I’m not sure how to account for my affection for George W. Bush. I only know that I admire him. I enjoy listening to his speeches. I enjoyed reading his book. Of all the presidents of my lifetime, he’s been the most unfairly treated. The canard that he is dim-witted is the most mendacious. You don’t graduate from Andover, Yale, Harvard Business School and complete jet fighter flight school if you’re dim-witted.
My affection does not automatically spring from a complete agreement with him on matters of politics and foreign policy. Though I am profoundly grateful to him for saving us from President Gore and President Kerry. And it still makes me smile to recall that for all the “chimpy” catcalls of the left, he won four straight elections over ten years that gave him two terms as governor of Texas and two terms as President of the United States.
I enjoyed Decision Points. He’s a good writer. He’s best when he’s telling an anecdote. Thus, the book is strongest and most interesting when Bush is describing his own life story before he became president or giving some vignette that provides us with a bit of insight into the character of Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin, or Crown Prince Abdullah.
As the child is father to the man, I found his account of his family the most interesting part of the book. He’s the oldest son, a bit of a rebel, a smart-alec, and he clearly idolized his father. His father comes through as a strong man of incredible integrity and accomplishment. Bush senior enlisted in the Navy just after his high school graduation and flew a Navy dive-bomber against the Japanese in World War Two. Came home, married his sweetheart, and enrolled at Yale. Bush, Jr attended his father’s college graduation as a toddler. Bush Sr, incidentally graduated Phi Beta Kappa in two and a half years.
George and Barbara had six children, but their second child, Robin died when she was three. There was a significant gap in years between George and his surviving four younger siblings. He left for Andover as a boarding student during his high school years.
The press have cherry-picked and distorted passages from the book, as is their wont. Bush Derangement Syndrome apparently does not allow for any natural recovery with the passage of time. To give but one example, several accounts have harped on what they have called the “bizarre” anecdote that Bush tells of his mother showing him a fetus that she had miscarried and had in a jar. The garbled press version makes Barbara Bush sound macabre, if not downright deranged. The truth is that George’s mom summoned him for help shortly after he got his driver’s license and told him he needed to drive her to the hospital. She’d had a miscarriage and his dad was out of town. She took the miscarried fetus with her to the hospital because it would be important for the doctors to be able to know how to treat her. In that context, Bush talks about the impact that the whole event had on him and his awareness of the life and humanity of a baby before it is born. Not quite the same story the press has told, is it?
The book is organized thematically rather than chronologically, but the earlier chapters give us his reflections on significant decisions he made early in his life. The first chapter is entitled, “Quitting” and tells the story of his decision to stop drinking. He was not an alcoholic in the classic sense – he wasn’t sloppy drunk every day, or every night, or even every weekend. But he acknowledges he was drinking too much. And he made the decision to quit more because of the things he was missing than anything else.
The second chapter is entitled “Running” and talks about his decision to run for Congress in 1978 when he was 32. It’s the only political race he ever lost. But he decided politics wasn’t something he wanted to pursue and went back to a career in oil and gas real estate for sixteen years. He played a part in his dad’s presidential campaigns in 1980, and again in 1988 – but as eyes and ears and utility player, not as campaign director. He then talks about his decision to run for Governor of Texas in 1994 against a popular incumbent, Ann Richards. She’s not the first Democrat to have under-estimated him.
Chapter three is titled, “Personnel.” It’s interesting to read his own accounts and thinking in his selection of Dick Cheney for VP, Colin Powell, Don Rumsfeld, Condi Rice and others to serve in his cabinet. He discusses his Supreme Court nominations and remains pleased and proud of both Roberts and Alito. He admits that the nomination of Miers was a mistake, but explains how the choice came to be made.
The other chapters focus on specific incidents and crises of his eight years as president: 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina, the Surge, the Financial Crisis. In each of these one is struck by how much more complex the situations were than was known to the public. And how, in many cases, none of the options were good, all had flaws. One is reminded too that even though the President of the United States might be the most powerful man in the world, there are limits to his power. If the governor of Louisiana doesn’t want federal troops to come into the state, it’s not easy to mandate federal control of a relief operation. As Barack Obama has discovered to his own surprise, being president isn’t as easy as it looks. Governing is different from campaigning.
Perhaps the most intriguing chapter is the next-to-the-last, entitled, “The Freedom Agenda.” Most of this chapter tells the story of the painful three steps forward, 2.5 steps back process of negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians. The situation is hellishly complicated with many bad actors who deliberately seek to sabotage any steps towards peace. Bush’s personal approach and engagement with other national leaders pays him some dividends, but of course it remains a problem which no president in sixty years has been able to find a solution to. The intriguing part of the chapter is the way in which Bush uses the cause of freedom to weave together his dealings with the Palestinians, the Russians, and the Chinese. His concluding sentence expresses his admirable idealism and guarded optimism:
There will be setbacks along the way. But I am confident in the destination. The people of the Middle East will be free, and America will be more secure as a result.
Surely that is an honorable goal, a worthy pursuit. And one it is clear Bush devoted considerable efforts towards achieving.
The verdict on his presidency won’t be rendered for many years of course, if indeed it ever will be. Its safe to predict that future historians will be much kinder to Bush and his legacy than the press or his political enemies were – but I repeat myself. How will his stock fare in twenty years? or fifty years? or a hundred?
I’d bet on Bush. His opponents have consistently under-estimated him over the past twenty years. Its quite possible, probable, even likely that they are continuing to do so. It’s also clear that many of his critics can’t be bothered to read the book and attempt to understand what it was like to be President from 2001-2009. It’s a book worth reading, for that alone.