An inside look at George W. Bush
The stereotypes do not define the man, says Robert Draper in this up-close examination of the Bush presidency.
George Bush is not a tiny, incurious man who scampers off to exercise while Dick Cheney and Karl Rove run the world.
Nor is he Churchill in boots – someone whose plain speech reflects the plain virtues of the great nation in which we live, etc., etc.
No, the 43rd chief executive of the United States instead is someone who defies all his stereotypes, writes Robert Draper in his absorbing Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush.
As is perhaps the case with all presidents, Bush's vices are cousins of his virtues, according to Draper, a longtime national correspondent for GQ Magazine. He can be bold and reckless, uncomplicated and intellectually lazy, self-assured and heedless – sometimes all at once.
"He [is] not quite so simple, despite his professed contentedness to be regarded as such," writes Draper.
But – and we're cutting right to the heart of the matter here – does Bush remain so sure about the rightness of his most fateful step, the invasion of Iraq, that he would do it all over again? This book's title, after all, is "Dead Certain."
Draper interviewed Bush six times, beginning in December 2006. In perhaps the most affecting use of this material, the author recounts at length a conversation with Bush about the latter's public demeanor regarding the war.
Bush tells the author that he is aware, always, that he is being watched as a leader. The Iraqis watch him. His military commanders watch him. The US public – the world public – watches him, too.
And that means he can't show doubt, he says. If he did, what would happen?
" 'The other thing is that you can't fake it,' " says Bush, as recounted in the book. " 'You have to believe it. And I believe it. I believe we'll succeed.' "
In other words, he's certain because he has to be. Isn't that different than being sure because of the merits of the case?
In some ways "Dead Certain" is an anomaly in today's world of political books. It's not a hit job or a whitewash. The word "liar" isn't used in any chapter title, and nobody is called a war criminal or a "feminazi."
The Bush that emerges from these pages isn't a caricature. He's a recognizable human being.
That's not the same as saying it's easy on him. While Draper does make some flat statements that will drive many Bush critics nuts (" ... after 9/11, George W. Bush filled the arena"), he zings the man, too.
Consider his summary of the White House's stumbling response to Hurricane Katrina.
"Bush's every public utterance seemed to be that of a man beset by misinformation or outright denial.... Bush seemed unaware of just how late to the game he had come," writes Draper.
The book's ambition is to be a literary narrative of the Bush presidency – or at least the seven years of it that have already passed. Draper came to this project already quite knowledgeable about his subject. A former editor at Texas Monthly, he covered Bush as governor.
He credits two Texans – Mark McKinnon, who ran Bush's ad campaigns in 2000 and 2004, and Karen Hughes, former White House communications strategist – with opening doors that eventually led to interviews with dozens of top officials, including Bush himself.
Along the way Draper collected some great stories. He tells of an evening during the 2000 primaries, when a tired Bush attended a fundraiser at the New Hampshire mansion of Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway personal transporter.
Mr. Kamen insisted on showing the then-governor each one of his house's many eccentricities. (It includes halls that resemble mine shafts, as well as a kinetic sculpture powered by a steam engine.) Then he strapped Bush into a wheelchair that could climb stairs, and sent him on a bucking, clunking ride up to the second floor.
In the car back to the hotel Bush fixed his handlers with a curdling stare. "Don't ever do that to me again," he said.
Then there is the tale about one of Bush's initial cabinet meetings following his 2000 election. At the time the meeting was set to start, one person was still missing: new Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose popularity famously exceeded the president's.
Bush ordered the door locked. A few minutes later, those inside the Roosevelt Room could hear the sound of a hand trying the door. They erupted in laughter.
"A contest of sorts had just taken place. And Bush had won," writes Draper.
Cramming the whole history of the Bush years into a single volume does result in some gaping omissions. Why so much about the 2000 South Carolina primary, and so little about the standoff following the 2000 general election, and the court case Gore v. Bush?
Sure, the debacle of Bush's attempt to push Social Security reform makes for good reading. But what about the weird, cross-party politics that led to passage of the Medicare prescription drug benefit?
Plus, Draper's magazine writer style with its ... ellipses! And punchy sentences! And exclamation points! It can be a little wearing.
Still, all the on-the-record quotes here will be mined by other journalists and authors for months, if not years, to come.
• Peter Grier is a staff writer in the Monitor's Washington, D.C., bureau.