JONATHAN CHAIT NOVEMBER 17, 2010
[Guest post by Isaac Chotiner]
A few years ago I engaged in a friendly debate with Ross Douthat about the number of books that President Bush had read in 2006. According to Karl Rove, the former president had read 94 books (some of the 94 were big history books). I found this claim dubious, but Ross thought it was believeable.
Now, to Sarah Palin. At the end of his big piece on the onetime Alaska governor, Robert Draper writes:
Palin became testy when I asked her about the books I heard she had been reading. “I’ve been reading since I was a little girl,” she snapped. “And my mom is standing 15 feet away from me, and I should put her on the phone with you right now so she can tell you. That’s what happens when you grow up in a house full of teachers — you read; and I always have. Just because — and,” she continued, though in a less blistering tone, “I don’t want to come across sounding caustic or annoyed by this issue: because of one roll-of-the-eye answer to a question I gave, I’m still dealing with this,” she said, referring to her interview with Katie Couric.
After taking this moment to (shall we hint?) gather her thoughts, Palin continues:
“There’s nothing different today than there was in the last 43 years of my life since I first started reading. I continue to read all that I can get my hands on — and reading biographies of, yes, Thatcher for instance, and of course Reagan and the John Adams letters, and I’m just thinking of a couple that are on my bedside, I go back to C.S. Lewis for inspiration, there’s such a variety, because books have always been important in my life.” She went on: “I’m reading [the conservative radio host] Mark Levin’s book; I’ll get ahold of Glenn Beck’s new book — and now because I’m opening up,” she finished warily, “I’m afraid I’m going to get reporters saying, Oh, she only reads books by Glenn Beck.”
Does anyone find this remotely believeable? For starters, this is the perfect political answer. She admits to reading a book by a conservative talk show host, a collection of letters from a Founding Father, the work of a religious novelist/writer, and a biography of a conservative female icon (the conservative female icon). And the Reagan bit is priceless--"of course" she is reading about Reagan! How dare anyone suggest that there is ever a moment when she would not have a book by or about our fortieth president.
The larger question is why anti-intellectual Republicans feel the need to sound like they read more books than they really do. Was anybody's estimation of Bush's intelligence altered by Rove's claim? Sure, the Couric interview hurt Palin, but answers like the one above are not going to change anyone's opinion. This is the usual case of trying too hard, and as a result sounding silly. Even in elite liberal circles people occasionally admit to going a decent interval without a book.