What Bush Is Reading

Two books on Lincoln and one on polio. Oh, and a Camus novel. It was “The Stranger” that caught everyone’s attention when the White House told of the books that President Bush was taking to Texas on his ranch vacation. Last year, he toted books about a czar, a plague and salt — no French philosophers.

This business of the most powerful man in the world announcing his current reading list, presumably to demonstrate a restless intellect (although there’s no pop quiz to see whether he’s done the reading), is comparatively new. When Coolidge and Eisenhower kicked back on fishing and golf holidays, they didn’t pack many books.

“I don’t know if most presidents spent their time reading,” said Henry Graff, professor emeritus of history at Columbia. “Grover Cleveland didn’t read even after he became a trustee of Princeton. A curator of the F.D.R. Library told me that Roosevelt collected books, but he didn’t read them.”

By contrast, John Quincy Adams rose at 4 a.m. to study Greek. Thomas Jefferson’s collection of 6,500 books formed the basis of the Library of Congress. Theodore Roosevelt took 60 volumes of Homer, Shakespeare, Milton and others on safari.

Little of this mattered to the public until 1961, when Hugh Sidey published an article in Life about John F. Kennedy’s 10 favorite books. The list was top-heavy with titles like “The Young Melbourne,” by David Cecil, and “John C. Calhoun,” by Margaret L. Coit. What captured the popular imagination was Kennedy’s selection of the Bond thriller “From Russia With Love.” Sales of Ian Fleming’s novels took off. (Kennedy didn’t need the excuse of summering at Hyannis Port to curl up with books. He would snatch them from the office of his press secretary, Pierre Salinger. “Nothing was really safe,” recalled a Salinger aide.)

Reading became a measure of presidential character during the 1988 campaign, when it was reported that Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee, had read “Swedish Land Use Planning” on vacation. The item helped cement his reputation as a dull bureaucrat — unfairly so, he said.

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