What Bush is reading on his vacation
From the Los Angeles Times
Bush Salts His Summer With Eclectic Reading List
He is tackling three historical sagas while on
vacation, impressing even the authors.
By Warren Vieth
Times Staff Writer
August 16, 2005
CRAWFORD, Texas Gas prices are climbing, motorists
are fuming and President Bush is at his ranch with a
book about the history of salt.
There could be a connection.
According to the White House, one of three books Bush
chose to read on his five-week vacation is "Salt: A
World History" by Mark Kurlansky, who chronicled the
rise and fall of what once was considered the world's
most strategic commodity.
The other two books he reportedly brought to Crawford
are "Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar" by Edvard
Radzinsky and "The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of
the Deadliest Plague in History" by John M. Barry.
Bush, a former oil company chief, has not said why he
picked Kurlansky's 484-page saga. "The president
enjoys reading and learning about history," White
House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
But the analogies between salt and oil are striking.
For most of recorded history, salt was synonymous with
wealth. It established trade routes and cities.
Adventurers searched for it. Merchants hoarded it.
Governments taxed it. Nations went to war over it.
More than four centuries ago, Queen Elizabeth I warned
of England's growing dependence on foreign salt.
France's salt tax, the gabelle, was one of the
grievances that gave rise to the Revolution of 1789.
Then, in the early 20th century, salt became
ubiquitous. Refrigeration reduced its value as a
preservative, and geological advances revealed its
"It seems very silly now, all of the struggles for
salt," Kurlansky said. "It's quite probable that some
day, people will read about our struggles for oil and
have the same reaction."
Kurlansky said he was surprised to hear that Bush had
taken his book to the ranch: "My first reaction was,
'Oh, he reads books?' "
The author said he was a "virulent Bush opponent" who
had given speeches denouncing the war in Iraq.
"What I find fascinating, and it's probably a positive
thing about the White House, is they don't seem to do
any research about the writers when they pick the
books," Kurlansky said.
Barry, author of "The Great Influenza," said that he
too had been a Bush critic. But his views have not
deterred the administration from seeking his advice on
the potential for another pandemic like the 1918
outbreak that claimed millions of lives worldwide.
Although Barry was not aware that the president
planned to read the book, he said he had been
consulting off and on with senior administration
officials since its release in February 2004. He had
lunch with Health and Human Services Secretary Mike
Leavitt two weeks ago.
The administration, Barry said, was investigating what
steps public officials could take to lessen the
severity of a flu pandemic. A central theme of Barry's
book is that the 1918 outbreak was exacerbated in
America by the government's attempts to minimize its
significance, partly to avoid undermining efforts to
prevail in World War I.
"One lesson is to absolutely take it seriously," Barry
said. "I'm not a great fan of the Bush administration,
but I think they are doing that. The Clinton
administration I don't think paid much attention to it
as a threat."
Bush's choice of "Alexander II" appears to reflect his
interest in books about transformational political
leaders. Among those he has perused since becoming
president are biographies of George Washington, John
Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Theodore Roosevelt, Richard
the Lionheart and Peter the Great.
But Radzinsky's portrait of Alexander II may have
special relevance to Bush, who obtained an advance
copy of the English translation scheduled for
publication in November. Alexander II, who ruled
Russia from 1855 to 1881, was known as the "Czar
Liberator" because he freed 23 million Russian slaves
in 1861, two years before Abraham Lincoln signed the
But his governmental reforms ultimately were his
undoing. On the right, they provoked a conservative
backlash. On the left, they contributed to a radical
political movement that used targeted violence to
accomplish its aims, including a wave of killings and
When he decided to halt the reform process, the
violence intensified. Alexander II became, in effect,
the first world leader to declare a war on terrorism.
He would not be the last.
"We, Russia, created the first great terrorist
organization in the world," Radzinsky said in a phone
interview from Moscow. "We are the father of terror,
After surviving six attempts on his life, Alexander II
was assassinated by a group of anarchists who tossed
home-made bombs at the emperor as he was riding in his
carriage on the streets of St. Petersburg. They had
plotted the attack for weeks, operating out of an
apartment across the hall from the writer Fyodor
Radzinsky said he assumed Bush had drawn the
connection to the terrorists of today. "Very noble
young people who dreamed about the future of Russia
became killers, because blood destroys souls,"
Radzinsky said. "That for me is the most important
Bush has incorporated some of the books he has read
into administration policy and his own political
philosophy. Perhaps the best-known example is "The
Case for Democracy," a book by former Soviet dissident
and current Israeli Cabinet member Natan Sharansky.
Sharansky's book is a treatise on the power of freedom
to overcome tyranny and expresses the view that
democratic governments should pressure authoritarian
regimes to pursue reforms instead of accepting them as
After receiving a copy of the book last year, Bush
invited Sharansky to the White House; the president
began recommending the book to friends, staffers and
journalists. The themes espoused by Sharansky started
appearing in the president's remarks on foreign policy
and national security, including this year's inaugural
speech and State of the Union address.
Peter Osnos, whose PublicAffairs publishing house in
New York released the U.S. version of "The Case for
Democracy," said that the books Bush brought with him
to Crawford represented a sophisticated reading list,
even for an intellectually curious chief executive.
"It's a fair bet that George W. Bush is the only
person in the entire United States who chose those
three books to read on vacation," Osnos said.
"There's nothing on that list that is a beach read, or
even a busman's holiday," he said. "He's not reading
any of the contemporary political books. He's not
reading the hatchet job on Hillary Clinton."