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January 2, 2009


  Karl Rove’s recent revelation of President George W. Bush’s passion for books wasn’t a surprise to me. In a Wall Street Journal column last week, Rove explained that for the last three years, he and the president have had a friendly rivalry to see who could finish more books during the year. Rove won each year – but the president was no piker. In the three years of the competition, the president read 186 books to Rove’s 250.

Much of the intelligentsia no doubt will be shocked to learn George W. Bush is an avid reader of serious books, but it simply confirms something I already suspected. During the first real discussion I ever had with then-Gov. Bush in 1998, he brought up a book written by a former colleague of mine at the Manhattan Institute.

Myron Magnet’s “The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass” isn’t the sort of book you come across if your taste goes to light reading. A scathing dissection of good intentions gone awry, Magnet’s book lays bare the folly of liberal interventions on behalf of the poor and the devastating role of the counterculture in creating the underclass. But it’s no red-meat screed of the sort that has propelled many well-known pundits to the top of the best-seller list either. Magnet is not a polemicist, but a serious scholar and elegant writer. Bush’s reference to the book spoke worlds to me.

Liberals have always believed they have a monopoly on intelligence. Of all the Republican presidents in my lifetime, I can only recall one who was given high marks for raw intellect: Richard M. Nixon. But he was considered by many liberals as a Machiavellian exception that proved the rule that conservatives are dopes. In liberals’ telling, Eisenhower and Ford were middle-brow Midwesterners who preferred the golf links to books; Reagan was a B-film actor capable of giving a good speech that someone else wrote; and the two Bushes were Yale graduates by way of money and pedigree, not merit.

Of course we now know – thanks to the publication of “Reagan, In His Own Hand,” a reproduction of Reagan’s early handwritten speeches – that Ronald Reagan was often his own best wordsmith and that his ideas were original, not borrowed. And perhaps liberals will now grudgingly acknowledge that Dwight D. Eisenhower must have had something on the ball, if not for his role in defeating the uber-smart Germans during World War II, at least for contributing to the gene pool of granddaughter Susan Eisenhower, who proved how smart she was by endorsing the brainy Barack Obama.

Contrary to the stereotype that all conservatives are narrow-minded dummies, I’ve found that conservatives are far more likely to be familiar with liberal intellectual thought than liberals are with the views of conservative intellectuals.

Bush’s reading list was instructive not just because it was so long but because it included authors whose political orientation was different from the president’s own. Included on the list provided by Rove were works by authors David Halberstam, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and James M. McPherson, all liberals, as well as the novel “The Stranger” by Albert Camus, generally regarded as an existentialist, though he eschewed the label.

It would be a little like learning that Bill Clinton’s reading list in office included works by James Q. Wilson, Stephan Thernstrom, and Harvey Klehr, as well as Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.” But what we know of his reading habits reveal Clinton to be predictable. A list of his 21 favorite books, compiled for his presidential library, included authors Maya Angelou, Ralph Ellison, Taylor Branch, Reinhold Niebuhr, and, naturally, Hillary Clinton – all well to the left on the political spectrum.

Bush’s book list isn’t likely to convince his critics that the president’s intellect is equal to their exalted own. And I can even imagine some complaining that the number of books the president read proves he was ignoring his job. But perhaps Rove’s article will at least dispel a favorite caricature: Bush the Dummy.


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