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Inside Politics

What the president reads

By John F. Dickerson

George Bush's critics think of his reading list as a spindly thing -- the Bible, the box scores and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, his favorite choice to read to school kids.

So there will be chuckles of disbelief when his detractors hear that one of his latest passions is Natan Sharansky's The Case for Democracy and that when it comes to approval from the intelligentsia, the President is more needy than he lets on. Written by an Israeli Cabinet minister and former Soviet dissident, the book argues that true security in the Middle East and the world can come only with ballot boxes. The President has pressed it on his top advisers and is even proselytizing outside his inner circle.

"I want you to read a book," Bush told a TIME reporter, interrupting his own version of Sharansky's thesis. "It will give you a sense for what I'm talking about."

Bush liked the work so much that he invited Sharansky into the Oval Office in early November for an hourlong discussion of the book and how it applies to the war on terrorism.

Sharansky is not the first author in the presidential book club. Bush has also been host to, among others, Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis and Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis. These sessions undermine Bush's own anti-intellectual posture. He boasts about not reading newspapers or being worried much about the judgments of historians, most of whom, he says, "wouldn't have voted for me."

But in his readings and talks with authors, he is seeking theoretical scaffolding for his actions from the pointy-headed intellectuals he often appears to disdain, rather than combing through their pages looking for ideas that would challenge his world view.

This does not make Bush a closet intellectual. Bill Clinton read widely and voraciously, sampling and skimming ideas like a whale does plankton. Bush is more particular, and when he locks onto a book, he shows his trademark discipline, almost always reading it to the last page. When Sharansky stopped by, Bush sheepishly pointed out in his copy that he was only up to page 211 --but said he would finish the remaining 92 pages soon.

Authors who have talked with Bush about their writing are anxious to point out that he has done his homework.

"He obviously had read it and taken it seriously," says Gaddis, who writes about American foreign policy after 9/11. "The image of him as unquestioning just seems totally wrong."

But if Bush is gathering information, it often seems to be sustenance for his pre-existing views. Soon after the attacks of 9/11, he read the Civil War history April 1865, and the example of Lincoln's strength left him even more convinced that he should not change direction.

"Lincoln set the goal and stayed the course," he wrote to author Jay Winik. "I will do the same."

He did not mention another point made in the book, which some of Bush's critics would note: how wars are managed at the end is as important as how and why they are begun.

In The Case for Democracy, Bush found validation for his central theory about Iraq: give people liberty, and they will thrive.

"It made him very excited," says Sharansky. "He said, 'These are the things that I believe, but here you give a theoretical basis for those beliefs.' He said he is going ahead even though he knows that the two most hated people in the world are he and Ariel Sharon."

When Gaddis paid his visit last summer, he was surprised to learn that the President was asking aides to read a book that was not wholly supportive of the Administration's foreign policy.

"The book is quite critical, but this did not seem to cause a problem," he says. "His questions were not the kind that indicated defensiveness." Bush quizzed his guest about Otto von Bismarck. The author had written that the 19th century German Chancellor shared the President's belief in the benefits of showing military might but also had a diplomat's touch for handling the messy aftermath.

Bush seemed to be looking for a softer approach to foreign policy after waging two wars.

"There was a recognition that not everything has gone as expected in Iraq," says Gaddis, "that a lot of friction has been generated and that one has to take that into account."

Six months after his visit, Gaddis says he hasn't seen Bush emulate Bismarck much. That may be fuel for a new debate for Bush's critics: Can a President who finds support for his beliefs in history also learn from it?

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