number of books very quickly. Rove explained that he and the president have engaged in an annual contest since 2005, in which they see how many books they can finish in a given year.

As Rove tells it, he’s defeated the president in each of the years in which they’ve competed. Nevertheless, Rove paints a picture of the president as a voracious reader, tearing through dense texts at an impressive clip. Bush, Rove says, not only reads the Bible cover to cover every single year, but takes in lengthy books about history, and shorter books about philosophy, including Albert Camus’s “The Stranger.”

The reading competition reveals Mr. Bush’s focus on goals. It’s not about winning. A good-natured competition helps keep him centered and makes possible a clear mind and a high level of energy. He reads instead of watching TV. He reads on Air Force One and to relax and because he’s curious. He reads about the tasks at hand, often picking volumes because of the relevance to his challenges. […]

In the 35 years I’ve known George W. Bush, he’s always had a book nearby. He plays up being a good ol’ boy from Midland, Texas, but he was a history major at Yale and graduated from Harvard Business School. You don’t make it through either unless you are a reader.

Now, I’ve never met Bush, and can’t speak to his personal habits. But I’m pretty confident that either a) Rove is spinning an absurd tale; or b) Bush has wildly exaggerated his reading prowess and Rove has bought the nonsense.

I wrote a piece about the president’s alleged reading habits a few years ago, and have been keeping an eye on these reports ever since. I think it’s fair to say this notion that Bush is a curious thinker with his nose constantly buried in complex texts is, by all appearances, kind of silly.

Indeed, Bush appeared on C-SPAN a few years ago and chatted with Brian Lamb, the longtime host of Booknotes. When Lamb asked the president how much reading he does on a given day, Bush replied, “I read, oh, gosh, I’d say, 10, maybe, different memoranda prepared by staff.” When Lamb clarified that he was asking specifically about books — the point of Lamb’s show — the president explained, “I’m reading, I think on a good night, maybe 20 to 30 pages,” before segueing into an explanation about his rigorous exercise schedule.

Bush also bragged to Fox News’ Brit Hume that he doesn’t read newspapers, either, explaining, “I glance at the headlines just to kind of [get] a flavor for what’s moving. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who are [sic] probably read the news themselves.”

And we’re to believe the president takes in absurdist philosophical parables from Camus in his spare time? Tears through 800-page historical treatises instead of turning on the TV? Seriously? We’re talking about a man who, by his own admission, likes to get to bed early and maintains a challenging exercise schedule. He also ostensibly oversees the executive branch of government during two wars and an economic meltdown.

If we expand the definition of “read” to include Cliff’s Notes, abridged books on tape, and skimming over a book’s jacket, then maybe the claims are plausible. Otherwise, they’re demonstrably ridiculous.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.