Books

Emmett Tyrrell

2/10/2005 12:00:00 AM - Emmett Tyrrell

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Well, well, our debonair president, George W. Bush, has let the cat out of the bag.

 Caution! For our friends at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, that is just an expression. The president has not actually placed any cats in a bag. In fact, there is no bag, only this astonishing story. According to the International Herald Tribune, he reads books. Yes, the thickest most illiterate president since Ronald Reagan is a reader -- admittedly, a closet reader. He does not boast of his erudition, as say, Bill Clinton did. Remember when Clinton boasted about reading so many books at Oxford? He claimed to read hundreds. I think it was 200 in a year. What do you recall?

 GWB only seems to read a handful of books a year, but imagine what he is reading now. He is reading "I Am Charlotte Simmons," what the Herald Tribune calls a "racy, new beer- and sex-soaked novel," by Tom Wolfe.

 Elisabeth Bumiller, the journalist who wrote the piece, speculates that the president is reading it to gain a better understanding of his daughters, both recent college graduates with a sense of joie de vivre. Or possibly he is reading it to "journey back to his keg nights" in college, she adds.

 Then again, Bumiller speculates he might read it "for the writing." Actually he may be reading it for pleasure. It is an amusing book, also instructive. The college life this novel depicts is very much like the college life I glimpse when I am on an American campus, though I believe Wolfe has gone rather easy on the profs. Many are even more juvenile than the students.

 Frankly, I am not surprised to read that GWB reads books. He comes from a rather private family, one that does not exploit its every personal aspect as so many politicians do. The family is avid for sport, as we all know. Yet a day of sport with the Bushes is difficult to keep from the press, involving, as it might, a half dozen outdoor exercises in a day: fishing, tennis, golf. I tire thinking of it all. Their other interests, being private, are easier to be reticent about.

 I knew the present president's father, and he, too, was a reader. Both read history and biography more than fiction. That is a reasonable choice given that these are men of action, who read for pleasure, I am sure, but also to get a sense of how their predecessors responded to the demands of politics. What I did not know was that apparently both men have been fans of Tom Wolfe. That shows literary taste. Wolfe is at the very top of the American writing heap.

 The Bushes' reluctance to boast about their civilized side is very attractive. Yet now the president tells Bumiller that he reads 20 or 30 pages a night. He has recently read "His Excellency: George Washington" by Joseph J. Ellis and "Alexander Hamilton" by Ron Chernow. These are very dignified and restrained books. Yet he has also divulged that he reads the Bible through from beginning to end every other year. Now that should have tipped Bumiller off that Bush has an appetite for racy stuff.

 The Bible is drenched in all the racy matters that Wolfe takes up, and more. It has sex. If it is not beer-drenched, it is at least wine-drenched. It also has violence, and depending on the translation, it can be in elegant English. So maybe we should not be so surprised that the president is reading Tom Wolfe.

 He also admits to reading Oswald Chambers, the nineteenth century Christian thinker who brings up moral problems both deep and occasionally not-so-deep for readers to tussle with on a daily basis.

 That is the president's most astounding revelation. Chambers is a learned and deeply intelligent man. He writes for ordinary people, but the president is not in the position of an ordinary person. One wonders how he applies many of Chambers' thoughts on morals to the unusual matters of politics and geopolitics that a president deals with nowadays. Ms. Bumiller, can you give the president a call?