[Paleopsych] CHE: In a Blink, Bush Becomes Reviewer in Chief
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In a Blink, Bush Becomes Reviewer in Chief
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.2.11
CRITIC AT LARGE
By CARLIN ROMANO
Remember the Bush administration's rote response when identifiable
flying objects such as Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty (about
cabinet turncoat Paul O'Neill), Richard A. Clarke's Against All
Enemies, and Justin A. Frank's Bush on the Couch threatened to smash
into its daily message?
"We don't do book reviews!" presidential spokesman Scott McLellan and
others chanted over and over, until it became the administration's
retort as mantra.
So you might have thought that the big book news coming out of George
W. Bush's flurry of second-inaugural interviews -- the boss's absolute
flip-flop on that policy -- would please stalwarts of American
literary culture, usually annoyed by all things Bush.
First, Bush told The Washington Times, "If you want a glimpse of how I
think about foreign policy, read Natan Sharansky's book, The Case for
Democracy." He added that the heartfelt meditation by Israel's
minister for Jerusalem and diaspora affairs and former Soviet
dissident and political prisoner, subtitled "The Power of Freedom to
Overcome Tyranny and Terror," should go on the "recommended reading
list" of America's "opinion leaders."
Then, like a freelance book reviewer eager to maximize his critical
clout, he intensified the blurb barrage, and his A-team followed suit.
Sharansky's book, Bush told CNN, "summarizes how I feel. I would urge
people to read it." Condoleezza Rice cited it in her confirmation
hearings. Newsweek labeled it Bush's "manifesto" and reported that he
recommends it constantly to visitors.
Alas, Bush got no more credit for that among hostile book types than
he received for marrying a librarian. It took only a political
nanosecond for bloggers and anti-Bush forces to start complaining that
the book reviewer in chief had simply found a tome, in the words of
the BBC's Clare Murphy, that "mirrors his own views."
When The New York Times -- no Bush favorite -- finally got its 40
minutes with the president, Bush kept up the promotional campaign,
confirming that synchronicity of views did have something to do with
Bush told the Times that Sharansky's take on tyranny and terror
-- that they must be fought through an expansion of freedom throughout
the world -- is "part of my presidential DNA. I mean, it's what I
think; it's a part of all policy." Elisabeth Bumiller, noting parallel
passages in Sharansky's book and Bush's inaugural speech, dubbed (or
Dubyaed) the situation "a circular pattern of admiration" (unlike, one
presumes, the standard rave by one West Side author of another West
Side author in The New York Times Book Review).
What would you expect? GWB, as his inner circle refers to him in
e-mails, can't win when it comes to reading -- even reading of short
Two immortal solecisms from Bush's wisdom on the subject during the
2000 campaign can be found among the "George W. Bushisms" gathered by
Slate editor Jacob Weisberg in those next-to-the-register volumes that
lead many to "misunderestimate" the president: "Reading is the basics
for all learning," and, "One of the great things about books is
sometimes there are some fantastic pictures."
After Bush told Fox News anchor Brit Hume in a September 2003
interview that he doesn't read newspapers, preferring to "glance at
the headlines, just to get kind of a flavor," all hell broke loose.
Washington graybeards remembered that Eisenhower read nine newspapers
a day (according to his press secretary) and JFK tried the Evelyn Wood
speed-reading technique to aid his news-junkie consumption.
Sure enough, GWB's explanation only got him into deeper doo. Admitting
he "rarely read the stories" in newspapers, he complained that "a lot
of times there's opinions mixed in with news." Bush ventured that "the
best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most
objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's
happening in the world." It's been that way, he owned up, since the
beginning of his administration. The man gets his news from "people
who probably read the news themselves." (LA Weekly, typical of print
media angered by those remarks, expressed doubt about the reliability
of "The Daily Condi.")
Move on to books, and ridicule of the president seems part of the DNA
of a certain slice of the chattering classes, arising from what John
Podhoretz, in his book Bush Country, called "Crazy Liberal Idea #1:
Bush is a Moron." Podhoretz writes that the idiot image of GWB
remained so ingrained among many boys and girls on the bus in 2000
(some nicknamed him "The English Patient") that even putative evidence
of Bush's reading -- he lent his personal copy of Tim O'Brien's
literary/political novel, In the Lake of the Woods, to New York Times
reporter Frank Bruni -- drew skepticism.
Podhoretz writes that in Bruni's own book, Ambling Into History, the
author reports Bush's annoyance at the suggestion that his being a
"devotee of books by and about Winston Churchill" was thought to be an
attempt to charm tough-guy talk-show host Chris Matthews. "Do you
think," Bruni reports Bush asking Matthews, "that I'd take time out of
my life to research what the hell you like?"
And dare one mention that the only time GWB couldn't stop reading a
book in public -- when he kept at My Pet Goat after Andrew Card
whispered the first breaking news of 9/11 in his ear -- he got
attacked again, this time for not knowing when to put down a good
The miracle is that GWB has not become antibook, with the threat to
civil liberties that might entail. Put yourself in his shoes last
year. As the campaign revved up, liberals started falling all over
themselves to write a book, or pull together one from old columns, as
if only they, Revere-like, could warn the American people about the
president's stupidity and corruption.
If he strolled into a Barnes & Noble, Bush could have picked from
among scores of forgettable volumes spewing condescension, among them
Ian Williams's Deserter, about Bush's "War on Military Families,"
James Carroll's Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War, which noted how
Bush "openly displayed his willful illiteracy," and William Turner's
Mission Not Accomplished, which castigated Bush for "the shallowness
of his life experience" and his insistence on making decisions from
"gut instinct." Ye shall know these books by their indexes. Bush could
have thumbed through a typical one -- say, the index of The Five
Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq, by Christopher Scheer, Robert
Scheer, and Lakshmi Chaudhry, and found himself segmented into
"divisiveness of, 64," "inability to admit failure, 35, 173-74," and
"lies and deception by, 9, 11-12, ..."
Yet GWB perseveres. As his second term commences, he may not have
metamorphosized into a polished states-man, diplomat, or speaker, but
he now ranks among "our crowd" -- folks who like to read books, review
them, push them. Instead of mocking Bush's reading, friend and foe
alike -- particularly scholars and college professors avid for the
smallest influence on world affairs -- should ask: What kind of book
can sway this president? What kind of critic is he?
And therein lies the most ironic rub of all: The reviewer in chief
couldn't be more with it.
Sharansky's autobiographical meditation on how his life forged his
beliefs doesn't rely on textured argument, weighty historical and
political detail, or ingenious syllogistic logic. It's primal,
intuitive, and anecdotal -- argument lite. As he writes, "During my
long journey through the world of evil, I had discovered three sources
of power: the power of an individual's inner freedom, the power of a
free society, and the power of the solidarity of the free world." His
positions emerge from moral experience, sharpened by personal
suffering. "Moral clarity," he remarks, "provides us with a place to
No wonder Bush loves it, even though Sharansky harshly criticizes the
president's father -- GHWB -- for his so-called "Chicken Kiev" speech
of 1991, in which 41 called on Ukrainians to avoid "suicidal
Bush isn't peering into The Case for Democracy and seeing precisely
himself. Rather, both he and Sharansky practice "thin slicing." They
understand the "power of thinking without thinking." That's right!
Here's the beauty of this literary moment. That "circular pattern"
Bumiller talks about needs to include the darling of Northeast
literary media today, the sophisticated Manhattan intellectual telling
one and all lately that, in the words of his blistering publicity
machine, "judgments based on first impressions and the smallest bits
of information" aren't "simple just because they're made quickly."
Yes -- welcome political philosopher Natan Sharansky and book critic
George W. Bush under a new prestigious aegis -- Type-A Blinkers. For
in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell
-- savaged by Rich-ard A. Posner in The New Republic for shoddy
reasoning, but protected by New Yorker fairy dust and lionized by
almost everyone else -- says that's OK. Consider The Case for
Democracy the first unifying "blink" book: directly praised by
red-state types, indirectly praised by blue-state types.
American elite literary media have met the enemy. Is he us? He's
certainly the thinker Malcolm Gladwell says we all should be -- and
This could be the tipping point for GWB.
Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle and literary critic
of The Philadelphia Inquirer, is a fellow at the New York Institute
for the Humanities at New York University.
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