Saturday, March 21, 2009

Jean Harlow and George W. Bush: Very Unlikely Readers

Kitty (played by Jean Harlow): "I was reading a book the other day..."

Carlotta Vance (played by Marie Dressler—making a full stop at the mere thought of this): “Reading a book?????” –Dinner at Eight (1934), based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, screenplay by Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz, with additional dialogue by Donald Ogden Stewart

“In the 35 years I've known George W. Bush, he's always had a book nearby. He plays up being a good ol' boy from Midland, Texas, but he was a history major at Yale and graduated from Harvard Business School. You don't make it through either unless you are a reader.”—Karl Rove, “Bush Is a Book Lover: A Glimpse of What the President Has Been Reading,” The Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2008

In January, one of the finest ensemble comedies ever produced by Hollywood, Dinner at Eight, had its 75th anniversary. Don’t settle for the bronze remake broadcast in the early 1990s by TNT. Like the bottle-blonde bombshell played by Jean Harlow in the original, don’t take anything less than gold—i.e., the marvelous script and all-star cast magnificently handled by George Cukor.

For my money, the last scene is the best. My description of the dialogue doesn’t do it justice; watch the short but sweet YouTube excerpt.

I confess that I experienced something like Marie Dressler’s feelings of astonishment toward Harlow when I heard that George W. Bush planned in his post-Presidential future to describe “the toughest decisions I had to make and the context in which I made them,” according to his early January interview with Fox News’ Brit Hume. My initial thoughts were distinctly nonplussed: How could the President write a book when he showed few signs of profitably reading any?

The general tendency among recent Presidents is that they don’t write much. One exception has been Jimmy Carter, who, like Theodore Roosevelt when he started a family, made whatever money he could on the strength of his pen.

Look, I know what the ex-President and handlers mean when they say he’s “writing” a book—he’s engaging a ghostwriter to do the heavy labor, despite the claim that he’s producing 1,000 to 1,500 words each morning for his projected volume for Random House, Decision Points.
There’s no harm in this—and, given the state of the economy, you might argue that he’s counteracting at least some of the unemployment his administration did so much to unleash on the global economy.

The one 20th-century President long assumed to be the most gifted writer, Jack Kennedy, we now know, claimed more than his work entitled him. Three decades ago, examining the family archives, historian Herbert S. Parment demonstrated persuasively that JFK was, at best, nothing more than an editor of other people’s work for his collective biography of six senators, Profiles in Courage—a title (and Pulitzer Prize) that did wonders for his credibility with the intelligentsia.

If he wasn’t really a writer, JFK was surely an avid reader. As a child and teen, shuffled off to school by his preoccupied parents, he began the almost daily struggle with health that would plague him, in ways unrevealed for years, all the way to his assassination.

Cursed with poor health, he was blessed with curiosity—a characteristic he indulged continually in long periods in hospitals and school infirmaries. Throughout life, his tastes were idiosyncratic and omnivorous, ranging from David Cecil’s biography of Lord Melbourne to Ian Fleming’s James Bond. (The historical Regency aristocrat and the fictional Cold War spy provided role models, of very different sorts, for the future President.)

Moreover, unlike many people today—including, unfortunately, myself—Kennedy could recite long passages from his favorite works with little or no prompting. At a reunion of PT 109 boatmates in the White House, he launched into Shakespeare’s “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from Henry V (“We band of brothers, we happy few…”). More ominously, on a date with his future wife, JFK rattled off Alan Seeger’s haunting WWI poem best known for its opening line, “I have a rendezvous with death.”

Now, you have to be a pretty serious reader to top all of that. Yet Karl Rove, in his unstoppable urge to wipe the dirt clinging to his old boss’ reputation, has encouraged this comparison by claiming that Dubya gave his counselor a run for his money in a book-reading contest these last three years.

I want you to think about the numbers Rove is putting out there: 95 books in a single year, 2006. By my calculation, Bush’s total would not only surpass Kennedy’s reading pace but just about every other occupant’s in the Oval Office—even Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps the most hyperkinetic, and surely the most overcaffeinated, man ever to live in the White House.

Now, you’d think that, as a librarian, I’d find the idea of a bibliophile in the White House a source of joy. But I had a mixed reaction to Rove’s claim.

Now, I hate the phenomenon of “piling on,” whether it’s inflicted on a football player at the bottom of a dozen 300-pound mastodons or a politician hooted into retirement. Maybe it’s part of my training in parochial school, when the nuns urged charity on us. Or maybe it goes back to a statement from one of the Senators whom JFK celebrated, Thomas Hart Benton: “I despise the bubble popularity that is won without merit and lost without crime.”

So, I’m going to pay the ex-President a compliment he may not have received since, oh, just before the financial meltdown: I’m going to take him seriously—something, you might have noticed, that nobody else has been doing lately. (Down the street from where I work in Rockefeller Center, I swear I can still hear gales of laughter coming from the Cort Theatre, where Will Ferrell has been regaling audiences with You’re Welcome, America: A Final Night With George W. Bush. A broadcast of this event became HBO’s highest-rated comedy event in five years.)

Let’s think a bit more on that number of books claimed by Rove for the ex-President. Tell me, do you really want someone spending that much time with books in the White House? The same year – 2006—that Bush went on his reading spree, Iraq was headed to hell in a hand basket. I mean, I’d much rather that the President read Donald Rumsfeld the riot act than that he read Albert Camus’s The Stranger. (If reading the classic of mid-century existentialism was a brazen attempt to curry favor with the French—well, it didn’t work. Obviously.)

Then I wondered about those numbers that Rove was bandying about. Might he be interpreting the word “book” a little—well, liberally? Was the counselor including the daily briefing books that every modern President reads in the counts? Could the President’s right-hand man have been tempted to count one of those volumes—legendary monstrosities on the order of Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost (the novel that, after 1,000 pages, concluded with the two most dreaded words in the English language: “To Be Continued”)--as three?

Thoughts nagged me further on this. To save time and eye-doctor bills for the President, could eager assistants have created, to accompany these books, Cliffs Notes versions—those smaller precises that got so many students through high school over the years? Are these versions classified government secrets? Was Rove including these in his total? Was this steroidal inflation of the President’s reading habits itself a classified government secret?

During his administration, the President let himself be seen conspicuously carrying books around such as Jay Winik’s April 1865. (Several years ago, I heard an audience at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York rock with laughter when Winik was introduced as “the Bush administration’s favorite historian”—perhaps even harder than they would have if someone else had been named “the Clinton administration’s favorite moral philosopher.”)

Rove writes that you don’t make it through either Yale or Harvard Business School “unless you are a reader.” Well, yes, there is a way—if your father and grandfather were high government officials, making you a prime case of a legacy who, short of totally, totally fouling up, is going to get a pass through school so you can continue the family tradition of endowing the university.

It is striking that, for all the posturing about his reading, not even his closest associates really say that Bush is a curious person. That’s important to bear in mind, as we continue to assess Rove’s claims.

Because when you get right down to it, the simplest test of a statement by a government official is simply whether it sounds credible. Think of it this way: Several years ago, Bush, when asked about his favorite musicians, mentioned the Everly Brothers. Now, that sounds about right to me, and I bet it does to you, too. The duo were pretty big at the time Bush was growing up, and their style of country-influenced rock ‘n’ roll would have been particularly congenial to people from Texas (from which, you might recall, Buddy Holly hailed).

On the other hand, at a Hadassah-Wizo Organization fundraiser in Toronto in July 2002, Bill Clinton came out with this: “If Iraq came across the Jordan River…I would grab a rifle and get in the trench and fight and die (defending Israel).” If you find that a tad…well, over the top…(and I certainly did)...then I’m afraid you’d have to react similarly to Rove’s essay noting that George W. Bush devoured the likes of Dean Acheson, Mark Twain, James McPherson, Hugh Thomas, and the like.

In that light, Rove’s claim is reminiscent of the great Cary Grant line from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest: “In the world of advertising there’s no such thing as a lie, only the expedient exaggeration.” Government and media types would term this “spin.” You and I, however, have another word for it: baloney.

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