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Decision Points

Bush’s memoir details the decisions that shaped his life and presidency – but fails to open a window into his thinking.

By / November 10, 2010


“George, get over it. Make up your mind, and move on.”

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Such curt replies are Barbara Bush’s specialty. But she wasn’t referring to a choice between paper and plastic. She was girding her son to decide whether he should run to be “the decider.”

He got over it. He made up his mind to run for president. And now that he’s moved on, he has put forward an unapologetic, forceful account of the toughest decisions he faced.

As history, Decision Points is a sweeping tour of the figures and forces that drove a pivotal decade. As a memoir, it is an uneven and mostly boring read, alternating moments of gratuitous candor with long sections of guarded prose. As a defense of a controversial presidency that a group of scholars has ranked as the fifth worst in history, it is a rousing closing argument that is sometimes persuasive but always tendentious.

“Decision Points” is by nature a contradictory enterprise.

“You can’t possibly figure out the history of the Bush presidency – until I’m dead,” President Bush once told the journalist Robert Draper. “I really do not feel comfortable in the role of analyzing myself.” Yet the man who often expressed confidence that history would vindicate him centuries hence nonetheless felt compelled (by historians, fittingly) to start writing his memoir the day after he left office.

Just 24 hours to reflect on the lessons of his two terms? His mom would surely approve.

In 14 chapters, Bush tells the stories of key decisions that shaped his life, his presidency, and the fates of millions of lives around the world, from quitting drinking and invading Afghanistan and Iraq to tackling the 2008 financial crisis.

“Decision Points” is an apt title. Bush makes clear he craves rapid results and resolve, not process and painstaking deliberation. So even in rare cases where Bush acknowledges really wrestling with the right course of action, such as his drawn-out decision on whether to fund stem-cell lines, readers get only snapshots of Bush’s binary calculations, not a window into his thinking.

What unites virtually every decision Bush made was his belief – either maddening or principled, depending on your point of view – that the risks of inaction always exceeded the risks of action. Such a bias meshed perfectly with his determination to avoid playing “small ball” as president. The result is that Bush, and the full resources of the United States government, frequently went “all in” in the face of crisis.

Take the 2008 financial storm. Individual bank bailouts aren’t working? Create an $800 billion program (“Troubled Asset Relief Program”) to buy securities. Not sufficient? Capitalize the banks directly. Now auto companies are hurting? Fine, use TARP money to help them.

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