Wealthy Frenchman

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Much Ado About Reading

By MAUREEN DOWD

WASHINGTON

’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. W., the most simple, unreflective and Manichaean of men, communing with Will, the most subtle, reflective and myriad-minded of men.

Under Laura the Librarian’s tutelage, the president is discovering the little black dress of 60’s education, as one scholar referred to the president’s summer reading list of “The Stranger,” “Hamlet” and “Macbeth.”

Mr. Bush’s bristly distaste for the intellectual elite has been so much a part of his persona, from Yale on, that it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around a heavy W., steeped in French existentialism and Elizabethan tragedy.

On the 2000 campaign trail, W. told me that he did not identify with any literary hero, that baseball was his favorite “cultural experience,” and that he liked “John La Care, Le Carrier, or however you pronounce his name.”

He was a gym rat, not a bookworm. He told Brit Hume in 2003 that he rarely read newspaper articles, preferring to get his information through aides, and he told Brian Lamb in 2005 that he would fall asleep after 20 or 30 pages of bedside reading.

But the first lady must have grown alarmed at seeing her husband mocked as a buff bubblehead wrapped in a bubble. She began giving interviews saying her man did too read newspapers, and she slipped W. some Camus and other serious fare.

Jackie Kennedy once complained that the Kennedys could turn anything into a competition — even oil painting. Just so, W. tried to keep his new gravitas homework interesting by engaging in a book competition with Karl Rove. Bush aides told Ken Walsh of U.S. News & World Report that the president wants it known that he is a man of letters.

W.’s claim of having read 53 to 60 books already this year has been met with some partisan skepticism — The American Prospect calls it “demonstrably ridiculous” — despite a Wall Street Journal article pronouncing speed-reading back in fashion among busy executives.

But I’m tickled that W. is reading Shakespeare, even if it’s just to please his wife or win a bet with his strategist. The president has been so tone-deaf in dealing with the world, and even with his own father, that he can only benefit from a dip in the Bard’s ocean of insight about the vicissitudes of human nature and war. Not to mention the benefits of being exposed to the beauty and precision of the language.

Stephen Greenblatt, the Harvard professor and author of “Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare,” demurs, noting that “there’s no reason to think reading Shakespeare necessarily makes you a more reflective or deeper person. Otherwise, the Nazis who kept the German Shakespeare Society going in the 30’s and 40’s would have learned something.”

Shakespeare’s texts are so complex, he says, that they “allow a huge range of readings and political views, like the Bible.”

Take “Macbeth,” Professor Greenblatt says. Bush critics might see irony in W.’s reading a play about a leader who makes a catastrophic decision to overturn a regime that ultimately brings his country and himself to ruin. But the president may be reading it differently, seeing shades of Saddam Hussein in Macbeth, a homicidal tyrant who gets his bloody comeuppance.

But he agrees there are some trenchant lessons that W. could glean, including Shakespeare’s doubt about quick and easy wars, and his conviction that what the professor calls “the rose-petal view” is an illusion; Shakespeare found a gigantic gap between what we imagine and what is actually likely to happen.

Ken Adelman, the former professor of Shakespeare and arms control director under Reagan, has compared W. to Prince Hal. But the Republican consultant, who teaches a management seminar with his wife, Carol, on Shakespeare, agrees that W.’s insulation prevents him from having the leadership strength of Henry V, who mingled among the common folk in the taverns and the soldiers on the battlefield.

Sometimes the second-term President Bush seems more like Henry’s opponent, the Dauphin of France, who has no sense of the reality of battle or his troops, misunderstands the situation and treats Henry with undeserved scorn.

The relentlessly black-and-white Bush could learn from the playwright’s riveting grays. “With Shakespeare,” says Marjorie Garber, a Harvard professor and the author of “Shakespeare After All,” “nothing is ever finished. You never close the door on anything. There’s never any ‘Mission Accomplished.’ ”

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