In a new presidential autobiography George W Bush seeks to portray himself as a man of action. Yet the book's haste and lack of insight tell another story about his term in office.
Still in the thick of it
In a new presidential autobiography George W Bush seeks to portray himself as a man of action. Yet the book's haste and lack of insight tell another story about his term in office, writes Scott McLemee.
George W Bush
Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, there was a strain of commentary in the United States that did not so much praise George W Bush as certify him as someone uniquely suited to be president during a time of crisis. He was, the saying went, "the right man for the job". His lack of eloquence was the highest eloquence. His personality, while rough-hewn, exactly suited the country's need for a confident and steady hand. Terrible circumstances had rendered Bush charismatic, or so it seemed to pundits during much of the first term of his presidency, though this did not last.
There was more to this than a rallying of public spirit in a dark time. Bush had become president despite losing the popular vote. He was put in office through a Supreme Court decision, but only after right-wing mobs had tried to intimidate those involved in recounting the ballots in Florida. In short, the legitimacy of his presidency was by no means a sure thing - at least until the morning of 9/11, after which his authority was, for a time, pretty nearly unquestionable.
The most striking thing about Decision Points is how hard Bush's ghostwriters have worked to recapture that spirit, which has otherwise been a casualty of the events of his second term in office. Although Bush's name alone appears on the title page, the acknowledgements express thanks to Chris Michel, the chief speechwriter at the end of the administration; it is clear that a few other hands were also involved in assembling the text. All of this is normal for an ex-president's book, but the speed with which it was put together is remarkable, and so is the team's dedication to hammering home the theme that Bush was a man who made decisions, and plenty of them.
It seems as if this would go without saying. But at a press conference in early 2006, Bush explained with evident frustration that his role a president was to be the "the decider", and his autobiography consists of almost 500 pages of variations on that theme, with few moments of hesitation or deliberation or inner conflict along the way. This grows monotonous, but it is a reminder of what once counted as the basis of his authority: that he was consistent and knew his own mind.
Unfortunately decisiveness does not equal insight. The chapter on his early life acknowledges that Bush had trouble with alcohol (if not with other substances) until the age of 40, though without suggesting that this had anything to do with growing up in the shadow of a powerful father. Reports of conflict and estrangement between them are brushed off. He seems to have drifted into political activity, rather than throwing himself into it. Apart from a passing reference to sharing conservative worries about the welfare state while in his thirties, there is no sign here of any serious ideological interest shaping his career.
This leaves murky the question of what drove Bush to seek the presidency in 2000. Throughout the book, he shows no interest in reflecting on his own motives. But he does say that he made the decision to run in response to a call from God.
While pondering the question of whether to run, he attended a sermon by a minister who spoke of the reluctance of Moses to accept leadership of his people, and he took this as a broad hint from the Lord. Moses "hadn't led a perfect life," says Bush; "he wasn't sure if people would follow him; he couldn't even speak that clearly. That sounded a little familiar."
Bush took office with an entourage of people whose profiles he sketches with a few complimentary personal remarks but no real assessment of their public careers or their influence on his administration. His campaign strategist and deputy chief of staff Karl Rove "was like a political mad scientist - intellectual, funny, and overflowing with energy and ideas". That is certainly one way to describe the most Machiavellian of political operatives, but any reader looking for insight into his role during the Bush presidency will be disappointed. The mentions of the vice president, Dick Cheney, are more frequent but scarcely more substantial.
Bush attests to the personal excellence of Donald Rumsfeld as the defence secretary, who informed him, with heavy heart, about the tortures at Abu Ghraib. He recalls that Rumsfeld tendered his resignation, and says he considered accepting the offer, but could not find an "obvious replacement". This is interesting, and ought then to lead him to discuss the abundant evidence that authorisation for such degrading treatment of prisoners was issued high in the chain of command.
Instead, Bush insists that Abu Ghraib was the work of soldiers acting "in defiance of their orders and military law". He ignores completely the legal memoranda prepared by his administration denying that the United States had to abide by international sanctions against torture - while insisting that he was "keenly aware that presidents had a history of overreaching during war".
Such things are to be expected. Clearly, the decider is not prone to second-guessing himself, nor should he judge his subordinates for any quality besides loyalty. But in Bush's recollection of the march to war in Iraq, the blind spots and special pleading become too obvious to ignore.
He makes no reference at all to the claim - repeated on various occasions by Cheney and other figures from the administration - that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were linked to Saddam Hussein's regime. As late as 2004, Bush himself was insisting on connections between al Qa'eda and Iraq, though he avoids the topic here. (Public opinion polls show the continuing hold of this disinformation on American attitudes towards the war.)
The false information about Iraq's programmes to build weapons of mass destruction is put down to a lamentable but murky lack of coordination among intelligence bureaucracies, rather than to a definite effort by the administration to focus only on building a case for invasion. Bush maintains that he worked tirelessly to avoid the war. That calls for a greater suspension of disbelief than any reader of non-fiction should be expected to manage. The same is true of the account of Hurricane Katrina, portraying Bush as profoundly concerned with the disaster from the very start. Those who recall his blithe remarks about partying in New Orleans in his youth - made while praising the crony he had put in charge of disaster relief - may find this chapter difficult to finish.
His final pages take up the financial crisis of 2008, in which Bush faced a crucial decision: "Did I want to be the president overseeing an economic calamity worse than the Great Depression?" By this point - consumed with the sense of watching an educational filmstrip intended for not particularly bright pre-adolescents - I found my attention shifting from the tale itself to the awkward situation of the man telling it.
For in Decision Points, Bush takes courage from the example of Harry Truman: "He did what he thought was right and didn't care much about what the critics said. When he left office in 1953, his approval ratings were in the twenties. Today he is viewed as one of America's great presidents." Without getting into an argument on that last point (some of us remember Truman instead as the only man to order the use of atomic weapons) it is clear that Bush wants to think of himself as someone who will be vindicated by history.
But he cannot wait that long. His book was written in about 18 months - whereas his father's memoir, A World Transformed, appeared more than five years after leaving office. It lacks insight because thinking requires time while decisions are punctual, and final. In a speech earlier this year, Bush said his memoir would provide "an authoritarian voice saying exactly what happened". That malapropism fits this book like a glove.
Scott McLemee is a recipient of the US National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in reviewing.