Politicians as Bibliophiles (2006)

"A book is like a mirror: If an ass looks in, you can't expect an apostle to look out." -- GC Lichtenberg.

One of my favourite anecdotes about books and reading involves Hollywood actor Sylvester Stallone. Some years back, a magazine writer interviewing Stallone reported that his home library consisted of a multivolume, leather-bound edition of literary classics. All pristeen, seemingly untouched. At one end of one shelf sat a well-thumbed copy of "Mr. T: An Autobiography."

I was reminded of this anecdote a few weeks ago, when US press secretary Tony Snow announced that President Bush was relaxing this summer with Albert Camus’ "The Stranger." The White House flak topped this revelation by adding, "I don’t want to go too deep into it, but we discussed the origins of existentialism."

I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for THAT discussion. Imagine a chinwag about European philosophy between a former guest host of The Rush Limbaugh Show and a world leader who consistently pronounces "nuclear" as "nookaler." (The last time Americans heard of Bush reading anything, it was a children’s story about a goat, a slim volume that functioned as a Presidential prop in a Florida classroom, as things went haywire elsewhere.)

The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart got some mileage out of Dubya’s dubious summer reading. He informed viewers who’ve never read The Stranger that "it's a classic novel about a Westerner who kills an Arab for no good reason and dies with no remorse."

A good line, but adult literacy is a serious thing. For I believe inside every aging, incurious fratboy there’s a child with a library card trying to get out. I put the president’s current lack of interest in serious reading on the doorstop of his fearsome mom, Barbara Bush, who undoubtebly failed to supply the budding shrub with worthy reading material. According to family biographer Kitty Kelley, a writer for The New Yorker who once visited the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, tried to find something to read late at night. "After investigating the entire mansion, he found one book: The Fart Book.''

Then again, why bother with egghead stuff like books when the world is your oil well?

Contrast the Bush reading record with that of former president Bill Clinton. For the opening of his presidential library, he listed as his favorite books the "Meditations" by Marcus Aurelius, "The Four Quartets," by T.S. Eliot, "The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats," and Maxim’s "Ten Years of Hot Babes." It’s up for debate whether Clinton, a serial fabricator, read any or all of these tomes all the way through — with the exception of the last one (which I added for fun, of course). In fact, with most political memoirs penned by ghost writers these days, it’s an open question whether Slick Willy has even read his OWN book all the way to the end.

When it comes to recommended authors and gaseous emissions, special mention goes to our very own premier Gordon Campbell. Last year, Internet surfers discovered a BC government web site,, containing a list of the premier’s reading recommendatioi\ns, among them Ronald Wright's Massey Lecture, A Short History of Progress. The book details what the author calls "progress traps," which result from civilizations laying waste to the natural resources and ecosystems that underlie economic systems. In his review of the book, Campbell approvingly quotes the following passage: "The human inability to foresee, or to watch out for long range consequences may be inherent to our kind, shaped by the millions of years when we lived from hand to mouth by hunting and gathering. It may also be little more than a mix of inertia, greed and foolishness encouraged by the shape of our social pyramid."

Considering what the premier hasn’t done for the environment during his tenure, his eager recommendation of Wright’s eco-apocalyptic rant reads as either disingenuous or doublethink. Even the author expressed surprise, writing in
the Globe and Mail that the ancient eco-disasters described in his book share a lot in common with current events in BC. Wright reported he was " delighted that Mr. Campbell and I seem to agree on the importance of the environment and social justice. But after seeing the ecological carnage on his watch, I find it hard to believe that he and his colleagues are about to change."

Whoa. You know you’re having a bad day when an author publicly lambastes you for recommending his or her book. Perhaps it’s safer for politicians and other high profile readers to strike living authors entirely from their recommendation list; dead men tale no tales and all that. Who knows, this may even open up a new alternative energy source, using dead white males for turbine power. I’m sure with the recent endorsement of existentialism from the White House, Camus’s corpse got up past 5000 rpm’s.

Geoff Olson