The Magazine

Our Literary Leaders

Books are at home in the White House.

Mar 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 26 • By RICHARD NORTON SMITH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

No such fate seems likely to befall George W. Bush. Married to a former librarian, Bush likes short speeches and, judging from a recent reading list (Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton, Joseph J. Ellis's His Excellency: George Washington), lengthy books. Early in its first term the Bush White House established an authors lecture series, which enabled the president to pick the brains of David McCullough, Edmund Morris, Martin Gilbert, Bernard Lewis, and Robert Kaplan, among others. Bush has publicly acknowledged his debt to Natan Sharansky's The Case for Democracy, which distinguishes between "free" and "fear" societies, and exalts Ronald Reagan's moral confrontation with Soviet tyranny. A recent New York Times story described his admiration for Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

Like John Quincy Adams, Bush reads the Bible every morning on rising (alternating scripture with the inspirational writings of Oswald Chambers, the Scottish-born chaplain who died in 1917 at the age of 42). Bush, like Adams, emulates his mother more than his presidential father. There the similarities end. The second Adams wrote English with one hand while translating Greek with the other, and complained that his official duties deprived him of the companionship of old friends Cicero and Tacitus. As a former professor of oratory at Harvard, Adams was openly contemptuous of the unlettered Andrew Jackson. He was appalled to learn in 1833 that his beloved alma mater intended to bestow an honorary degree on the Tennessee frontiersman who personified the triumph of western democracy, "a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and could hardly spell his own name."

When the time came, Jackson showed more dignity than his learned detractors, sitting quietly through a commencement conducted almost entirely in Latin. Contrary to Harvard legend, on receiving his degree, the old Indian warrior did not bow to his audience and declaim, "Ipso facto. Tempus fugit. Sine qua non." In the 20th century, similar jests would be made at the expense of Ronald Reagan, another westerner whose commitment to smaller government was combined with a popular style that mystified the intelligentsia. As a boy living a nomadic existence in small-town Illinois, Reagan taught himself to read at five. His youthful pleasures were solitary ones--drawing cartoons, studying local birds and wildlife, devouring the adventures of the Rover Boys, Tarzan, and Frank Merriwell at Yale.

Young Reagan lost himself in science fiction--leading to claims that Edgar Rice Burroughs's Princess of Mars incubated the Strategic Defense Initiative to shoot down enemy missiles before they could strike U.S. soil. Reagan's preoccupation with Armageddon came straight from the Bible. That Printer of Udell's, an allegorical work by Harold Bell Wright, inspired 12-year-old Ron--like Wright's protagonist, the son of an alcoholic--to join his mother's evangelical church.

The future president's midlife conversion from New Deal liberal to Goldwater conservative was prompted by more than a 91 percent marginal tax rate on his Hollywood earnings. As Stephen F. Hayward has persuasively argued, Reagan was a self-taught conservative, less Burkean in his outlook than a radical disciple of Thomas Paine's revolutionary optimism. Nor is it difficult to unearth the intellectual roots of the Reagan Revolution. They can be found in Whittaker Chambers's Witness, Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, and other heavily underlined volumes housed in then-governor Reagan's Pacific Palisades study. Like Bush today, Reagan was only too glad to be underestimated by the Washington establishment. Let Clark Clifford proclaim him "an amiable dunce": As part of his preparations for a Geneva summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan would seek the counsel of well regarded scholars like Robert and Suzanne Massie, prominent students of Russian history. A 1984 presidential reading list prepared at the request of the Baltimore Sun included David Lamb's The Africans, The Third World War by General Sir John Hackett, and Dezinformatsia, by Richard Schultz and Roy Godson.