Why is George Bush reading Camus?

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Aug. 14 2006 2:37 PM

Stranger and Stranger

Why is George Bush reading Camus?

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Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

On his summer vacation in Crawford, Texas, George Bush read Albert Camus' novel The Stranger. I'm not sure what to make of this. It's usually college freshmen who suddenly take up the French existentialist's slim volume, and then usually to impress some literature major with wavy hair. Perhaps it was an act of glasnost: Bush has spent much of his presidency dismissing the French, so now he reads one of the country's literary heroes and goes public about it. But in Crawford? The president and his aides have long characterized the town as the kind of sensible place where anyone caught reading heady foreign literature-philosophy would be driven to the county line. Maybe that's the idea—challenge the prevailing stereotype about the president's favorite place and his intellect?

Whatever the reasons, Camus' story line is ripe for geopolitical literary misinterpretation. The main character, Meursault, spends much of his life as the young George Bush did, engaging in escapades that demonstrate little drive or motivation. On a visit to the beach with friends, he gets into a fight with some Arabs. Later, he finds one of the Arabs and without much further provocation shoots him repeatedly. During the circus-trial that follows, and the long hours Meursault spends in jail, he is remorseless and unable to engage in contemplation. On the day of his execution, he has a flickering thought that he might have lived another life. But mostly he's excited about the day and hopes that everyone will cheer for his death.

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Unhappy tales of East meets West are found in the papers every day, so presumably the president was looking for more, but his aides will not tell us what he made of the story of a remorseless killer of Arabs. White House spokesman Tony Snow said Bush "found it an interesting book and a quick read" and talked about it with aides. "I don't want to go too deep into it, but we discussed the origins of existentialism," said Snow.

Oh please, Tony, go into it. This is no time to be vague. The president uttered the word "crusade" a single time when talking about fighting terrorists and critics in Europe and the Middle East still use it as proof that his war aims are motivated by 11th-century wide-eyed religious zealotry. Surely someone is going to think that Bush read the book because he identifies with Meursault. There's got to be another explanation. Does his experience in Iraq push him to read works replete with themes of angst, anxiety, and dread? Was the president trying to gain insight into the thinking of Europeans who are skeptical of his plan for democracy in the Middle East, founded as it is on the idea of a universal rational essence that existentialists reject? Did he just want to read something short for his truncated vacation? This may be the first time that national security demands an official version of literary criticism. We want a book report!

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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