Frank Bruni's "Ambling Into History," a book about George W. Bush that strolls into bookstores next week, offers a startling revelation: W. is "a pretty steady consumer of books." Bruni, who had once derided Bush in print as a nonreader, discovered while following him on the campaign trail that he, in fact, reads diligently, and not just easily digestible books, but thick ones on serious subjects: "Titan," a 774-page biography of John D. Rockefeller; "Lenin's Tomb," about Russia; "A Great Wall," about China; "Balkan Ghost," about the Balkans.
According to Bruni, the candidate "readily shared his reading list with reporters," and even exchanged books with him. Bush was clearly trying to send a message: I'm not as dumb as you think.
One year into office -- and one image-transforming world crisis later -- Bush is still using books to send a message. Only now he's wielding them like a cudgel. Take the way he conspicuously flashed a copy of Bernie Goldberg's media-bashing bestseller "Bias" to reporters as he made his way toward Marine One not long ago.
It was so bold, so decisive, so post-9/11 -- the literary equivalent of giving the press the middle finger. Remember when he used to give those guys cute nicknames and slap them on the back? Not anymore.
Shortly after Sept. 11, the president made a point of toting around Jay Winik's "April 1865: The Month That Saved America." 'Nuff said. Message received.
Of course, the president has always appeared to be of two minds about reading. On one side of the library sits the snickering C student from Yale, who, shortly before taking office, proudly boasted, "There's book wisdom and there's practical wisdom" -- leaving no doubt about which kind he preferred. This is the anti-elite, anti-effete W. who once said of Yale and his fellow Yalie Bill Buckley: "He wrote a book there. I read one."
On the other side of the library is the fellow we meet in Bruni's book, trying way too hard to overcome his reputation as an intellectual lightweight. This is the one who has his press reps let us know any time he finishes reading some high-minded bestseller. This summer it was David McCullough's biography of John Adams; at Christmas it was Edmund Morris' "Theodore Rex." It's as though he's expecting a smiley face at the top of his homework.
But even with all the childish preening, I still prefer Bush the bookworm. And apparently so do most Americans, suckers that we are for self-improvers and autodidacts. In a country burdened with shameful literacy rates, I like having a president who uses books as weapons. In fact, I'd like to see him take it a step further and borrow a page from that other Most Famous Person in the World, Oprah Winfrey, and start his own book club.
Ever since she turned the book world on its ear with her wildly successful reading revolution, publishers have been trying to re-create what they call the Oprah Effect. When she anoints a book, its sales go through the roof. Her picks have been responsible for creating 28 consecutive bestsellers and prompted the sale of more than 20 million books. No one has been able to match Oprah's power or platform.
That's where Bush comes in. Once a month the 43rd president of the United States could invite four or five average Americans to join him in the White House dining room for a bite and a televised discussion with the author of some new book the first lady or Karl Rove has taken a shine to.
For those of you worried there won't be enough room in Bookville USA for both clubs, I've got a feeling that W. won't be picking the same kind of introspective, soul-searching works that Oprah prefers. He is, after all, a guy who, when asked how Sept. 11 had changed him, responded: "I don't spend a lot of time looking in the mirror. Except when I comb my hair."
In other words, goodbye Toni Morrison, "The Deep End of the Ocean" and female protagonists done wrong by abusive men. Hello, Tom Clancy, "Black Hawk Down" and plainspoken macho men wielding big sticks. Picture a testosterone-fueled Y chromosome alternative to Oprah's X-skewing incarnation -- with a few deep tomes thrown in, perhaps chosen by the heavyweight X in the Cabinet, Condoleezza Rice.