What do you do with a drunken sailor?

Notes from the political sidelines.
Oct. 29 2006 11:59 PM

What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?

With this election sinking fast, Republicans debate how not to lose the next one.

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Instead of spending the sixth year of his presidency globe-trotting to solve the mess in Iraq or poring over options memos on how to address middle-class families' economic concerns, Bush seems to have dedicated every waking, nontreadmill moment to one cause: reading books.

Two months ago, Ken Walsh of U.S. News reported that Bush had already read a staggering 60 books in 2006. Quick reads like Albert Camus's The Stranger and three plays by Shakespeare drew most of the scorn, but plenty of weighty doorstoppers made the list as well.

Admittedly, the list itself is suspect. The same U.S. News article suggesting that Bush was on a two-book-a-week pace marveled that "the commander in chief delved into three volumes in August alone."

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But if the list is for real, it's evidence of presidential dereliction of duty and perhaps an outright threat to national security. Two books a week is an uphill battle for a graduate student whose responsibilities don't even include showering. For a president, who lives at work, reading and comprehending two serious books a month takes a Herculean effort.

In the same way his father played speed-golf, Bush seems to have embraced speed-reading. That's Republicans' whole problem this year: too many pages, too little comprehension.

Lest anyone mistake his newfound literary interest as a summer fling, this weekend Bush revealed his latest read: The History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, by British historian Andrew Roberts. Any title with the word "peoples" is a Bushism waiting to happen, and sure enough, the president stumbled over the title, calling it The History of the English-Speaking Peoples From 1990.(CliffsNotes synopsis: up and down.) Asked on ABC's This Week what he had learned from the book, all the president said was, "Sometimes, history gets distorted."

The book won't even be released in the U.S. until next February. That means Bush has read so many books this year, he had to start importing them from other English-speaking countries.

Bush gave another reason why he has to buy books overseas: He refuses to read books (pro or con) about his administration. That doesn't leave much to choose from on Amazon—memoirs by former White House correspondents, manifestos by former White House operatives, prick-and-tells by disgruntled former employees from other professions—and never more than one degree of separation from Bob Woodward.

Bush is right that it's myopic for a president to spend his time reading books about an administration in progress. The only thing a president might learn from an insider account of his own administration is something he should already know—which aides do the most leaking. If Bush were quicker on his feet, he would have put George Stephanopoulos on the spot about whether White House aides should write kiss-and-tell memoirs about an administration in progress, either.

But if Washington books are a particular waste of a president's time, are biographies and baseball books much better? Don't get me wrong—every president should have an active mind, and reading can do much to help a president understand (or temporarily escape) the history he's shaping. But the past year provides conclusive proof that a well-read bad president is no better—and may be worse—than a bad president who uses that time to dedicate himself to governing badly.

At least for the next two weeks, Bush's presidency is still a work in progress, if you can call it that. When the full story behind his speed-reading becomes known, historians can decide whom to blame. In August, U.S. News suggested that far from reading alone, the president was in a reading race with Karl Rove, one Bush brain against another. Without the benefit of an indictment, Rove had fallen 10 books behind.

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