By JAY AMBROSE
Back in 1999 during an editorial writers’ conference, I was chatting with a Texas journalist who had gone to the same church as George W. Bush, then running for president for the first time, and pushed her for any insights she might have into the man. Was he as intellectually klutzy as people were making him out to be? Did he have a brain?
He was a reader, she told me. The woman recounted a time Bush had spotted her with a book — I don’t remember what it was now — and asked her about it. She recommended it to him, and two weeks later, he told her he had read it and shared a few thoughts with her about it.
As I recall, she provided other testimony of Bush’s search for understanding in the world of books. Because I prize reading as among the most precious pursuits of the human species, I was impressed. Now that the White House has released a list of some of the 60 books Bush has read this year, are any of his most ardent critics similarly impressed? Of course, not. Their assumption all along has been that he never reads anything and now at least one — Bob Cesca, a blogger, writer and film director — states flat-out that Bush is lying.
The truth is that many of the critics who keep telling us that Bush is incurious are themselves incurious, loath to put their favorite asininities at risk through the exercise of open-minded, honest inquiry. Jonathan Chait of The New Republic argued prior to the list’s release that Bush was too dumb to be president, citing among other things the president’s supposed "disdain for book learnin’." Had Chait been more inquiring himself — is he too dumb to write for The New Republic? — he might have learned that Bush has a thing for books. It was easier to rest his case on some meaningless impressions, sloppy analysis and one-sided evidence.
Once the story was out, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times reacted specifically to the news that Bush had read Albert Camus’ "The Stranger" — and did so in typical dowdy fashion, shabbily getting in a line wondering if Mad magazine was "tucked inside the … classic of angst," and telling us how absurd it was that the president would be reading the philosopher of the absurd. Not really. Camus — who respected the moral possibilities of religious belief though not a believer — was forever struggling with how you find meaning in the world. In an era in which so many are engaged in such a struggle, it makes sense for a serious president to ponder this novel.
I think Bush is in fact serious, and maybe twice as complicated as his detractors grasp, even if he is also a stumble-tongue.
His inarticulateness is no small failing in a president, who must on occasion lead by extemporaneous voice. A more fluent Bush would have better explained this war on terrorists, why the tax cuts were not just handouts to the rich and why it was important to restructure Social Security. But even here Bush showed his other side _ hiring as his top speechwriter Michael Gerson, among the most skillful phrasemakers in recent White House history.
Gerson has left the administration now, but some of his words ("the soft bigotry of low expectations") will stick in memory for a long time, and here is what the Bush critics ought to consider: A man with no sense of the poetic does not hire a poet.
And by the way, an inability to express yourself well does not necessarily mean an inability to understand clearly. Yes, there is often a relationship between the two, but I have known people who could dance pretty verbal circles around a subject without seeming to apprehend its basics, just I have known people who slog through sentences as if through quicksand even when their apprehension has been demonstrated by exceptional achievement.
The critics say Bush is anti-intellectual, despite his association with such intellectuals as Bernard Lewis. My guess is that his problem is with those intellectuals whose mental journeys are more directed by leftist ideology than painstaking scholarship. There are many of these souls out there. He should have a problem with them.
In the end, Bush is certainly no Teddy Roosevelt — he wrote more books in his lifetime than many people read — but probably measures up reasonably well with most other presidents of the past century as a man turning to the printed word for rescue and nourishment. He is not a cardboard cowboy, as is imagined by incurious critics.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)