Arts/Literature

Book race 2006: Bush versus Rove

bushreadsIn Bush Is a Book Lover at the Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove chronicles his three-year-long Great American Reading Race with President Bush. He maintains that in the fiercest year of the competition, 2006, he defeated Bush, 110 books to 95.

“The president,” Rove writes, “lamely insisted he’d lost because he’d been busy as Leader of the Free World.”

To even joke about this demonstrates a degree of tone-deafness that beggars the imagination. What, any thinking American wonders, is the president doing reading — an activity which, of necessity, isolates — to the tune of almost two books a week? Since Bush is notorious for turning in early and there’s only so much time he can spend on the john, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that he was slacking off on America’s dime.

Ever since the competition was first promoted as proof of the president’s gravitas, other bloggers, have expressed similar reservations. Back in 2006, Steve Benen asked Is Our President Learning? at the American Prospect:

The boasts simply strain credulity. … 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.

Reacting to Rove’s column yesterday, John Aloysius Farrell wrote at U.S. News & World Report, in Bush, Rove, and Books: Who Knew W. Had So Much Time to Read?:

. . . 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. …

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. … Where does he get the time? [Emphasis added.]

At Crooks and Liars, in Karl Rove: Bush’s Books, John Amato wrote:

I love to read too, but I think my job requirements are a little less stressful than being the president. Do you think his persistent book reading was a way to remain in a state of deep denial about the state of our nation?

At My DD, in Should the President Really Be Reading Two Books a Week?, Jonathan Singer wrote:

. . . just thinking about these numbers — 1.83 books per week — you get the sense that the President could more efficiently use his time. Just going by the amount of reading I do on a day-to-day basis between reading for blogging and reading for law school, it’s difficult for me to get through more than a dozen books a year. … I would assume that the job of the President of the United States requires as much or more reading than does the job of being a political blogging law student. . . so it’s difficult for me to visualize where the time to read a couple books. . . every single week would materialize for a President.

Reading this much — worse, no doubt skimming to keep pace with Rove –- lends credence to my theory that, aside from hoping to accrue glory for bringing freedom to the Middle East, Bush never really had much interest in being president. Less even, as time wore on and the morass he’d mired the country in proved increasingly un-navigable.

What this country needs –- and has somehow received despite its reputation for anti-intellectualism –- is a president-elect who has read. Not only that — will wonders never cease — he’s written.

More at Memeorandum.

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17 replies »

  1. Another angle – which doesn’t excuse anything – might be depression. A great many sufferers will hole themselves up and read non-stop because it offers mental escape. If you’re reading, you’re not thinking.

    But after reading Rove’s WSJ piece, i think it’s all a load of BS. I get the distinct feeling that the reading competition is nothing more than legacy building.

  2. I agree with Lex. BS. Bush never read that many books. Nothing in his background suggests that sort of intellectual curiosity. He’s actually expressed contempt for intellectuals, so it seems difficult to believe that he’d spend much time becoming one — or reading books by those he despises.

    I give this a 95%+ chance of being a lie.

  3. I don’t know, Yale and Harvard aren’t slouch schools, even to get “Gentleman’s C’s”, and Bush graduated from both. Speculating whether he has intellectual curiosity is probably a waste of time. I understand GWB’s contempt for intellectuals, as there is a huge difference between really smart people and intellectuals…and he hasn’t shown contempt for smart people. Frankly, I do understand his contempt for intellectuals, not to say that I share exactly the same views.

    Jeff

  4. I used to talk the same line, Jeff. In my head I drew this distinction between “intelligent” and “intellectual” and made a lot of noise about not being the latter.

    Then I realized I was being ridiculous. People who don’t like “intellectuals” are people who dislike it when smart people acknowledge their brains. Frame it any way you like, but basically it comes down to not liking a certain superior attitude. Which, of course, has nothing to do with intelligence or intellectualism at all. I can show you the identical attitude in people who aren’t smart enough to come in out of the raid.

    In this frame, intelligent folks are better because they don’t go around acting all superior, which is another way of saying that they allow ignorance to run around with the same measure of regard as they do genius.

    Disagree with how I see it? Fine. But in the end debating over intelligent vs intellectual in America is like listening to starving men arguing over which is better, ribeye or NY Strip. They don’t have either damned one …

  5. Dr Slammy.

    Good point.

    One thing I noticed way back in my college days was a large percentage of the self described “Intellectuals” seemed to be concentrated in the liberal arts disciplines. The really smart people, who never considered themselves to be intellectuals, studied the physical sciences, math, and engineering. Of course, I’m not denying the existence of intellectuals in the non-science realm, but question the numbers and percentages. As this is only opinion, it would be nice to quantify with numbers.

    There seems to be quite a few self important people both on and off campus who acknowledge their brains, when they should keep their mouths shut….and stay out of the rain:)

    The intellectuals have always exhibited a smug superiority to the science crowd on the whole,…..something I really never understood. I find it ever so amusing whenever I run into an “Intellectual” who is shocked that I have a rather thorough knowledge of the Classics, despite the fact that my studies were in the physical sciences.

    What is an intellectual? Who defines if one is an intellectual…should it be bestowed upon someone, or is it a personally bestowed label? Is IQ the measure of who is an intellectual, or is it something entirely different? Can one consider them self to be an intellectual while their peers say otherwise? If the label “intellectual” is bestowed on the person by someone, can it be taken away? Would an intellectual who suffered a severe brain injury with a resulting lower IQ still be classified as an intellectual? Finally, how could one quantify all of this and find a line of demarcation between intellectual and non-intellectual.

    Jeff

    Jeff

  6. Slammy:

    The way I see it, anyone can call him or herself an intellectual, the same way anyone can say, “I’m an athlete.” It may even be true. I could call myself an athlete, I suppose, because I occasionally do something athletic and/or because I once played high school sports in a very weak league. It wouldn’t make me a very good athlete, of course, but that’s beside the point. I’ve known people who called themselves artists even though they weren’t (and aren’t) very good.

    Having said that, I’ve never known anyone to label him or herself “an intellectual.” Maybe Buckley referred to the “intellectual tradition” or some such, but I never heard even him say “I’m an intellectual.”

    But, to expand upon your point, the term is often applied (in my experience) to people who are simply smarter or more learned than others. My children have sometimes been accused of being stuck up (or what have you) by other children because they used a word or words that the other children didn’t know. As you know, choosing words carefully is common in my house, and we use a lot of words. The interesting thing is that my children simply used words that are common coin in my house, and it was the other children who jumped to the conclusion that using words they don’t understand was done in an attempt to make those other children feel stupid (or whatever).

    So, what is an intellectual? I mean a true one and, I suppose, a good one? I think it’s someone who thinks and thinks well, reads and learns widely, and attempts to understand things before deciding on a course of action. The anti-intellectual is, I suppose, someone who often acts on gut instinct and/or eschews, and perhaps despises, learning for anything other than very narrow, occupational purposes.

    It is this sense in which W has contempt for intellectuals. He makes decisions with his gut (or by talking to God, or both, I suppose), decides what the truth is and then looks for evidence supporting his preconceived notions while discarding data that contradict his revealed Truth, and believes in the “fire, ready, aim” style of management.

    The idea that this guy reads any book more complex than The Hunt for Red October defies all sense of who and what this man is.

    (A note) Being intellectual does not mean that one is always right. Far from it. Marx was mostly wrong, as was Freud. Friedman was substantially wrong. Nash was certainly wrong (or at least very incomplete). If one makes the wrong assumptions or fails to include an important factor(s) in a complex problem, then the best built logic structure is useless. Marx didn’t believe in the power of the electorate. Freud simply had too few data. Friedman made an underlying assumption that had been proven wrong even when he made it (though proven wrong outside his field). Nash just flat didn’t understand human nature, and certainly didn’t understand the pleasure of revenge that overrode his equilibrium based on self-interest and cold logic.

    Having said that, all of those people were very useful to others. If they did nothing else, they reframed the world and gave science things to test and disprove and, in disproving, they pushed us towards new learning.

    My guess is that Bush hates all that because he can’t do it and doesn’t understand it. He makes knee jerk decisions and is absolutely sure that any decision he makes must be right.

    He’s the most dangerous kind of man.

  7. A few points:
    First off, I’d have to agree with Lex’s charge of “legacy building”. This is kind of a weird point in Bush’s presidency for Rove to break out the intellectual bravado (look! me So smart!). With the economy, the wars, health care, etc. going down in flames, why does he want to start a book club?

    I don’t mind the amount that they claim to read, I was just hoping for a few less biographies and a few more intelligence briefings and congressional reports on the consequences of privatizing social security and the like. When you couple this with the amount of time he spent a Crawford, he truly looks like he doesn’t give a damn.

    Lastly, here’s a definition of “intellectual”: A person who you disagree with who speaks expertly on a subject. Whether they are an expert in that subject or whether their conclusions are correct is irrelevant.

  8. So then we might say that intelligence is something innate while being intellectual is something cultivated. We might also say that America, in general, prefers to leave the fields fallow.

    But i disagree that the intellectual eschews gut based decision making, if only because sometimes that’s all that there is to decide with. Of course, an intellectual’s gut decision will tend to be better than a non-intellectual’s gut decision: more stuff goes into the gut before the decision is made.

    By the way, it’s great to see you back, JS.

  9. JS: I might argue a tad on a side point here. I would say about Marx that he was substantially right up to a point and pretty much all wrong past point. It seems that he did a very good at describing the problem, but jumped the rails when it came to solving it.

    Otherwise, ditto….

  10. Slammy: i don’t know that we can even say that Marx was wrong in his solution…if only because we’ve never actually seen the solution put into practice. The USSR was Marxist in name only once Lenin died…besides for the fact that it was designed for a society that Russia was a far cry from. The Bolsheviks had to create a proletariat out of what was still a peasant society. And the process made a proletariat hell hole out of Petrograd and Moscow that was worse than anything Marx might have imagined.

    Lenin recognized (or seemed to) the issue with his adoption of the NEP, which allowed small scale free markets. But then he was an intellectual. My favorite historical “what if” is Lenin not dying. Or at least not being replaced by the anti-intellectual Stalin, who pretty much plastered “Marxist” over a fascist structure. The people had ownership in name only.

    Post war Western Europe, on the other hand, had significant traits of Marxism. From the power of unions to the amazingly small pay gap between doctors and, say, parking lot attendants. They certainly adopted the “to each according to his needs” facet of Marx’s philosophy. Whether it was successful or not (or even Marxist) could be argued till the end times.

  11. Is another characteristic of intellectuals the compulsion to interminably debate questions to which they all agree there can never be any conclusive answer?

  12. Lex said, “We might also say that America, in general, prefers to leave the fields fallow.”

    This might suggest that our fields aren’t as fallow as you perceive.
    http://tinyurl.com/8zrmsp

    Ann,
    I don’t know….. If I knew the questions had no answers, I wouldn’t have asked them. 500 years ago, everyone thought the Earth was the center of the universe and that the sun revolved around the earth. To say different was considered heresy among the intellectuals and church….much like global warming deniers are considered to be heretics. It took a few great men like Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton to finally dispel those ideas. I personally hope that there are correct answers to every question.

    Jeff

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