I lived through the entire eight years of the George W. Bush presidency, paying careful attentions to the events and their echoes. His boosters, with a kind of unintended oxymoronic flourish, vigorously maintained that “he kept us safe.” The reality was instead an ongoing rebuke to that assertion, a tragically comic counter-intuitive timeline of disaster. Those two terms of Bush were instead marked by: the most significant attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, with a greater loss of life, months after the termination of the previous administration’s program to target those adversaries; the invasion of Afghanistan to bring those attackers to justice, who instead slipped away, leaving American troops endlessly bogged down in a conflict that defies resolution; the expense of much more blood and treasure in the gratuitous invasion of Iraq on the false pretense of weapons of mass destruction that never existed, permanently fracturing that nation, and effecting a dramatic destabilization of the Middle East; the death of nearly two thousand Americans in New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath as the nation stood by paralyzed by inaction; the first detonation of a nuclear bomb by North Korea; the reignition of the Cold War with Russia marked by hostilities in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, sparked by NATO expansion and American unilateralism; and finally, a near cataclysmic economic collapse in the most significant financial downturn since the Great Depression, in the wake of rash deregulation that included the crippling of the net capital rule. If “W” kept us safe, danger seemed like a welcome respite. Even the space shuttle exploded! While it is hardly fair to blame him for the latter, I recall wondering at the time whether even that tragedy might have been averted had Bush not selected as NASA Administrator a skeptic of Big Bang cosmology. Regardless, catastrophe seemed to cling to President Bush—he seemed incapable of carrying a cup of coffee across the room without spilling it.
With his 2016 biography, Bush, “Francis Parkman Prize” winner Jean Edward Smith became the first bona fide historian to profile the life of George W. Bush and chronicle his calamitous tenure as Commander in Chief. Smith, a noted author and academic, has among his prolific credits biographies of Grant, FDR and Eisenhower, so he comes to the task with both an established resume and frame of reference. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that the author seems to barely contain his bewilderment as events unfolded around Bush-43 that spawned one wrong turn after another. At the same time, the book underscores that my own memory of that era was hardly hyperbolic—it really was that bad—while it challenges some of the analyses made by those of us on the outside.
Most significantly, Smith rebuts once and for all the dark suspicion shared by many Americans that the real power behind the façade of the Bush Administration was the sinister Dick Cheney, villainously yanking on the puppet strings from within the confines of his secret bunker. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. While Cheney did serve as proud parade marshal for the darkest of the dark avenues in the administration’s roadmap to torture, secret detention, extraordinary rendition, regime change, domestic surveillance, and much more, he was hardly the mastermind many imagined him to be. Instead—and this is the book’s well-argued thesis—George W. Bush really was “The Decider” that he confidently alleged, a much-ridiculed claim that turns out to be surprisingly accurate. And that, according to Smith, was exactly the problem: Bush’s intellect and expertise were vastly outgunned by the crises he either encountered or manufactured, but he never ventured for perspective beyond a small circle of advisors, and yet remained vitally loyal to the conviction—ever bolstered by his religious faith—that it was his responsibility to make every decision in every arena.
Presidents from Buchanan to Hoover to Carter have been pilloried for dithering—for a failure to act decisively in a time of national crisis. Decisiveness is generally considered a strength for the Chief Executive; George W. Bush may well be the first occupant of the Oval Office to prove an exception to that rule. While Bush has often been grouped with Buchanan by historians who rate him among the worst of our chief executives, a perhaps more apt comparison might be to another often ranked near the bottom, Andrew Johnson. Like the latter, Bush seemed guided by an absolute unwavering certainty that he was always in the right, acting for very best interests of the country, even as evidence accumulated to the contrary. Because of Bush’s determination to leave no issue undecided, he not only made repeated bad judgements but frequently cast verdicts in areas perhaps better left to the vague or implicit, spawning doctrines in American foreign and domestic policy that would endure far beyond his time in office.
Unlike a Lincoln or a JFK, Bush rarely solicited the opinions outside of his immediate orbit, especially from those who might challenge him. This was underscored, for instance, when he arbitrarily ruled that al-Qaeda and Taliban combatants were not entitled to prisoner of war status under the Geneva Convention. This highly consequential verdict was pronounced by the President without consulting the National Security council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of State, or the State Department! Both the military and the State Department objected, to no avail. Smith rightly dubs this as “another unfortunate example of the personalization of presidential power under George W. Bush.” [p284] Sadly, it was but one of many.
Smith’s biography does not dwell much on Bush’s early years, which were hardly marked by accomplishment, but instead centers on his time in the White House. That is a sound decision, under the circumstances, and a reminder that while some men came to the Oval Office with an impressive resume—Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, for example—others, such as Abraham Lincoln or Harry Truman, had little to show for themselves before destiny called. George W. Bush was a scion of a notable family who played the role of prodigal son, dabbling in whiskey and cocaine, barely showing up to play his Texas Air National Guard get-out-of-Vietnam-card, until Jesus Christ, mountain biking and Laura Welch Bush came along to save him. There isn’t much of a tale to tell, and unlike other biographers—God save us from Lincoln’s “The Prairie Years”—Smith doesn’t drag the reader through years of irrelevancy until he takes the national stage. Yes, Bush was Governor of Texas, but for those who don’t know, that is a largely powerless position that entails little more than serving as a master of ceremonies at a beauty pageant. Smith zeroes in on the most significant aspect of Bush’s pre-presidential years, which was his “born-again” experience that rescued him from his wayward tendencies and engraved upon him a conviction that he was doing God’s work, something that was to resound unfortunately upon the nation when he became Chief Executive.
Bush, who relied on his faith in Christ, did not permit his so-called Christian values to interfere with his pursuit of his version of justice, championing torture—euphemistically re-branded as “enhanced interrogation techniques”—as a critical tool of the war on terror. The Philippine Insurrection of the early 1900s was an especially brutal if long-forgotten foreign adventure that saw American forces commit often horrific war crimes, yet even in this morally- ambiguous environment an army officer was court-martialed for waterboarding (then tagged “the water cure”) Philippine insurgents. Bush specifically advocated waterboarding enemy combatants; Abu Zubaydah—still held in Guantanamo in 2017, by the way—was waterboarded eighty-three times, and Bush vigorously defended the practice. [p297] In this case, “The Decider” decided to go medieval. We have to assume Christ was along for the ride.
Bush’s faith was indeed genuine, if somewhat fanatical and … yes, even somewhat mad: Smith cites a communication with France’s President Chirac, in which Bush asserts: “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East. Biblical prophesies are being fulfilled. This confrontation was willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase His people’s enemies before a new age begins.” Chirac had no clue what Bush was raving about, but once he figured it out, it became even more clear that there was no place for France in this kind of unhinged religious crusade. [p339]
If Smith’s Bush sounds like a hatchet job, it clearly is not. The author goes out of his way to try to find the positive in the man and his leadership, although for those who are not his loyalists this is truly a challenge. Smith does not overlook Bush’s dedication to education in the “No Child Left Behind” initiative or in the senior prescription drug plan he advanced, even if these efforts suffered in various degrees from poor execution and a lack of funding. Nor does he fail to credit Bush for his commitment to immigration reform, even as the President found himself badly out of step with his own party on this issue, its voters already rehearsing for the message of a demagogue waiting in the wings.
Smith’s biography does rescue from a kind of ignominy Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who—while fully on the team for the initial decision to go forward with the Iraq War debacle—not only objected to the direction of post-war nation-building that attempted to impose a Western-style democracy on Iraq, but prior to the war itself prepared a remarkably prescient memo that contained twenty-nine things that could go sideways in American intervention, which Smith recognizes as “a precise compendium” of what actually did go wrong in Iraq. [p328] Dick Cheney, as noted, is revealed as no less malevolent than expected but also far less commanding. Colin Powell clearly stands out exactly as America perceived him at the time: a man with a firm moral center who was used and abused by the Bush Administration as the face of an indefensible policy of aggression that tarnished our nation before the world and forever humbled Powell’s political ambitions. Condoleezza Rice, who strived so hard to be Bush’s Kissinger, comes across as many of us always suspected, an intellectual wedded to ideology who prominently talked the talk but was way above her pay grade in the complex realm of realpolitik. At the end of the day, a flawed and largely incompetent President was served by a gang of colorful but weak—if flamboyant—underlings.
Presidential biography is one of my favorite genres. I have read bios of more than a third of our Chief Executives, and surveys of a dozen more, so I have taken on a profound sense of what these individuals have had to contend with while sitting, ever precariously, at the seat of such immense power. By every test, George W. Bush fared very badly in that role, and whatever his intentions left our nation far worse off by the close of his tumultuous tenure than it was when he came to it.
When he left office in January 2009, Bush’s approval rating was at a historic low of twenty-two percent. As it was, the best turn for his legacy was the election of Donald Trump, which has fostered—at least among Republicans—a kind of nostalgia for the Bush era, warts and all. This is—one might snarkily suggest—like a lung cancer victim looking back fondly on an episode with pneumonia. Bush advocates might chastise Smith’s work, arguing that Bush had strengths not adequately showcased, but even supporters have to admit that “W” presided over an era of unmitigated disaster, leaving the nation battered and polarized so severely that we are still reeling from it nearly a decade later. Smith will hardly be the last historian to profile Bush, and as time passes it is likely that perspectives will be modified, and judgments will be tweaked. In the meantime, I highly recommend Smith’s biography for an unsparing chronicle of eight years that forever altered America.