Bush’s memoir details the decisions that shaped his life and presidency – but fails to open a window into his thinking.
“George, get over it. Make up your mind, and move on.”
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.
He never identifies, let alone questions, his universal application of this “go big or go home” approach. A former pro baseball team owner should know that squads have won World Series titles playing small ball. But like a batter who swung for the fence at every pitch, Bush fondly relives the few homers he hit, vaguely recalls the many times he struck out, and dares not mention the bystanders he injured with foul balls.
On the few occasions when he does express regret, Bush feels bad that he didn’t swing harder. Reflecting on his handling of hurricane Katrina, for instance, Bush concludes he should have gone all in earlier by sending in federal troops. No matter the problem, Bush sees a surge as the solution.
His most important decision, Bush writes, was to put the country on a war footing after 9/11.
“September 11 redefined sacrifice. It redefined duty. And it redefined my job. The story of that week was the key to understanding my presidency,” Bush writes.
“Redefined” is exactly right. From changing the mission of the FBI and creating the Department of Homeland Security to crafting a startling new foreign policy doctrine and launching two wars, it’s hard to understate the magnitude of the changes Bush wrought after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
All the controversial policies that would follow 9/11 – USA Patriot Act, wiretapping, detention centers, waterboarding, invading Iraq – have at their core the fire of a man who sees war policy in fiercely personal terms. Today, we tend to see the war on terror in terms of Bush’s abstractions: “with us, or with the terrorists,” “axis of evil,” “make no distinction,” “ending tyranny in our world.” Yet it’s clear that he saw, and continues to see, the conflict in terms of specific American lives that he either felt a duty to protect or honor.
There are few significant revelations in “Decision Points,” but readers may learn:
•The sighting of a wild turkey at Bush’s Texas ranch may have repaired a deteriorating relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, who saw it as a good omen.
•As early as Sept. 15, 2001, some high-ranking officials were urging Bush to confront Iraq. And Bush ordered a review of battle plans against Iraq just two months after 9/11.
•Though he approved waterboarding, Bush rejected two other interrogation techniques that he felt went “too far.”
•Dick Cheney is not the “hugging type.”
On some issues, Bush may prompt readers to reconsider their opinions:
•Aid to Africa. Controversies like the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal overwhelmed news of Bush’s bold and largely effective initiatives to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases in Africa, while transforming the way the West thought about foreign aid.
•Bipartisanship. At a time when many Americans questioned his legitimacy as president, Bush collaborated with many Democrats on a range of legislation, from education reform to national security. And aside for harsh words he reserves for Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, Bush is usually gracious toward his rivals.
•Tax cuts. Critics saw it as welfare for the rich. But he rightly points out that the relative tax burden on the richest Americans actually increased as a result of his change.
In other cases, Bush’s rationales suffer from serious lapses in awareness:
•He says he was right to tackle Social Security’s looming fiscal crisis. But didn’t he create a new entitlement – the Medicare prescription drug benefit – whose multitrillion-dollar liability now nearly equals Social Security’s debt burden?
•He argues strongly that the “Bush Lied, People Died” charge is illogical. He demonstrates heartfelt commitment to US soldiers, personally writing some 5,000 letters to families of the fallen. And he expresses his “sickening feeling” over not finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But could he not even briefly acknowledge the more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians who have died in the war so far?
•He flatly declares that spreading democracy in the Middle East will mean greater security for Americans. But wouldn’t more freedom today mean more hard-line Islamic groups that hate America would be in power?
•He admits to some organizational problems in his White House. But didn’t his management style – typified by questions at meetings such as “I just want to make sure that all of us did agree on this plan, right?” – foster groupthink and suppress dissent?
Constantly aware that he was being watched by our enemies as well as American soldiers, Bush never dared show anything but firm resolve. Such steadfastness paid crucial dividends, but it also carried a steep price when course correction was needed. A more penetrating memoir might have dared to examine this tension in-depth. Bush’s doesn’t.
On one matter, Bush is undeniably right: Memories dull as time glides on, and both professional historians and the American public will probably judge Bush’s presidency not on the 14 decision points he covers in this memoir but on one thing: his muscular response to 9/11. That may well be to his advantage.
Americans today don’t lose sleep over the fact that Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. He saved the union and freed the slaves! FDR may have interned Japanese Americans and tried to pack the Supreme Court, but he heroically battled the Great Depression and won World War II!
Bush seems confident that a similar judgment awaits him. “America went seven and a half years without another successful terrorist attack on our soil. If I had to summarize my most meaningful accomplishment as president in one sentence, that would be it.”
Josh Burek is the Monitor’s opinion editor.