Caveats aside, I am stunned that President Bush has the time to read so many books. While I know the President doesn’t really “run” the country and he has thousands of people working for him to burn both ends of the candle, I guess I always assumed given the schedule of the two secretaries I worked for at DHS that President Bush’s day was packed with telephone calls, meetings, briefings, events, and Oval Office time to read memorandum, briefing papers, and reports. Of course, he has lots of travel time, but what is the point of secure communication equipment and an Air Force One Oval Office if not to continue working?
During his most “productive” year in 2006, he read 95 books, or almost two books per week. He apparently didn’t keep track of 2005. When I left DHS in May 2006, despite my love of reading, I had read one book (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”) in the previous twenty-six months. I had a four foot stack of back issue periodicals and another three foot stack of the four newspapers I subscribed to, but rarely had time to consistently read. It took me nineteen months to work my way through the backlog. Between daily DHS fires, Hurricane Katrina, and my family, I simply didn’t have time to read – even knowing that some of the lessons in those unread books and periodicals could have helped me formulate better homeland security policy.
Out of curiosity, I asked several colleagues from the upper echelons of corporate America, think tanks, government, and non-governmental organizations how many books they read in 2008. Some in the group actually got paid to read books. Some had kids at home. All lead busy lives. Only one reacted to Rove’s column positively. Of the group, three individuals were able to read between thirty and seventy books, but the rest all read between ten and fifteen books. I managed to read twenty-three books.
According to First Lady Laura Bush, President Bush wakes up at 5:30 AM, eats breakfast and reads the newspaper, and gets to work around 7:00 AM. The Bushes reconvene for dinner at 6:00 PM, watch a movie or read, and then “go to bed early.” Long hours, of course, don’t necessarily translate into a successful presidency. After all, Ronald Reagan was not a night owl and his presidency is rated among the greatest; whereas, Bill Clinton was known to engage in endless policy debates into the wee hours of the night and his presidency is rated as mediocre.
I don’t mean to be mean-spirited or belittle him, but, after all that reading, President Bush ends his presidency having advocated for a $700 billion feckless and opaque federal program and giving inefficient and ineffective Detroit automakers $17 billion so they can survive until Barack Obama and congressional Democrats effectively can nationalize them. It would have been nice had he learned a few lessons from history about massive federal spending programs – they rarely work and come loaded with unintended consequences that tend to do more harm than good.
Like all of us, President Bush needs time to read as he, too, needs to learn the lessons and wisdom contained in books. He also needs downtime to recharge his batteries. Being the president is draining. While it is unfair, one has to wonder how different things might have been had President Bush read half the books on his list and spent the time instead diving a little more deeply into issues like counterinsurgency, financial markets, monetary policy, housing policy, and government spending.
As Roman philosopher Seneca said, “It is quality, rather than quantity that matters.”
Matt A. Mayer, President & CEO of Provisum Strategies LLC and Adjunct Professor at The Ohio State University, is the author of the book “Homeland Security and Federalism: Protecting America from Outside the Beltway” available in June 2009.