According to the White House, President Bush has read more than 60 books in the last year. This is a remarkable accomplishment, even if his motivation was competitive. Reportedly, he was challenged by Karl Rove to match his political adviser in a contest to read a book a week. Bush, who loves games, apparently decided to outdo Rove. The most scholarly president ever was probably Theodore Roosevelt, an autodidact who wrote more than 30 books. But even TR required two years to read as many as 60 books.
Bush is more intellectually curious than he is generally given credit for, especially by the mocking press. But he made a remark last night in his address to the nation that calls into question how closely he is reading history. He stated that when FDR began a two-ocean war, he could not have foreseen D-Day or Iwo Jima, and that when Truman promised to liberate people enslaved by Soviet aggression, he could not have imagined the Berlin Wall.
Bush's larger point is true enough: that both wartime presidents were confident of American success. But it is curious, to say the least, that Bush thinks his predecessors were so clueless about the battles ahead. D-Day was exactly what FDR had in mind—the allied invasion and liberation of Europe. And while FDR might not have guessed at the precise nature of the bloody fighting on Iwo Jima, he knew from the outset that American forces would have to recapture Japan's island strongholds on the way to Tokyo. Truman was well aware that the Soviets were carving up Eastern Europe, including Berlin. While the Berlin Wall did not go up until the summer of 1961, Berlin was partitioned into sectors, including a Soviet sector, and cut off from the West by 1948. In that year, Truman ordered an airlift to supply the people of West Berlin.
The comparison with Truman is useful in another way that is not flattering to Bush. Truman used his advisers to carefully think through the challenges of the cold war. The containment doctrine was formulated by a Foreign Service officer in the Moscow Embassy named George Kennan, who was later made head of Policy Planning at the State Department. Truman's cabinet reached out to bright minds like Kennan. An early adviser was Dean Acheson, the number two man at the State Department in the beginning days of the cold war and after 1949 the Secretary of State. It is hard to imagine President Bush reaching out in the same way to State Department officials in the war or terror. Indeed, we know that the State Department was largely cut out of the planning for the Iraq War.
By the same token, FDR was a relentless prober of his advisers. He spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to imagine and create a safer postwar world before he died in 1945, in the final days of World War II. FDR did not live to see his vision of a United Nations or stable alliances, and he may have been a little idealistic in his dreams. But he had the foresight in the midst of the greatest war ever fought to seriously ponder and plan for a stable peace and a more democratic world.
It is wonderful that Bush reads as much as he does. It is unfortunate that there is not more evidence of him probing his national security advisers to carefully think through the issues of postwar Iraq.