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.
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.)
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