Gather 'round, little ones, it's story time. Today's is a scary one. It's about a president utterly lacking in imagination. It's called "The Very Uncurious President."
"Once upon a time there was the curious case of a man who was given the entire world and yet had no curiosity about it. Then he became president. He was the leader of the world, but nothing in it seemed to interest him. For instance, whenever he visited a class of school children he would always, always, always read the same book. No matter how far he traveled or how old his listeners, he never deviated from the tried and true. In fact, he was so reluctant to try another tale, his loyal retainers would sometimes clear the room of all other books, leaving only the president's favorite around. That way, George would never see a book that might make him angry or upset or confused.
"Then, one bright, shiny day, just as the very uncurious president was about to begin reading his favorite book, a young boy stepped up, handed him a brand-new book and asked him to read it aloud.
"The president hemmed and hawed, fretted and frowned, sputtered and stammered. But what could he do -- everyone was watching. So he slowly opened the new book, his eyes quickly scanning the page. It was filled with words. Words he'd never seen arranged in this exact order before. And then -- with a loud 'Pop!' -- his head exploded. The End."
True story. Well, except for the part about the president's head exploding. But it's a fact that whenever George W. Bush makes an appearance at a school, as he did last week in Albuquerque, N.M., he always, always, always reads from the same book, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." It's the story of a ravenous caterpillar that eats so much he makes himself sick before finally transforming into a beautiful butterfly.
Now, don't get me wrong. It's a wonderful book. Beautifully illustrated and with a nice moral about moderation and redemption. But W. has been falling back on "TVHC" since he was running for governor. He's made hundreds and hundreds of school appearances over the years, and it's always the same drill: Anytime he gets within shouting distance of school kids, no matter their age -- whoosh! -- out comes "The Very Hungry Caterpillar."
The book is geared toward preschoolers, but there was the Reader of the Free World in Albuquerque, reading it to a group of second-graders. You could almost see the kids rolling their eyes in unison. But Bush wasn't going to deviate from his historically narrow comfort zone, even though he admitted that his selection wasn't exactly age-appropriate. "These kids are way beyond 'The Hungry Caterpillar,'" he said after he was done.
Then, veering dangerously close to self-reflection, he added: "They read it better than the president could read it." He said it, I didn't.
I wonder what it is about the story that strikes such a chord with the president?
Maybe he sees it as a metaphor for his own life, where he clearly was a voracious consumer of drink -- and lord knows what else -- devouring enough to make himself sick. He then went into his personal cocoon, emerging reborn as a beautiful butterfly. Or, at least, as a moth with enough pals on the Supreme Court to make him president of the United States.
Or maybe he just likes the way the book comes, with little holes in it that you can stick your fingers through or play peekaboo with. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a caterpillar is just a caterpillar.
The problem is not that W only feels comfortable reading the same children's book again and again. It's what this confirms about him. After all, the essence of reading is encountering new ideas and different viewpoints, and here is a man who has no interest in either of those things.
But though he may see no value in being intellectually curious, he clearly sees value in seeming to be intellectually curious. I just wish he wouldn't try so hard. "I like to read," he told the students in New Mexico. "I read a lot."
Fine, maybe he does, but why do his protests feel so forced? For instance, how many times are we going to hear that the president is spending part of his summer break reading David McCullough's biography of John Adams? The White House spinmeisters have tried to work it into almost every discussion of the president's extended holiday.
Indeed, in a recent TV interview with ABC's Claire Shipman, W almost tripped over himself in an effort to toss out the fact that his "typical" day included lots of time spent reading -- especially that big, fat bio of the second president. I was half-expecting him to point out: "And, y'know, Claire, that sucker is over 600 pages long!" And when he was asked what he thought of the bulky bestseller, he responded: "I like it. It's interesting." Well, there you have it. Literary analysis worthy of the Paris Review.
The next time W visits a school, maybe he should take a risk and leave "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" behind. He could always read that kids' classic "Curious George." But I've got a feeling irony isn't really his strong suit.