More pixels for Terry Teachout: he links to a list of Bill Clinton’s 21 favorite books and comments, more discreetly than I will, on its obvious fraudulence. The usual suspects are rounded up — Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, also cited by German ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt as his favorite book, and as sure to appear on a politician’s list as Nietzsche is not to. If we must have philosopher-kings, Plato’s Republic would be more to the point. For gravitas, Max Weber, Thomas à Kempis, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the two safest poets of the 20th century, Eliot and Yeats. Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, possibly the worst-written famous novel of the last two hundred years. The list looks like America too, with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which is quite a good book but, like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, can be dated to virtually the month it came out, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which I doubt Maya Angelou’s mother has read cover to cover: certainly I couldn’t. Clinton throws in The Confessions of Nat Turner and Taylor Branch’s history of the civil rights movement for good measure. His wife’s Living History is there; It Takes a Village I presume just missed the cut.
What is irksome about this list, besides its content, is its length. A favorite book? No. A top ten? A top twenty? No, Clinton needs twenty-one favorite books. The number signifies terminal vacillation. Say what you like about Al Gore, but when he was asked for a favorite book he coughed one up. Stendhal’s The Red and the Black may be a curious choice for someone like Gore, but it is a choice at least.
Terry claims, as if it were an established fact, that Clinton is “known to be unusually smart,” for which I can discern no evidence whatever. He is justly famed for many acts, none of which, except getting himself elected, could remotely be classified as intelligent. During his eight years in the White House — and before, and since — he never shut up. If we exclude “I never had sex with that woman” and “It depends on what the meaning of is is,” did he ever utter a memorable sentence? Calvin Coolidge left a far richer legacy to Bartlett’s than Clinton will, and he barely spoke at all.
Terry doubts that Clinton has read all these books: I don’t. I merely doubt that he has understood them. Clinton is notorious for being able to repeat back reams of what he has read, verbatim. Speaking as someone who had the same faculty in my youth, I am not impressed. It’s a parlor trick, like having an internal hard drive, useful for politics and getting through law school. You can pull up the material on your internal monitor, that’s all. You still have to read it, which is where the thought comes in. A memory is not a mind.
To anyone who subscribes to the myth of Clinton’s coruscating intellect I commend Edith Efron’s mightily persuasive 1994 article for Reason in which she diagnoses him as “cognitively disabled.”
Clinton’s high school friend David Leopoulos visited Clinton when he was at Oxford and found that Clinton had suddenly become a fount of information about painting. Leopoulos told a reporter, “He is interested in everything and wants to consume everything. He is almost a fanatic about information. He gathers and retains it better than anyone I’ve ever known.”
Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post jokes, “That’s Clinton: well-versed in every subject, has memorized the leading economic indicators for every quarter since the ’20s, knows how to say ‘fungibility’ in Farsi.”
Finally, Charles Allen and Jonathan Portis in The Comeback Kid describe the Clinton of the presidential campaign: “Clinton became known as a ‘policy wonk,’ a politician who could spout data and statistics nonstop, a man with a quick answer for every question. Members of the national press were amazed at his ability to formulate answers to complicated questions, seemingly without thinking.”
It is not “seemingly” without thinking. Very often, it is actually without thinking. Clinton can memorize as he breathes. But he finds thinking — analysis, evaluation, reaching conclusions — intensely difficult.
What we have here is a Jeopardy champion. (Bush, in personality the anti-Clinton, is “stupid” with reference to the same implicit standard.) It is an intellect for our time, in which, as Jacques Barzun puts it, an editorialist can commit a gross non-sequitur without comment and will be deluged with letters if he misstates by ten feet the height of the Chrysler Building. Clinton’s bloated book list, I suspect, was composed the same way he decided to nominate Steven Breyer for the Supreme Court, the only difference being that he couldn’t nominate twenty-one judges:
On May 23 , Newsweek portrayed the absurdity of Clinton’s “waffling” in greater detail than ever before. It gave the readers a three-day scenario: “On Wednesday the president had been about to nominate Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt when he suddenly changed his mind. On Thursday, his choice had been an old Arkansas friend, Judge Richard Arnold, but by Friday, Arnold was out and [Judge Stephen] Breyer was in. ‘Let’s go,’ Clinton announced after yet another last minute phone call, and his staff, stung by a rash of media stories about White House dithering, rushed to carry out the presidential command. But before they could get out the door, Clinton hesitated. Maybe, he mused, he should put Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes on the court. That way he could elevate Baltimore’s promising young black mayor, Kurt Schmoke, to the Senate.” This, Newsweek reported, caused the president’s legal counselor, Lloyd Cutler, to grow “exasperated” and to insist that Clinton decide there and then. And thus did Breyer emerge triumphant from Clinton’s “maddening” decision-making process.
In early June, Clinton again felt impelled to defend himself from the charge of indecisiveness. But this time he got someone else to do it for him. Who better than legal counselor Lloyd Cutler? So there was Cutler, who had been privately “exasperated” by Clinton’s indecisiveness, explaining publicly in a long op-ed piece in The Washington Post that the president had not been indecisive at all, that, on the contrary, he had been wonderfully decisive.
A journalist once backed Clinton into a corner and asked him to choose one record, just one, to take with him to a desert island. Clinton waffled, hedged, and finally picked Colors of the Day, The Best of Judy Collins. “She inspired a whole generation who had the same kinda dreams,” said Clinton. He should have checked with Lloyd Cutler.
(Update: I take it all back. Clinton’s favorite book is 100 Years of Solitude — when he’s having dinner with Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)