Once he is ensconced in the Oval Office, the account becomes more interesting and less convincing. When CIA Director George Tenet asks him to approve the water-boarding of terrorist suspects, Bush replies in characteristic fashion: "Damn right." He does not appear to have lost a wink of sleep over it, at the time or since. "No doubt the procedure was tough, but medical experts assured the CIA that it did no lasting harm," he writes. When he asked "the most senior legal officers in the U.S. government" to review interrogation methods, "they assured me they did not constitute torture." Case closed. You can't argue with the choices Bush defends in this book, because he doesn't argue them himself. He describes, asserts, and cites any authority handy, usually the authority he hired to defend his decisions.
Elsewhere, Bush's disengagement tends toward delusion. Speaking up for his education policy, he offers this footnote: "The increases in federal education funding were significant, since my budget restrained non-security discretionary spending and eventually held it below the rate of inflation." Does Bush sit in Crawford telling himself that he "restrained" spending? In fact, Bush enlarged the government faster than any president of the last half century, including LBJ, nearly doubling the budget from just over $2 trillion to just under $4 trillion during his eight years in office. *
A few revealing glimpses of Bush's personality slip through. Here he is on Ben Bernanke, dealing with the financial crisis.
I liked to needle Ben, a sign of affection. "You're an economist, so every sentence starts with, 'On one hand … on the other hand,' " I said. "Thanks goodness you don't have a third hand." One day in the Oval Office, I ribbed Ben for wearing tan socks with a dark suit. At our next meeting, the entire economic team showed up wearing tan socks in solidarity.
One fears the little Fed nerd was in danger of getting a noogie. But it's Bush you're embarrassed for reading this. If he sounds like this much of a dolt in his own description, imagine how he sounded to his colleagues at the time.
As to who he really is, and why he did what he did, Bush is the last person to provide any insight. I've proposed my theories at length elsewhere. Given the way his worst choices reflected challenges to Bush 41, a good title for a more authentic memoir might be Nightmare for My Father. But, boy, does W. not go there. He has always loved and admired his dad, nada más. He acknowledges no cloaked motives, no pride, no politics, no competition with his father or brother Jeb. Bush wants us to believe he tried his hardest and did the best he could. This thin, shallow book strongly suggests that he did.
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Correction, Nov. 11, 2010: This article originally compared government growth under Bush with those of all the presidents of the last "half decade." (Return to the corrected sentence.)