So, now we can all sleep better at night. We can forget about the six figure losses in our retirement and college education accounts. We can forget about the growing losses in our home equity. We can forget about the lost lives and years we spent in Iraq before the Surge. We can forget about the increasingly disintegrating stability in Afghanistan. We can forget about the runaway federal spending of the last eight years. We can forget about lost Congressional majorities, governorships, state houses, and the wreckage of the conservative movement.
It turns out President George W. Bush is smart. He reads a lot of books. He has averaged sixty-two books a year over the last three years. With everything going on in America and the world, that is what Karl “Permanent Republican Majority” Rove felt we had to know in a recent Wall Street Journal article. Wow.
Not, as one friend chided me, to be too Ann Coulter-ish, but since Rove thought it important enough to waste the valuable space he has each week in the Wall Street Journal to tell us about President Bush’s reading habits, a reaction is warranted. A few caveats are called for:
First, I voted for President Bush twice. Like most conservatives, I wouldn’t vote for an idiot. I am not sure who Rove’s audience was for his piece, but only far left diehards like Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd think the President, whose SAT score and grades bested Al Gore and John Kerry, is a dunce. Nothing Rove says will change their minds.
Next, I put my family’s future where my vote was and moved from Colorado to Washington, D.C. in March 2004 to work for President Bush as a political appointee in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Had he lost the 2004 election, I would have been out of job. As I have often said to my liberal friends who have never voted for a Republican and yet voice “anger” at how the Bush presidency turned out, those of us who actually voted for him and left our outside the Beltway lives to work for him are the ones who have a right to be angry. We are the ones left picking up the pieces of the conservative movement.
Lastly, I am an unrepentant bookphile. I collect books. Read them insatiably. Consider the really good ones friends. I think one of the most important things one can do is read good books. History is packed with lots of lessons we too often forget, so reading serves to remind us of those lessons.
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.