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Media Say Obama Is A ‘Bookworm.’ Are They Sure?


President Obama spoke to students last week about his favorite books growing up. He mentioned Dr. Seuss, The Hardy Boys, The Great Gatsby, The Hobbit, Treasure Island and Of Mice And Men.

The Washington Post published a piece headlined, “Here are Obama’s favorite books. Let’s over-analyze them.” Except the analysis was pretty light:

Conclusion: Obama’s literary picks were a mix of safe and semi-bold choices, but even the bolder choices are broadly popular books. They show a president in his final years in office who can afford to say they like more than biographies of beloved historical Americans or John Grisham novels.

Politico ran a piece about this with the curious claim:

Obama is known as a bookworm, and he has famously taken his daughters to buy gifts at two of Washington ’s most famous independent bookstores — Kramerbooks and Politics and Prose. During each visit, his purchases were recorded in news reports.

President Obama is known as a bookworm? And he “famously” took his daughters to … bookstores? And his purchases were “recorded in news reports”! This entire paragraph reads like a parody of media treatment of President Obama. It’s not just Politico, of course. One day a few years ago, the New York Times had not one, not two, but three separate stories about President Obama securing a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

The Politico piece goes on to disparage Republican politicians:

Asking presidents and presidential contenders their favorite reads has become a staple of political reporting. While running for the vice presidency, Sarah Palin famously couldn’t name a single newspaper that she reads daily, while Mitt Romney flubbed the question during his 2012 presidential bid by telling Fox News he had just read George W. Bush’s book “Decision Points” six months after he told NBC’s “Today” show he’d just finished the same book.

Oh, so Mitt Romney “flubbed” by saying he’d just finished George W. Bush’s book six months after he told someone else that? What a horrible mistake that would surely mark someone as a non-reading rube, right?

Wait, no. That’s only true if you’re a member of the wrong party. Tevi Troy wrote, in the definitive book on presidential consumption of literature and pop culture:

Despite all of the excitement about Obama’s reading, his actual literary consumption may be more limited than some people think. For example, the New York Times‘ Peter Baker reported in early October 2010 that Obama was “seeking guidance in presidential biographies,” including Taylor Branch’s The Clinton Tapes. On December 25, more than two-and-a-half months later (and more, if you think about the lead time for pieces in the New York Times Magazine), the Washington Post also reported that Obama was reading Branch’s book. This double-reporting across a lengthy period suggests that the very busy president was, understandably, taking a long time to get through the book’s 720 pages. The delay also suggested that Obama’s reading was not as regular or as assiduous as enthusiasts claimed. A slightly embarrassing incident, characterized as a “mini scandal,” took place in August of 2009, when Obama’s staff told the press that he was reading Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded. The problem was that Obama was also reported to have been reading the very same book in September 2008.

Troy also wrote elsewhere :

His reading periods appear to center around his vacations; he apparently does not read very much when not on holiday. In a conversation with the New York Times’s Michael Powell, he acknowledged that one of the challenges of the presidency is that “you have very little chance to really read. I basically floss my teeth and watch SportsCenter.” … Understandable, in any event, for a politician, although perhaps not for a celebrated intellectual.

Politico goes on to argue that George W. Bush had “among his critics” a “less-than-literary reputation.” They write that his aide Karl Rove fought that characterization aggressively, noting that Bush read nearly 200 books in the last three years of his presidency alone and reread the Bible each year. honcho Ezra Klein, who is routinely praised as some kind of intellectual policy wonk, found that number too hard to believe. His explanation why, though, might make you cry.

Reading books, particularly nonfiction books, takes a really long time. It’s hard, and it’s boring, and I say this all as an effete liberal intellectual who likes reading long, boring books but can’t, like everyone else I know, seem to finish them. I’m pleased to get through one or two a month, and you’re telling me Bush, in his time off from running the country, doing a couple hours of exercise a day, and going to bed early, has read sixty?

Weep for your country, Americans. The people who hope to “explain” the news to you are happy if they read one book a month! Nevermind that it doesn’t take a long time to read books. It’s not hard. It’s not boring. And if everyone you know can’t finish books, get new people to know. Immediately. (To be fair to Klein, the lack of reading seemed to be a problem for other progressives, too.)

Politico writes:

Whether Obama reads as much as George W. Bush did (according to Rove’s accounting) remains unclear. But he does have the upper hand in one regard — the president’s own writing has earned the praise of perhaps the two greatest living American authors, Toni Morrison and Philip Roth.

But it’s not just Rove’s accounting, is it! I’d recommend reading Keith Hennessey’s “George W. Bush is smarter than you,” or even Frank Bruni’s admission regarding Bush’s reading habits.

When it was first published a few years ago, I was struck by Walt Harrington’s piece in The American Scholar on President Bush’s voracious reading habits. Whether you were a fan of Bush’s or not, this is a piece you’ll want to read. Harrington was not a Bush aide. He wasn’t even a Bush voter. (“I disagree with him on the Supreme Court, environment, abortion, the death penalty and affirmative action,” he wrote.) But as a longtime journalist, he’d gotten to know Bush decades before the presidency. And in his essay “Dubya and Me,” Harrington recounts how Bush had books by “John Fowles, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and Gore Vidal lying about, as well as biographies of Willa Cather and Queen Victoria” around his house during a 1986 visit.

Later in the piece he writes:

He certainly enjoys reading and talking about books. And his friends know it. On his desk is a stack of books that have come as gifts: All Things Are Possible Through Prayer; Basho: The Complete Haiku; Children of Jihad; and Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children. To the pile, I add my own gift, Cleopatra by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Stacy Schiff. Right now, Bush is reading Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life, a biography of the first president. “Chernow’s a great historian,” Bush says excitedly. “I think one of the great history books I read was on Alexander Hamilton by Chernow. But I also read House of Morgan, Titan, and now I’m reading Washington.”

He mentions David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter, a book about the Korean War that he read before a visit last year to Korea, to give a speech to evangelicals. “I stand up in front of 65,000 Christians to give a speech in South Korea … ,” he says, “and I’m thinking about the bloody [battles] fought in the Korean War.” Halberstam’s book—coupled with earlier readings of David McCullough’s Truman and Robert Beisner’s Dean Acheson, a biography of Truman’s secretary of state presented to him by Bush’s own secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice—gave the event deeper resonance. The decisions of the unpopular President Harry S Truman, he realized, made it possible for a former U. S. president to speak before freely worshipping Koreans 60 years later. “So history, in this case, gave me a better understanding of the moment, and … put it all into context—the wonder of the moment.”

I tick off a partial list of people Bush has read books about in recent years in addition to Washington, Truman, and Acheson: Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, Huey Long, Lyndon Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Mellon, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ulysses S. Grant, John Quincy Adams, Genghis Khan.

“Genghis Khan?” I ask incredulously.

“I didn’t know much about him. I was fascinated by him. I guess I’ve always been fascinated by larger-than-life figures. That’s why I’m looking forward to reading Cleopatra. I know nothing about her. … But you can sit there and be absorbed by TV, let the news of the moment consume you. You can just do nothing. I choose to read as a form of relaxation. … Laura used to say, ‘Reading is taking a journey,’ and she’s right.”

Other titles mentioned in the piece include:

  • The Raven, by Marquis James, a biography of Sam Houston, the father of Texas statehood
  • Richard Carwardine’s Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power (one of 14 Lincoln biographies Bush read while he was president)
  • Presidential Courage, by Michael Beschloss
  • Supreme Command by Eliot Cohen
  • Dereliction of Duty by Colonel H. R. McMaster
  • The Case for Democracy by Natan Sharansky

Harrington writes:

President Bush has just about lipped his cigar to death, but still he keeps working it. “The job of the president is to be strategic in thought and to look over the horizon,” he says, waving the soggy cigar. “And history helps a president look over the horizon.” In the White House, Bush sometimes read for pleasure in the Treaty Room, the president’s private office, lounging back in its comfortable chair with his feet up on the desk, or while exercising on the elliptical machine. But mostly, he read, as he had in Midland, at night in bed. “Reading books,” Bush says, “means you’re not lonely.”

I mean, all of this reading may not be enough to get the media to fawn over your reading habits as “famously” taking your daughters to a bookstore or two to buy gifts, but it’s something, eh?

Whether or not President Obama takes a long time to finish books and whether or not he has a particularly diverse or deep reading list is his own business. But it would be great if the media weren’t so cartoonishly invested in pushing the idea that Republicans don’t read and Democrats do, particularly when the evidence regularly contradicts them.