It is hard to determine whether the number of books read by a President during his or her term, and which ones, have any real correlation to ability in leadership and governance.  Lyndon Johnson, famously, was reported never to have cracked open a book in his five years in the White House (except perhaps for British economist Barbara Ward’s The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations, a volume of 148 pages), but, in domestic affairs at least, he put together a considerable list of achievements.  Franklin Roosevelt seems to have read a lot of mysteries, which no doubt agreeably whiled away an hour before bedtime but had little relevance to policy; Harry Truman read perhaps countless volumes of history, but much of his book-reading appears to have taken place before he succeeded FDR in 1945.
Richard Nixon was a careful and thoughtful reader, concentrating on history and biography during his White House years.  (He had read a considerable amount of literature and philosophy as part of his studies at Whittier College, and in the years after 1974 took up such books again.) His admiration for Robert Blake’s biography of Benjamin Disraeli is well known; less so, the fact that he spent part of 1971 reading Winston Churchill’s four-volume account of World War I, The World Crisis. From these and from books such as Charles de Gaulle’s Memoirs Of Hope and Andre Malraux’s Antimemoirs he learned much that proved useful, especially in constructing foreign policy.  He didn’t peruse the flashier bestsellers, such as I’m OK, You’re OK or Airport or the several novels Harold Robbins wrote during those years. RN’s reading was weighty – and it took him a while to get through it, with the duties of office. It appears unlikely that he had the time to read more than one or two books a month.

But in recent years – whether or not it has anything to do with the need to assure those in the flagging book business that their wares are still in demand – White House insiders, past and present, have gone out of their way to emphasize the enormous degree of erudition of the Chief Executive.  During Bill Clinton’s eight years in office we heard a lot about his habit of utilizing his night-owl hours to read any solid nonfiction book that was handy, with the occasional Walter Mosley mystery on the side. (Indeed, his endorsement of Mosley in 1992 catapulted that writer to bestsellerdom.)

But it turns out that George W. Bush has Clinton, and seemingly every other President, completely beat when it comes to the printed page.  In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal Karl Rove, the former deputy chief of staff famed for his own wide reading ranging from Jorge Luis Borges to Paul Horgan to David McCullough, discusses a competition he has had with our outgoing President to see who can read the most books in one year.

Rove says that it all started on New Year’s Eve of 2005 when he told President Bush he planned to read a book a week during 2006.  Two days into 2006, the man in the Oval Office informed Rove: “I’m on my second [book]. Where are you?”

And so the contest was on.  If Rove’s account can be trusted, he personally managed to finish the year with 110 books read.  The President, during that time, had read 95 books – not nine, 95. The books read included eight Travis McGee mysteries by John D. Macdonald (a writer Rove identified as one of his own favorites in Vanity Fair), Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team Of Rivals (that favorite of the President-elect), James L. Swanson’s account of the Lincoln assassination Manhunt, and biographies of Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, Babe Ruth, King Leopold, William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, Lyndon Johnson, and Genghis Khan. The nonfiction-fiction ratio was 58-37.

In 2007, the contest was repeated and Bush read 51 books to Rove’s 76.  With a few days left in 2008, Rove has read 64 books, the President 40.  Well, Bush has an excuse for the slackened pace – he had to deal with a major recession, after all.  But Rove left the White House in August 2007 and has focused on writing, TV appearances, and the occasional lecture since then, so I have to wonder what has slowed him down.

Among the books Rove says the President read in the last two years are Jacobo Timmerman’s Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number Khruschchev’s Cold War by Nixon Library director Tim Naftali and Aleksandr Fursenko; biographies of Dean Acheson, Andrew Mellon and Andrew Jackson; David Halberstam’s book about the Korean conflict, The Coldest War; and Hugh Thomas’s mammoth history of the Spanish Civil War.  One very noticeable thing about the titles Rove lists is that none of them primarily concern economics – the one subject that, I would guess, many people wish the President had focused on during his second term, at least starting with the buildup of the housing crisis in the summer of 2007.

In 2000, Michael Beschloss, as eminent a figure as there is in the field of presidential history, wrote an article for the New York Times concerning the question of just how literate a president needs to be, as opposed to how literate he or she needs to appear.  He noted that Adlai Stevenson, during his lifetime a figure idolized by intellectuals from coast to coast as the archetype of the philosopher-statesman, in fact could let a whole year go by without finishing a book.  I would say it’s a good thing for Presidents to read books – and an even better thing if enough of the books have a direct bearing on the duties and concerns of the Presidency.