By George W. Bush
Crown, 512 pages
I recall the exact moment I realized that anything, anything at all, could be said about George W. Bush. It was 2007, and I was at a London dinner party laced with impeccably liberal media types. Naomi Wolf had just published (in the left-wing Guardian) a rambling piece headlined “Fascist America, in 10 easy steps,” and here were a set of seemingly sentient people who appeared to have drunk Wolf whole. A distinguished and sober playwright informed me that a recent edition of a prominent literary magazine had revealed that rather than leaving office in 2008, Bush was in fact secretly instituting an order, via the Pentagon, to overthrow the Constitution, dismantle the rule of law, and remain president for life.
Those in attendance at that party, like all Bush detractors, held two opposing views of him at the same time. He was said to be at once stupid, uncurious, and ineloquent: lacking in even the basics of geography, history, and diplomacy. At the same time, he was also said to be wily, opportunistic, and shrewd. And then of course there was the supporting cast: Dick Cheney and Karl Rove as the puppet masters, not to mention Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, a deputy secretary of defense whose role most people seemed unsure of but who was known to be hawkish and, as Mark Steyn once observed, had a surname that started with a mean animal and ended sounding Jewish. Meanwhile there were Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice thwarting (though not wholly) the wildest visions of Bush detractors intent on adding to Bush’s list of malfeasances not only colonialism and untruthfulness but racism as well.
Time tends to cool things down and allows more forgiveness to those who kept their tempers and consciences than those who sold their reason for a song. The publication of Decision Points, Bush’s insightful and moving page-turner, is the beginning of the rescue of George W. Bush’s reputation. The book itself comes across as entirely fresh. Bush has had the usual help politicians get when they write, but the style and content seem very much his own. Its tone is humble and thoughtful, though occasionally lightened by the type of humor known as joshing.
The narrative is split into 14 chapters, each describing a particular decision that the president had to make. In some cases, the choices are personal—to quit drinking, the obsession with keeping fit. Others are the decisions he is famous for: sending forces into Afghanistan and Iraq, banning federal funding for the creation of new embryonic stem cells, pushing for the TARP bailout, and the handling of Hurricane Katrina. He is also, rightly, intent on filling out his record by reminding people of the extraordinary and almost completely unacknowledged priority he gave to the AIDS and malaria-relief programs in Africa.
The structure of Decision Points is a model future politicians should follow. By nature, most of them are poor judges of themselves. Nor, it must be said, are they ever as forthcoming as other memoirists. Even retired presidents need to retain a distance. Unpleasantness is glossed over (one thinks of the slight space Bill Clinton devoted to the single subject everybody wanted to know about). And this is not only for the sake of polishing posthumous reputations but also because so many statesmen these days leave office at an age at which they can easily remain politically active.
Bush simply gets to the point. Details about his years before ascending to the Oval Office are spare and vivid and often concentrate on matters that would normally be avoided. The first page of the first chapter goes straight into his drinking problem. Throughout the book, when he refers to one of his youthful indiscretions, he does so without any pride but rather with the air of a sad parent contemplating his wayward younger self. A line from the Psalmist comes to mind: “and my sin is ever before me.” He doesn’t relish it. He accepts it and learns from it.
What comes across throughout the book is that Bush is not only an intensely curious man; he is also an intensely decent man with a rather uncanny ability to say the right thing even at the worst of times. One of the book’s most memorable moments describes his visit three days after the September 11 attacks to the Javits Center in New York City, where relatives of the missing are waiting for news of their almost certainly dead loved ones. Some ask Bush to sign autographs. He falters, concerned about behaving appropriately amid such grief. Instead, he recalls powerfully, “I asked each family to tell me a little about their missing loved one. Then I said, ‘I’ll sign this card, and then when your dad [or mom or son or daughter] comes home, they’ll believe that you really met the president.’”
He also had, as this book reminds us, a harder task than any recent president. The chapter on 9/11 amply recalls this: the terrifying uncertainty in the aftermath, the numerous plots expected and thwarted, the moment when it seemed that he and all his senior colleagues had been contaminated by a biological attack. And all the time the knowledge that if another attack on America had succeeded and he as president had failed to institute the right responses, the blame would have been his. Amid a period of unparalleled destabilization and justified fear, President Bush not only kept a steady hand on the nation; he also kept it safe. It is his most important achievement. In the process, however, he gave many of his detractors what they thought were their finest weapons.
About this he speaks often, and it is clear he feels wounded by the most unpleasant and untrue allegations made against him in politics and the media. But he does not return the favor in kind. He is graceful to even his rudest opponents. Cindy Sheehan he pities as a grieving mother whose son gave the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. Ted Kennedy is decent to him in private and then makes odious charges against him in public. And yet Kennedy is treated decently by Bush in return, with disappointment but no malice.
On Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush sees himself, as the reader should, in the long view. And this is not only because of his religious faith and his seemingly insatiable appetite for history books (at one point, he reveals that he read 14 biographies of Lincoln alone during his presidency), but also because Bush has a sense that the job of the president must be above the tittle-tattle, instant reactions, and instant reversals that now make up so much of our news and, it often seems, our politics.
There are moments for contemplation of policy and moments for the clarification of policy. But there are also times that require decisions. On the biggest issues of our time, Bush weighed the options with evident care and made his choices. On a considerable range of those decisions, he has been proved right. His vision for the Middle East in particular is grander, simpler, and more ahead of its time than anything his most self-described “progressive” opponents ever conceived.
He says repeatedly in his book that he is content to leave his reputation to history, and this seems to me not a demonstration of arrogance but rather another demonstration of distinctly sound judgment. His successor is slicker than he, more obviously media-savvy, and more adored by those chattering media classes. But after only a couple of years, and for all his high-flown rhetoric, what are the chances that Barack Obama will stand before history with the same confidence?