Anyone with an interest in history will enjoy President George W. Bush’s account of his life and presidency (“Decision Points”), except for those whose minds are closed and blame Bush for all the world’s ills. It is different from the traditional memoir in two key respects: it is not a purely autobiographical narrative of his life and does
not generally follow the cycle of his life, nor does it comply with the common
purpose of a memoir: the justification of every act, decision, and move made by
the protagonist. For the latter reason, especially, it is more interesting than
most autobiographies. President Bush does not try to rationalize every
decision; instead, he endeavors to explain why he thought each decision was
correct in its time and place, and how subsequent events – some that could not
have been anticipated and some that might have been anticipated – impacted on
every decision. Indeed, he often seems tougher on himself than he needs to be.
For example, Hurricane Katrina in September 2005 became Bush’s Waterloo and the costliest natural disaster in American history. Coincidentally, I had visited New Orleans just two months earlier and experienced another hurricane alert during which thousands of residents clogged the highways to leave town. Nothing happened, and I noted then that it is hard to imagine that people would uproot themselves every time there is a hurricane warning. When Katrina blew in, it was not the hurricane that did the damage but the shattering of the old levees that inundated a city that, bowl-shaped, largely rests below sea level, a disaster waiting to happen. But generations of New Orleans politicians had garnered federal funds to reinforce the levees – and just spent the money elsewhere and sometimes pocketed it themselves. So what could have been done differently ?
The untold story of Katrina was the bickering between the female governor of Louisiana and the black mayor of New Orleans (each from one of the liberal media’ protected classes, with job performances graded on a curve – the governor left office when her term expired; the mayor, of course, has since been re-elected despite his abject failures). For five days, the governor refused to permit the dispatch of the National Guard for either relief or security efforts, and a law dating from after the Civil War prohibits a president from sending federal
troops to a state without explicit authorization. No one was in charge, literally. Bush’s main error was perception, what he called the “fly-over” of New Orleans that generated the infamous photograph of the President looking out the window of Air Force One “removed” from the scene and literally “above it all.” (As soon as the pictures were released, he knew it was a mistake. He had wanted to land but did not want to divert security forces that would be needed for his protection.)
By contrast, he notes, LBJ had descended on New Orleans during another hurricane in 1965, even barging into a shelter and announcing “This is your President. I’m here to help you.” Of course, he couldn’t – but the perception was, at least, that he was there. President Bush inadvertently created the opposite impression, not helped when he said to the FEMA head, “Heckuva job, Brownie” in order to boost his morale. But Bush spent the first ten days after the catastrophe alternately frustrated and furious – receiving incomplete and often inaccurate reports from the scene and incapable of getting the local politicians (all Democrats) to do anything but whine. It was an immense failure that was unfairly traced to Bush, when the problems were caused primarily by a failure of local leadership that resulted in the incapability to execute the rescue plans. A president can decide, order, and dispatch; that does not necessarily mean that what he decides, orders or dispatches will be executed properly.
Of course, Bush is too much the gentleman to blame the governor, the mayor or indeed anyone else for any of the decisions he made and their consequences, a marked distinction from his successor who has built his career and is hinging his re-election campaign on the notion that others are at fault for everything that has gone wrong in his administration. Bush accepts blame for the failed response to Katrina; contrast that with Obama’s response to the BP explosion in the Gulf of Mexico (blaming BP, filing lawsuits, shaking them down for money, prohibiting drilling, etc.) and the cleanup that was inordinately slow to begin. One can easily see how, if Bush had been in office, the liberal pundits would have
castigated him for every blackened bird.
Indeed, Bush does not comment at all on President Obama and the decisions he has made. But what he does – eloquently and sometimes poignantly – is take the reader into his confidence, and weigh the factors the led invariably to a particular decision: abstinence from alcohol, his various political campaigns (his mother, a forceful personality, told him not to run for governor of Texas because he could not win), Afghanistan, the WMD’s and Iraq, the surge and the formation of the Bush Doctrine that encourages the spread of democracy across the world, Guantanamo and the use of enhanced interrogation measures, and the response to the financial crisis of 2008. Agree or disagree with the outcomes of these decisions, it is difficult to argue that one in possession of the facts as
President Bush saw them at the time could have reasonably made a different
decision, or that had another course been chosen that it would have yielded a
different or better result. (It easily might have been worse.) The greatest
proof of this has been the Obama presidency –for all his snarky dismissal of
the Bush policies during his campaign, he has essentially continued almost all
of them – Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, the military tribunals, the Freedom Agenda (Obama was a late convert to that), the surge, the bailouts, etc. Even the enhanced interrogation procedures yielded valuable intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden.
There are moments of great poignancy: Laura Bush had difficulty conceiving, and the couple was preparing to adopt when they suddenly learned that she was pregnant, and carrying twins; the Arab-terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center which found Bush criticized for calmly continuing to read children’s stories to second-graders in Sarasota as it happened, rather than – as his critics insisted – he dash out and panic the children and the entire country; the initial
attacks on Afghanistan with the knowledge – that every president lives with –
that some soldiers sent will not return and some families will forever be torn
asunder; the analysis of the intelligence regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass
destruction, with which all intelligence agencies across the world (including
Britain’s and Israel’s) acceded, and which Saddam Hussein had himself boasted
about (later, Hussein told FBI interrogators that he never thought the US would
attack, and that he had to remain strong in the eyes of his neighbors), and the
threats that accompanied the financial collapse in 2008 in which he was told
that he would preside over another depression unless he agreed to the advice of
Bernanke, Paulson, et al. The housing and market collapses of 2008 are classic
examples of crises that do not originate with the president, in which the
president’s true role is very limited, are foreseeable only in hindsight, and
yet color his entire tenure.
Throughout the book, several themes emerge. President Bush is a man of unique sensitivity, almost preternaturally disposed to making friends, making acquaintances and strangers feel comfortable in his presence, and given to moments of tears and, more frequently, prayer. He personally wrote letters to each of the several thousand families that had suffered a battlefield loss. Yet, he possesses a steely determination that is apparent in the personal – giving up alcohol cold turkey and never again touching another drop –and in the national – what he calls the greatest success of his presidency, the commitment that American on his watch would not be attacked again by Arab terrorists. Every decision made in the realm of national security was rooted in that one simple resolution – would it make America safer? It worked. And although awkward in his use of the English language, Bush turned out to be a better presidential speaker than Obama, although Obama is a better campaign speaker than most presidents. (Reagan was a master of both.) He also has something nice to say about almost everyone he mentions in the book, and his criticisms of a few (Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder, for one) are hesitant and muted.
Bush had the strength of character to lead – to goad Iraq into a nascent democracy, to defy his European allies and banish Yasser Arafat from civilized society – and uphold Israel’s right of self-defense, even drafting a letter committing the United States (since repudiated by Obama) to support Israel’s claim to retain settlement blocs in any future negotiations. His “vision” of a two-state solution was lost because of his call for new leadership to replace Arafat and for a sincere commitment by the Arabs to a peaceful solution. (His mother was not amused, sarcastically calling him “the first Jewish president.”) It was not
the only time he disagreed with and rejected his father’s advice. It took leadership to lower taxes when the late 1990s internet boom produced a revenue surplus for the government. (After all, the government has the people’s money, not its own money. Novel concept, that.) Bush is an unabashed supporter of the free market, and therefore quite abashed that he was prodded to intervene through a massive infusion of government money – even having the government choose winners and losers in the marketplace, which Obama has taken to new heights, or depths. Bush is man enough to admit that he had to deviate from his principles because of the financial crisis, his regrets at not capturing bin Laden, and his inability to formulate any policy or strategy that would thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
That type of leadership, and the personal accountability that accompanies it, is sorely missed. This excellent book, worth reading, reminds us that not only are there many factors that influence a particular decision before it is made, but also
that there are many more factors that will shape the success or failure of a
decision, long after it is made. My sense is that history will judge President Bush
more favorably than many of his contemporaries did – for the quality of his
decisions, for the strength of his character, and for his essential goodness as
a human being.