George W. Bush has long thrived on the slim expectations of others. In the year 2000, chattering politicos wondered if he could survive a debate against a seasoned cogitator like Al Gore. Bush stayed calm and remembered his answers; he became a “credible” presidential candidate.
Ten years later and two years out of office, he still wins approval for not doing the worst thing conceivable. “This isn’t the George W. Bush who couldn’t come up with an answer when he was asked during a 2004 White House news conference to name his biggest mistake,” declares the news-lite USA Today in a recent article. “Unusually reflective Bush gives his side of the story,” reads the headline, yet the salient fact about Decision Points, his new memoir, is how un-reflective it is.
The new Bush will admit to error (a slow federal response to Katrina, or not enough troops in Iraq and Afghanistan), but he never goes beyond the instance. The mistakes pile up but they never lead Bush to question the way he views the world. He is, he’ll have you know, the same man he always was.
“Like [Ulysses S.] Grant,” Bush writes, “I decided not to write an exhaustive account of my life or presidency. [Grant had little choice: he was dying and wrote his memoirs to provide for his wife.] Instead I have told the story of my time in the White House by focusing on the most important part of the job: making decisions.” One immediately gets the sense (and it was the same while he was in office) that we are being told to judge cautiously – decisions are hard things, after all, and “in the presidency, there are no do-overs.” “You have to do what you believe is right and accept the consequences.” However we mark him, Bush is saying, we must acknowledge this virtue, his ability to make the call.
It is a defensive beginning. The rest of the book, however, betrays none of this unease. The first chapter, a sketch of the first fifty years of his life, is an attempt to give us a warm sense of his youth and the sturdy principles it seeded. It’s meant to service the account of his presidency, but the causality is so poorly and plainly rendered that it has the double effect of being both unconvincing and revealing: never once do we get the sense that Bush doesn’t believe what he’s writing. His bluntness he got from his mother, “a trait that gets us in trouble from time to time.” His mother’s miscarriage – one of the few revelations in the book – foreshadows his feelings on abortion. While Andover prep-school “sure was different from what I was used to” (he’s folksy, we must remember), “I decided to tough it out. I wasn’t a quitter.” As a principled young undergrad at Yale, he created a stick ball league but “there was no wild card; I’m a purist.” He read on the French Revolution and “was appalled by the way the ideas that inspired the Revolution were cast aside when all power was concentrated in the hands of a few.” A class on the USSR was “an introduction to the struggle between tyranny and freedom, a battle that has held my attention for the rest of my life.” The narrative of moral growth is capped off when Bush is born again and renounces alcohol. He is now ready to make tough decisions.
There are also inadvertent clues to his self-image in the nostalgic reminiscences of his youth in West Texas. “Life in Midland was simple,” he writes.
I rode bikes with pals…. We went on Cub Scout trips, and I sold Life Savers door-to-door for charity. My friends and I would play baseball for hours, hitting each other grounders and fly balls until Mother called over the fence in our yard for me to come in for dinner…. Those were comfortable, carefree years. The word I’d use now is idyllic. On Friday nights, we cheered on the Bulldogs of Midland High. On Sunday mornings, we went to church. Nobody locked their doors. Years later, when I would speak about the American Dream, it was Midland I had in mind.
You can see it in sepia – the wistful backward glance of those in the boomer generation who didn’t march against Vietnam or do drugs or take off their bras. When Bush first thinks about running for office in the 1970s, it is, among other things, an act of preservation. He “was concerned about the direction of the country.” The problem for Bush (and the country thirty years later) is that he never probed that concern for anything substantial. The young Bush believed “the free market provided the fairest way to allocate resources. Lower taxes rewarded hard work and encouraged risk taking, which spurred job creation…. Government should respect its constitutional limits and give people the freedom to live their lives.” The older Bush never tells us how and why he got to these ideas, and if pressed, it’s clear he would have trouble going beyond rote sentiment. This is an impressionable place from which to make decisions.
The average person will take their vague and simple convictions to a polling booth or pass them on to children, but for eight years, George W. Bush was the most powerful human being on the planet. He invaded two countries, caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the unwilling migration of millions more. He left his country’s reputation in tatters and its economy in shambles.
So how, after two years, does he defend his choices? He was constantly ridiculed for his lumpy, lunkish rhetoric. Even people who didn’t hate him thought he was stupid. But doubtless most of his lines were spoon-fed by consultants and speechwriters, and perhaps public speaking wasn’t his strength. What would he produce, if given time to think and revise?
Few people trust politicians, but one of the things that keeps some of us perversely interested in them is the discord between appearance and reality – what is this or that one hiding? What are they really like? It turns out that Decision Points reads as Bush spoke in political life. It’s the same as he speaks today; his promotional interviews for the book are looser than his public years, but that is all.
Even before Decision Points delves into the most controversial aspects of Bush’s presidency, the limits of his emotionalism become dispiriting. Any president would tell you – as Bush did constantly – that personnel (also the title of his third chapter) are among the most important decisions a president makes. It’s less than heartening to learn that the reasons many were selected are no more substantive than shopworn political cliches. Of one of his closest advisers, Karen Hughes, Bush says that “Karen was my kind of person – one who put family first.” And Bush liked the “cigar chomping” CIA Director George Tenant because he wasn’t “the bow-tied, Ivy League, elite type.”
Regarding Dick Cheney, Bush senior tells his son he would “never have to worry about him going behind your back.” Bush junior offers this up without comment, despite the fact that Cheney, along with his aide David Addington, was notorious for massaging the national security information that reached the president’s desk. Decision Points confirms the popular theory of a man divorced from the machinations in his office, the movements of which determined the knowledge and advice he would use to make some of the most important decisions in the history of his country.
There is a famous incident that took place during Bush’s first term in office. One night in March of 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft lay in intensive care at a Washington hospital. The Justice Department had just determined that Bush’s domestic surveillance program was illegal. When Bush’s Chief of Staff Andrew Card and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales arrived at the hospital, they faced the stricken Ashcroft, his deputy James Comey, and FBI Director Robert Mueller. Card and Gonzales attempted to persuade Ashcroft to reauthorize the spying program, but he refused. Mueller, Ashcroft, and their aides all threatened to resign if TSP (Terrorist Surveillance Program) wasn’t modified. The president would eventually concede, though the program was in operation without Justice Department approval for several weeks.
The hospital visit took place on March 10. Bush overruled the Justice Department objection that night. But it wasn’t until March 12 that he understood the scope of events. At a meeting that night, Bush says,
[Deputy Comey] explained his concerns about the problematic aspect of the program. “I just don’t understand why you are raising this at the last minute,” I said.
He looked shocked. “Mr. President,” he said, “your staff has known about this for weeks.” Then he dropped another bomb. He wasn’t the only one planning to resign. So was FBI Director Bob Mueller….
Note the characterization in the paragraph below as the president prepares to make a decision:
I called Bob into the Oval Office. I had come to know him well over the past two and a half years. He was a good and decent man, a former Princeton hockey star who had served in the Marines and led the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco. Without hesitation, he agreed with Comey. If I continued the program over the Justice Department’s objection, he said, he couldn’t serve in my administration.
I had to make a big decision, and fast…. I decided to accommodate the Justice Department’s concern by modifying the part of the program they found problematic [which we never learn about], while leaving TSP in place….
I was relieved to have the crisis over, but I was disturbed it had happened at all…. One of the toughest questions every White House faces is how to manage the president’s time and when to bring policy disputes to his desk. The standoff over the surveillance program was a case of bad judgment. There was no shortage of disagreements in the years ahead, but nothing like this ever happened again.
This is true, probably because after the 2004 elections, Bush further stamped out the ideological irregularities among his advisers, who would then be of like mind about, as he put it, “how to manage the president’s time and when to bring policy disputes to his desk.” Attorney General Ashcroft was replaced after the November elections by his bedside tormentor, Alberto Gonzales. A similar change hit the State Department, where Colin Powell was succeeded by Condoleeza Rice, Bush’s closest adviser.
“I admired Colin,” he writes, “but it sometimes seemed like the State Department he led wasn’t fully on board with my philosophy and politics. It was important to me that there be no daylight between the president and the secretary of state.” The explication stops there. Regarding his chief of staff, who, among other things, runs the administrative apparatus serving the most powerful man in the world, Bush explains that “people had settled into comfort zones, and the sharpness that had once characterized our operation had dulled. The most effective way to fix the problem was to make a change at the top. I decided it was time to take Andy [Card] up on his offer to move on.” Treasury Secretary John Snow left in the second term because Bush needed “fresh eyes” on the economy. More boardroom euphemisms explain Donald Rumsfeld’s 2006 departure from the Defense Department and the rotating commands in Iraq.
What world is this, where major personnel changes come and go like a gentle rain? Andy Card left the Bush Administration among diving approval ratings and calls from Democrats and Republicans alike to fire staff. John Snow left Treasury soiled by an ethics scandal. Rumsfeld’s deadly follies – including armor shortages, inadequate troop deployments, Abu Ghraib – were too numerous to mention; he was actually less popular than his boss. These firings and resignations were “decisions” in name only, but the former president is too mendacious to admit it. In his introduction, Bush speaks of an obligation to write, of his duty to history, but I confess I have no idea what that could mean to him.
George W. Bush’s legacy will probably turn on foreign affairs. His account could have been invaluable. Here is a characteristic portion of his narrative. Five years into the Afghan War, the situation was deteriorating. The problem was the tribal regions of Pakistan, a base from which the Taliban could operate with virtual impunity, supported by factions of Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI. Hamid Karzai and Pervez Musharraf, presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan respectively, hated each other. “I decided,” Bush writes, “to step in with some serious personal diplomacy.” He brought the two leaders to the White House, where he and his staff “watched as Karzai and Musharraf traded barbs,” which he then recounts. “I started to wonder whether this dinner had been a mistake.” And then,
I told Musharraf and Karzai that the stakes were too high for personal bickering. I kept the dinner going for two and a half hours, trying to help them find common ground. After a while, the venting stopped and the meeting turned out to be productive. The two leaders agreed to share more intelligence, meet with tribes on both sides of the border to urge peace, and stop bad-mouthing each other in public.
We have no clue how or why this happens. It just happens. Forget for a moment that this meeting accomplished nothing, that the two leaders met in Ankara the next year and agreed to do precisely the same thing and never did. The stakes for this 2006 meeting were incredibly high: millions of lives were at stake and the context provided above gives the barest hint of the situation’s fluidity. Could Bush understand the place and weight these things should have in his narrative? Does he think this meeting he so effectively guided had any significance beyond demonstrating his prowess? But more importantly, is he capable of doing justice to complexity, not just in print but in practice?
Bush likes his stories simple, and he is fervent even when recounting events years past. When the Turkish government closes its airspace to the US in the run-up to the Iraq War, Bush laments that “Turkey, our NATO ally, had let America down.” His final assessment of the corrupt Hamid Karzai, still leader of Afghanistan, can’t get beyond the fact that they were allies in struggle:
No doubt he had made mistakes. But despite all the forces working against him, he never lost his determination to lead his country toward a better day. He helped give the Afghan people hope, something they hadn’t had in many years. For that, he will always have my gratitude and respect.
Similarly, the men and women who guided the president and the United States toward accelerating decline are less people than an assemblage feel-good cliches and lockeroom claptrap. Aides and advisers serve faithfully. That fellow acted with honor. This one was a good man. That one is the sort of guy who would do such and such.
Not all of Bush’s emotion is misplaced. Despite imposing aid restrictions on organizations that “promote” abortion, no one has ever put more money into fighting HIV and malaria in Africa. Bush devotes a sensitive and justifiably proud chapter to these efforts. In interviews for his book, he wells up when he speaks of his father’s love or disabled soldiers or the destruction of 9/11.
But question him and he grows spiteful and narrow. NBC’s Matt Lauer, a placid and sympathetic interviewer, recently asked Bush a question: “Why is waterboarding legal, in your opinion?” Bush answered: “Because the lawyers said it was legal…. I’m not a lawyer. You got to trust the judgment of people around you and I do.” The ex-president refuses to go into hypothetical scenarios: “All I ask is that people read the book.” There he writes, of the legal review, that “I had asked the most senior legal officers in the U.S. Government to review the interrogation methods, and they had assured me they did not constitute torture.” Which makes sense: how could this simple man gainsay the legal tomfoolery of (the never-mentioned) John Yoo? Someone told Bush it was okay, and that was enough. The president who emerges from the book is not a decider, but a weathervane.
This is the blood-soaked irony of George W. Bush’s presidency, that a man who prided himself on his ability to make a choice was led around by foolish convictions: his own and those of the more capable people surrounding him. It is too simple to call him evil, but if we expect reflection to be a necessary quality in a president, there can be no doubt, finally, that he was unworthy.
Greg Waldmann, an Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.