- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 10, 2005

Well, well, our debonair president, George W. Bush, has let the cat out of the bag. Caution. For our friends at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, that is just an expression. The president has not actually placed any cats in a bag. In fact there is no bag, only this astonishing story: According to the International Herald Tribune, he reads books.

Yes, the thickest most illiterate president since Ronald Reagan is a reader, admittedly a closet reader. He does not boast of his erudition, as say Bill Clinton did. Remember Mr. Clinton’s boast of reading so many books at Oxford. He claimed to read hundreds; I think 200 in a year. What do you recall?

GWB only seems to read a handful of books a year, but imagine what he is reading now. He is reading “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” what the Herald Tribune calls a “racy, new beer- and sex-soaked novel,” by Tom Wolfe. Elisabeth Bumiller, who wrote the article, speculates the president is reading it to better understand his daughters, both recent college graduates with a sense of joie de vivre. Or possibly he is reading it to “journey back to his keg nights” in college, she adds. Then Miss Bumiller speculates he might read it “for the writing.”

Actually he may be reading it for pleasure. It is an amusing book, also instructive. The college life this novel depicts is very much like the college life I glimpse when I am on an American campus, though I believe Mr. Wolfe has gone rather easy on the profs. Many are even more juvenile than the students.

Frankly I am not surprised to read GWB reads books. He comes from a rather private family, one that does not exploit its every personal aspect as so many politicians do.

The Bush family is avid for sport as we all know. Yet a day of sport with the Bushes is difficult to keep from the press, involving, as it might, a half-dozen outdoor exercises in a day: fishing, tennis, golf. I tire thinking of it all. Their other interests, being private, are easier to be reticent about.

I knew this president’s father, and he too was a reader. Both read history and biography more than fiction. That is a reasonable choice given that these are men of action who read for pleasure, I am sure, but also to get a sense of how their predecessors responded to the demands of politics. What I did not know was that apparently both men have been fans of Tom Wolfe. That shows literary taste. Mr. Wolfe is at the very top of the American writing heap.

The Bushes’ reluctance to boast about their civilized side is very attractive. Yet now the president tells Miss Bumiller he reads 20 or 30 pages a night. He has recently read “His Excellency: George Washington” by Joseph J. Ellis and “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow. These are very dignified and restrained books. Yet he has also divulged he reads the Bible through from beginning to end every other year. Now that should have tipped Miss Bumiller off that Mr. Bush has an appetite for racy stuff.

The Bible is drenched in all the racy matters Mr. Wolfe takes up, and more. It has sex. If it is not beer-drenched, it is at least wine-drenched. It also has violence, and depending on the translation it can be in elegant English. So maybe we should not be so surprised the president is reading Tom Wolfe.

He also admits to reading Oswald Chambers, the 19th century Christian thinker who brings up moral problems both deep and occasionally not so deep for readers to tussle with on a daily basis. That is the president’s most astounding revelation.

Chambers was a learned and deeply intelligent man. He wrote for ordinary people, but the president is not in the position of an ordinary person. One wonders how he applies many of Chambers’ thoughts on morals to the unusual matters of politics and geopolitics that a president deals with nowadays. Miss Bumiller, can you give the president a call?

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor in chief of the American Spectator, a contributing editor to the New York Sun, and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute.

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