Upon leaving office, the American president moves quickly into a new job: press agent for his past. None openly acknowledges this role, and few fail to become obsessed with it. By tradition, the former commander in chief directs his energy toward three reputational weigh-ins: the blockbuster memoir (which only the self-effacing Bush I failed to produce), the partisan biographical museum known as a presidential library, and his obituary.
What distinguishes George W. Bush from previous redemption-seekers is that while protesting with extra vehemence that he doesn't sweat the judgment of history, he has focused on it to the exclusion of any other useful contribution to society. Bush has not remained engaged in foreign policy issues, like Nixon or his father, or devoted himself to global good works, like Carter and Clinton. His closest model so far is LBJ, who raced around his Texas ranch and stewed.
Bush faces an even steeper climb. When he left office, he was tied with Nixon for the title of least-popular president. Bush has ticked up a few notches since then, but the legacy of two unfinished wars and a financial crisis make his near-term prospects for rehabilitation look pretty bleak. The right dislikes him for leaving behind a bloated government, the left for all the obvious reasons. In coming out with a book less than two years after leaving Washington, 43 is challenging a strong consensus that rates him a failure.
Decision Points sets out a straightforward case that we should think better of him. The argument in a nutshell: After the Sept. 11 attacks, he had to act forcefully to defend the country. He did what he thought was right, made tough decisions, and prevented another major terrorist attack. He encouraged the spread of freedom around the globe. One day, people will recognize that he was right about many things.
The presentation has some of Bush's familiar virtues: It's punctual, blunt, and doesn't go on and on. In the book, he does something he never did in office—namely, acknowledge error. Bush says he failed to make decisions quickly enough or communicate his concern after Hurricane Katrina. If he had another chance, he would lead his second-term agenda with immigration reform instead of Social Security privatization (which he doesn't think was privatization). He shouldn't have let them put up that "Mission Accomplished" banner. "It was a big mistake," he writes.
But the book also has Bush's weaknesses: It is superficial, simplistic, and impatient to be finished. He leaps to conclusions without apparent thought or evidence. Bush's capable former speechwriter Chris Michel has done an impressive job structuring a readable narrative around a series of major events. But if he leads his old boss to water, he can't make him think. Because Bush is intellectually and emotionally incapable of truly reconsidering the past, his memoir fails to make a case that we should reconsider our view of him.
The most negligent part of the book is the pre-presidential narrative. In the familiar mood of irritable hurry, Bush races through a few of the most familiar stories about his childhood and early life—finding out about the death of his sister, getting a zero on his first paper at Andover, pulling down a goalpost at a Yale-Princeton game, making a drunken fool of himself at a Willie Nelson concert, giving up the bottle. It can't have been easy to get him to sit still to talk about this. But the result reads like a haphazard clip job on his own life—a story he signed off on, as opposed to a story he wanted to tell.