President Bush is sometimes a boastful anti-intellectual, but in the past year he has been touting his reading lists and engaging in who-can-read-more contests with his chief political adviser, Karl Rove. (Bush claimed to have read 60 books in just the first seven and a half months of last year, the pace of a full-time reviewer.) There even seems to be a White House book club.
The most recent selection was A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 by conservative British writer Andrew Roberts. Bush invited Roberts for a discussion over lunch at the White House earlier this month. The author was joined by Dick Cheney (who was recently photographed carrying the book), Rove, and a group of neoconservative intellectuals including Norman Podhoretz and Gertrude Himmelfarb, along with various other officials and conservative journalists. Though the event was supposed to be off the record, several participants wrote it up afterward. (You can read their breathy accounts here and here and here.) Bush's embrace of Roberts' book is hardly surprising, given how it glorifies his presidency. But it does suggest that all the heavy reading he's been doing lately may not be opening his mind.
Roberts' book picks up in 1900, shortly before the point where Winston Churchill's four volumes of similar title leave off. It also takes up Churchill's idea that the Anglo-American alliance is responsible for the survival of liberty. Though Roberts does not favor the term, his framework closely tracks the notion of an "Anglosphere"—a natural alliance among the English-speaking former colonies of Great Britain that spreads higher civilization in the form of democracy and capitalism. His own idiosyncratic definition of English-speaking countries, which includes New Zealand but not Bermuda, Canada but not Ireland, and Australia but not India or South Africa, explains the book's curious cross-cutting from London to Wellington to Washington to Canberra.
At the core of the book is Roberts' notion of what might be called the Super-Special Relationship. When Britain could no longer rule its empire in 1946, he argues, it handed responsibility for the rest of the world over to its successor, the United States. "Just as in science-fiction people are able to live on through cryogenic freezing after their bodies die, so British post-imperial greatness has been preserved and fostered through its incorporation into the American world-historical project," Roberts writes. He views British colonialism and American hegemony as alike in their selfless benevolence and effectiveness. Like Bush, he is peeved that the recipients of our generosity are not more grateful. The answer, Roberts says, "is the first law of modern imperialism: that no good deed goes unpunished."
As a historian, Roberts is present-minded in the extreme, returning at every stage of his narrative to justifications for Bush's actions in Iraq. The neoconservatives who want to spread democracy in the Middle East are the heirs to compassionate Victorians who sought to civilize India, China, and Africa. While the reader is still choking on the casting of Richard Perle as Lord Macaulay, Roberts is hard at work grafting Bush's head onto Winston Churchill's body. The president's prosecution of the war on terror is "vigorous" and "absolutely unwavering." His and Tony Blair's Iraq war has provided "excellent value for money" to the taxpayer. That Bush has brought "full democracy" to Iraq is stated as unequivocal fact.