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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 global abundance.

"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 Emancipation Proclamation.

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 bombings.

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, not Muslims."

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 Dostoyevsky.

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 lesson."

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 they are.

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."