Tuesday, August 15, 2006

What is George W. Bush reading?

John Dickerson, Slate's chief political correspondent and author of the forthcoming On Her Trail, posted an interesting item yesterday about what Bush read on his just completed vacation in Crawford: Albert Camus' novel The Stranger.

Dickerson's take is half-joking, half-serious. Read the article here.

The joking bit is fair enough: too much is made over presidential practices that may mean nothing, and no one knows that better than the journalists who cover politics and (wittingly, alas) retail that shuck to the rest of us.

But there is a serious side to presidential reading: why is the president reading what he's reading and, perhaps more important, what is the administration signaling by letting the world know which titles have the president's interest?

These things have consequences:
Camus' story line is ripe for geopolitical literary misinterpretation. The main character, Meursault, spends much of his life as the young George Bush did, engaging in escapades that demonstrate little drive or motivation. On a visit to the beach with friends, he gets into a fight with some Arabs. Later, he finds one of the Arabs and without much further provocation shoots him repeatedly. During the circus-trial that follows, and the long hours Meursault spends in jail, he is remorseless and unable to engage in contemplation. On the day of his execution, he has a flickering thought that he might have lived another life. But mostly he's excited about the day and hopes that everyone will cheer for his death.
Dickerson connects the dots:
The president uttered the word "crusade" a single time when talking about fighting terrorists and critics in Europe and the Middle East still use it as proof that his war aims are motivated by 11th-century wide-eyed religious zealotry. Surely someone is going to think that Bush read the book because he identifies with Meursault. There's got to be another explanation. Does his experience in Iraq push him to read works replete with themes of angst, anxiety, and dread? Was the president trying to gain insight into the thinking of Europeans who are skeptical of his plan for democracy in the Middle East, founded as it is on the idea of a universal rational essence that existentialists reject? Did he just want to read something short for his truncated vacation? This may be the first time that national security demands an official version of literary criticism. We want a book report!
Perhaps Bush was re-reading Camus: in a speech last year in Belgium he invoked Camus in the penultimate paragraph:

Albert Camus said that, "Freedom is a long-distance race." We're in that race for the duration--and there is reason for optimism. Oppression is not the wave of the future; it is the desperate tactic of a few backward-looking men. Democratic nations grow in strength because they reward and respect the creative gifts of their people. And freedom is the direction of history, because freedom is the permanent hope of humanity.
--Marshal Zeringue