(Suffragist Susan B. Anthony)
Despite the superficial celebration by some and criticism by others that George W. Bush says that he doesn’t read many of America’s leading papers, the 43rd President of the United States reads a great deal of quality work.
Besides issuing occasional reading lists of what he is powering through, President Bush has impressed me on three significant occasions with regard to what he was reading.
The first occurred in March 2001 when I learned that Bush had spent part of a weekend reading Robert Kaplan’s Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus. Bush had taken the book with him to Camp David and read it during a weekend committed to preparing for a meeting with then Japan Prime Minister Yoshir Mori — dubbed the NPL Summit (NPL referred to Japan’s massive problems with non-performing loans and a stalled economy, which ironically seems to be the case in America today).
Then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was nudging Bush towards a neo-realist view of America’s foreign policy position and called Robert Kaplan to come in and offer Bush several “tutorials” on what a realist would do during a time of transition in the international system. As part of Bush’s prep work, he thoroughly read Tartary and had it annotated with his own scribbles and many pages earmarked.
Kaplan’s book is a quite good, original treatment of the Middle East and Caucasus — but it’s also heavy stuff, not very well designed for readers with attention deficit disorder or those who need a lot of pictures to lure them through.
On another occasion, I heard Bush on C-Span with Brian Lamb discussing what he was reading. Bush referred to Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, a book I have read thoroughly twice and which won not only that year’s Pulitzer Prize but also the Washington Prize, the largest cash award for founding era histories partly governed by Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience on which I sit on the Advisory Council.
Bush knew the Hamilton book. I knew he knew it from his discussion with Brian Lamb and his confident, specific references to nuanced parts of the book that would not have been easy for someone who had been handed just crib notes. Bush had read this 856 page book masterpiece on one of the key sculptors and enablers of the American nation.
On another news show, unfortunately I can’t remember whether it was with Tim Russert or Larry King or some other celebrity news anchor, Bush kept referring to various biographies he had been reading about American presidents and other world leaders. He stated that he had read biographies on virtually all of the American presidents, and on the founding fathers who were involved in the forging of America’s political system — including Franklin and Hamilton — and then others who did get to the top office like John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and of course, George Washington.
Bush wanted to stay on the subject of the leaders he had studied and the challenges they had faced when the news anchor, as I recall, kept trying to shift the topic to something less memorable. Bush had read Churchills’ works and about Churchill, and Mao, and Adenauer, and de Gaulle.
And while less impressive to me, we know for certain that Bush read and was deeply moved by works by Nathan Sharansky and Bernard Lewis. He invited the famous Yale historian and intellectual giant John Lewis Gaddis to conversations in the White House.
No matter where one may sit on the political spectrum and whether one believes or not that George W. Bush served his nation and our system of checks and balances and civil society well, the notion that he is entirely anti-intellectual and that his only pals were baseball franchise owners and oil men is contrived mystique.
Underneath the fake rough veneer made flamboyantly rougher with his less frequent brush clearing sojourns in the hot August heat in Crawford, Texas — George W. Bush is an incredibly well read national leader.
To be clear, I don’t think Bush’s deeds have made the nation safer or more prosperous — but I go into great detail here to establish a benchmark for knowledge about America’s and mankind’s great challenges, a point of comparison for anyone who aspires to the highest office in the land.
Bush ranks low on many contemporary rankings comparing the success of presidencies. He has been called anti-intellectual and incurious by many. I don’t buy it — but he serves well as a model that conservatives would be willing to consider as a standard for the presidency.
What has Sarah Palin read?
Could she have managed to stay afloat amongst the nation’s leading thinkers and intellectuals and political mavericks and bosses during the Constitutional convention. Would she have followed the issues. Would she have voted for ratification — for the system of checks and balances so complexly assembled and for which Hamilton, Madison and others so strongly argued for?
This will sound odd, but I think George W. Bush would have done well at the Constitutional convention. He would have been among the more thuggish, cautious lot perhaps — and if not at the Convention, he might have been pals with Aaron Burr, sort of the Tom DeLay of the day.
Many don’t like George W. Bush — but he would have been a player amongst the powerful in the early days of this country’s formation had he lived then.
I don’t know whether he would have been a constructive or destructive force when the nation was struggling to put itself together — but I can see from what I know of the incumbent President now living a mile down from me at 1600 Pennsylvania that he would have understood what was going on.
Bush would have read Plutarch, Cicero and Machiavelli.
But my hunch tells me that Sarah Palin has read few if any of the great books — or read much on America’s greatest leaders, or read about the fragility of process and the passions raging at the Constitutional Convention.
I honestly don’t know what she has read. She could issue a list of books she says she has worked through — but I think that if ABC has another shot at her or if any other journalists get to spend any time on this uncertain gamble for the second highest office in the land that they give her a book test.
Ask her what she has read and quiz her a bit. What leaders in American history does she admire. What can she tell us about the Federalist papers, or about many or any of America’s best and not so great presidents? What does she know about womens’ suffrage and Susan B. Anthony? or Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass?
I doubt at the moment her experience as a leader appropriate for the nation — but my assessment of Sarah Palin could be nudged into better territory if I had evidence that she had done some self-teaching about the nation and had devoured books about our leaders, our wars, and our periods of innovation, peace and prosperity.
Matt Damon may want to know if she thinks dinosaurs lived 4,000 years ago as a benchmark for support or opposition.
I want to know more — I want to know what she knows about America.
— Steve Clemons