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Jeb Bush Claims He's More Bookish Than His Brother. Karl Rove Begs To Differ.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Amid all of Chris Christie’s woes, Jeb Bush is increasingly being talked about as the Republican establishment’s top choice for the 2016 presidential nomination. There’s just that one minor problem identified by Bush’s own mother: America may not be ready for yet another Bush, given how swimmingly things turned out the last time around.

Well, Jeb Bush already seems to be laying the groundwork for addressing that problem, by letting the world know that there is a crucial difference between him and his older brother George. From the New York Times:

A voracious reader, he maintains a queue of 25 volumes on his Kindle (George Gilder’s “Knowledge and Power” among them, he said) and routinely sends fan mail to his favorite authors…

It is a cerebral image that Mr. Bush readily and conspicuously embraces, inviting inevitable — and not always flattering — comparisons with his brother. (While George W. Bush, 67, left Yale with gentleman’s C’s after four years, Jeb Bush raced through the University of Texas in two and a half, graduating Phi Beta Kappa.) He insisted, for example, that his official portrait as governor contain a bookcase filled with his most beloved titles, among them “Cross Creek,” a memoir by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings…

Just as daunting [for Jeb Bush’s colleagues]: keeping pace with Mr. Bush’s crowded and sober-minded reading list. “I read more than one book at a time these days,” he said in an email. “I think it is because it’s easy to download books on Kindle.” Colleagues try their best. After she was repeatedly asked by Mr. Bush what she was reading, Toni Jennings, one of his lieutenant governors, scaled back her consumption of page-turning thrillers by James Patterson and Harlan Coben. Instead, she reluctantly switched over to her boss’s brand of dense nonfiction. “Sometimes,” she conceded, “it would take me a month to get through those books.”

There you have it: Jeb Bush reads. A lot. Big, dense tomes. His colleagues can barely keep up with his voracious consumption. What could be further from his callow, incurious brother than that?

Oh, wait. From Karl Rove’s column in the Wall Street Journal in December 2008:

With only five days left, my lead is insurmountable. The competition can’t catch up. And for the third year in a row, I’ll triumph. In second place will be the president of the United States. Our contest is not about sports or politics. It’s about books.

It all started on New Year's Eve in 2005. President Bush asked what my New Year's resolutions were. I told him that as a regular reader who'd gotten out of the habit, my goal was to read a book a week in 2006. Three days later, we were in the Oval Office when he fixed me in his sights and said, “I’m on my second. Where are you?” Mr. Bush had turned my resolution into a contest.

By coincidence, we were both reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's “Team of Rivals.” The president jumped to a slim early lead and remained ahead until March, when I moved decisively in front. The competition soon spun out of control. We kept track not just of books read, but also the number of pages and later the combined size of each book's pages -- its “Total Lateral Area.” We recommended volumes to each other (for example, he encouraged me to read a Mao biography; I suggested a book on Reconstruction’s unhappy end). We discussed the books and wrote thank-you notes to some authors. At year’s end, I defeated the president, 110 books to 95. My trophy looks suspiciously like those given out at junior bowling finals. The president lamely insisted he’d lost because he'd been busy as Leader of the Free World.

Mr. Bush's 2006 reading list shows his literary tastes. The nonfiction ran from biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, Babe Ruth, King Leopold, William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, LBJ and Genghis Khan to Andrew Roberts’s “A History of the English Speaking Peoples Since 1900,” James L. Swanson’s “Manhunt,” and Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Mayflower.” Besides eight Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald, Mr. Bush tackled Michael Crichton’s “Next,” Vince Flynn’s “Executive Power,” Stephen Hunter’s “Point of Impact,” and Albert Camus’s “The Stranger,” among others.

Fifty-eight of the books he read that year were nonfiction. Nearly half of his 2006 reading was history and biography, with another eight volumes on current events (mostly the Mideast) and six on sports. To my surprise, the president demanded a rematch in 2007. Though the overall pace slowed, he once more came in second in our two-man race, reading 51 books to my 76. His list was particularly wide-ranging that year, from history (“The Great Upheaval” and “Khrushchev’s Cold War”), biographical (Dean Acheson and Andrew Mellon), and current affairs (including “Rogue Regime” and “The Shia Revival”).

Camus! Mao! Acheson! Shia Revival! What do you have to say to that, Jeb? My Genghis Khan biography eats your Kindle for lunch, bro.

Joking aside, this should serve as a reminder to Jeb Bush of how just difficult it will be to establish an image for himself separate from that of George W. Bush. He must contend not only with the reality of his brother’s eight years in office, but also with the spin and embellishments of courtiers like Karl Rove who, in trying to salvage the reputation of their man George, were forever trying to make him out to be something he was not.

So now that Jeb comes along claiming to be more bookish or serious or probing than his brother—which he undoubtedly is!—there’s going to be a certain level of eye-rolling from a public that’s heard this line before. It’s almost like one of the great moralist fairy tales. I can’t remember which one, but I’m sure the book-loving, literary-minded Bush brothers would be able to.