Karl Rove deployed his Wall Street Journal column yesterday to defend his old boss' intellectual bona fides. To hear Rove tell it, George W. Bush has devoted much of his free time to wading through weighty fiction (Camus) and nonfiction tomes. Just as Rove once tried to play up Bush's Texan roots, he now emphasizes his inner bookworm side, noting that Bush, at bottom, is an Ivy League man, sporting a history degree from Yale, no less.
Is Rove fibbing when he reports that Bush plowed through some 95 books last year? I think not. With Bush's poll ratings at a historical low, the president, as he heads toward his new home in an exclusive Dallas neighborhood, really has nothing left to gain by pretending any longer to be just plain folks. As pleasant as it sounds, however, book-reading should not be equated with wisdom or good judgment. Plenty of leaders in history have read lots of books with ill-effects for everyone else.
What's more, Bush may have ripped through a lot of volumes, but did he intellectually engage with them? Rove provides no evidence that he and Bush ever discussed the volumes they were reading. Instead, it sounds like an exercise in one-upmanship--to see who can polish off the most books in a year. It's hard to imagine that Bush, who once ordered Rove to fetch his jacket from a chair in the Oval Office, regarded him as worthy of debating. And as Richard Cohen points out in the Washington Post, none of the books on the Civil War or Abraham Lincoln that Bush seems to have devoured challenged any aspect of his thinking. They confirmed it. Cheerfully oblivious to the havoc he has wrought at home and abroad, Bush, you could, say is confirmation of the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.
As Rove seeks to bolster Bush's image, however, he will probably continue to insist on Bush's prodigious intellectual powers. Watch for further Rove columns reporting that Bush is headed to Greece to help assist an archeological dig in Athens, immersing himself in Latin texts, and attending a course at New York's New School on French New Wave films.