Last fall, presidential historian Jon Meacham published "Destiny and Power," a well-received biography of George H.W. Bush. POTUS 41 was, in Meacham’s account, underrated and underappreciated.
If 2015 brought Bush 41 praise, this year has brought him disappointment.
In February, son Jeb Bush, a former two-term Florida governor, dropped out of the Republican presidential race after a largely forgettable run that failed despite a fund-raising war chest larger than that of any of his rivals.
To put salt in the family wounds, now comes Bush, Jean Edward Smith’s biography of George W. Bush, the 43rd president – and, of course, son of the 41st. Smith wrote "George Bush's War," a book critical of the elder Bush’s Gulf War and, in “Bush,” paints a devastating portrait of George W. Bush.
From excessive hubris fed by his Evangelical Christianity (“sanctimonious religiosity,” Smith writes) to a surfeit of unquestioning aides in and around his White House, Bush emerges in Smith’s account as an unprepared, stubborn, and feckless commander-in-chief. Rather than relying on polemics, Smith makes his case with straightforward, block-by-block assemblages of facts, policy results, and telling anecdotes.
Bush became president in 2000 after five years as Texas governor and a mostly forgettable business career. In Texas, governors wield minimal power and bear much less responsibility than their colleagues in other states. “Unprepared for the complexities of governing, with little executive experience and a glaring deficit in his attention span, untutored, untraveled, and unversed in the ways of the world, Bush thrived on making a show of his decisiveness,” Smith writes.
Bush, Smith argues, embarrassed and frustrated military leaders as president by eschewing the Geneva Conventions. In Iraq, he further torpedoed his own ill-conceived war by abruptly declaring a goal of “democracy” for the Middle Eastern nation during his infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003.
Pursuing democracy in a war that was already unjustified – remember the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction? – sent then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld into despair. Rumsfeld and the military prepared and conducted the war with the goals of finding WMDs and ousting Saddam Hussein. Attempting to convert Iraq into a democratic state devolved into an expensive, and deadly, disaster. This objective was never discussed during the lead-up to the war.
Bush continued to falsely conflate Saddam’s dictatorship with an al Qaeda alliance. And, as Smith makes clear by quoting intelligence reports and experts, the occupation by American troops sowed anger and resentment – and sectarian strife. The tumultuous environment played a role in the eventual emergence of the terrorist group ISIS.
Again and again, Smith portrays Bush as a distracted and impatient leader. (“I don’t do nuance,” he once said. He was telling the truth.) The president abhorred lengthy meetings, disdained extended analysis, and viewed most issues through a CEO-MBA lens emphasizing punctuality and unyielding decisions at the expense of all else.
The new president met with his National Security Council soon after his inauguration in January 2001 – and not again until after the Sept. 11 attacks. The National Security Council met 22 times before 9/11 without the president in attendance, Smith writes.
He adds that 44 CIA briefs prior to the attacks on New York and Washington mentioned the possibility of an al-Qaeda attack. Still, Bush and his most trusted adviser, Condoleezza Rice, displayed minimal interest despite repeated warnings from the CIA and others during the summer of 2001, as Smith illustrates by drawing on a range of sources.
These circumstances and acts of neglect once again raise questions about the Bush administration’s response to signs of an imminent terrorist attack.
Smith’s book isn’t filled with shocking revelations or gossipy details. Instead, the author makes ample use of memoirs and accounts by friend and foe alike, including Bob Woodward’s books on the Bush era, Peter Baker’s “Days of Fire,” Kevin Phillips’ “American Dynasty” and Bush’s own “Decision Points,” among many others.
He has also effectively mined numerous periodicals, government records, and speeches, and synthesized them into a well-rounded portrait of Bush as president.
Dick Cheney, Bush’s vice president, granted Smith an interview, but Bush, irritated by the author’s previous critiques of his father, did not.
Smith praises Bush’s more pragmatic approach late in his second term and moments of personal grace, such as his generous and seamless transition for the incoming Obama administration. Prescription-drug benefits for seniors and a sincere attempt to reform immigration policy also are worthy moments in the Bush era, Smith believes.
And, as others have done, Smith highlights 43’s staunch backing of a dramatic increase in funding to better treat and prevent AIDS in Africa, perhaps the ultimate achievement of the Bush years. Rightly, the biographer credits Bush for listening to his Treasury Secretary, Henry Paulson, and his Fed chief, Ben Bernanke, and agreeing to bail out banks and other financial firms that helped cause the Great Recession. Not doing so would have likely sent the country into Depression.
“His decisions in 2008 to rescue Wall Street and the American automobile industry were acts of genuine courage and statesmanship,” Smith writes.
Bush and his economic team misfired on the economy, too, ignoring signs of a large-scale housing meltdown and inexplicably allowing Lehman Brothers to fail in September 2008 when so many other knights errant on Wall Street were spared thanks to government intervention.
In summing up the Bush presidency, Smith finds worthy achievements. “Together with Vladimir Putin he reduced the nuclear arsenal each country maintains, and with Hu Jintao improved American relations with China,” he writes. Several paragraphs later, he notes the $3 trillion spent on the Iraq War, an invasion Smith calls “easily the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.”
Based on what we now know about the results of Bush’s policies, it’s difficult to argue with his conclusions.
Between 2001 and 2009, the national debt doubled, reaching $11.8 trillion. Military spending ballooned to 20% from 3% during the same period and unemployment rose to more than 9% from 4%.
Worst and saddest of all, when Bush left office, 4,539 American soldiers had died in the Iraq War while 30,740 were wounded. More than 100,000 Iraqi civilians died between the start of the war in March 2003 and the end of Bush’s term in January 2009.
Bush, Smith concludes, “bears personal responsibility for the disaster.”
Noting that Bush once said, “I am the war president,” Smith offers a swift rebuke.
“Neither Dwight Eisenhower nor Harry Truman would have called themselves ‘the war president,’ even though a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union could at any moment have taken 150 million lives in a few hours,” Smith writes.
Lest one fear that Smith’s assessments are those of a stereotypical left-leaning academician, it’s worth remembering that conservative columnist George Will once described Smith as “America’s greatest living biographer.”
His two most recent books were similarly thick biographies of presidents: Eisenhower and FDR. In each, Smith wrote mostly admiring accounts, but didn’t spare either man criticism. He brings a similar approach to “Bush,” but just finds much less in the way of achievement.
Bush, as Smith illustrates, has always considered himself a Texan despite his family’s extensive New England roots. His childhood in Midland shaped him, but George W. Bush profited from family money and connections on the East Coast. Like his father, Bush attended Yale, though with less distinction.
Harvard Business School accepted him in 1973. A professor quoted by Smith remembers Bush as “spoiled and undisciplined” while a classmate remembers the future president interviewing with 50 Fortune 500 companies and not receiving any job offers.
And, of course, his father’s friendships and relationships, fostered through a political career that included Congress, the CIA, the United Nations, and, eventually, the vice presidency and presidency. Of the younger Bush’s National Guard stint, and avoidance of Vietnam, Smith concludes, “There is no question that Bush received preferential treatment.”
Family ties helped George W. Bush find funding and influence for his forays into the oil business – a mixed bag, at best – and his long-shot purchase of the Texas Rangers baseball franchise in 1989, which turned out to be his most successful endeavor before winning the White House.
He was the managing partner of the baseball team and its public face despite holding a 1.8% stake in the franchise. Along the way, Bush displayed a natural affinity for likability and persuasiveness. He landed the Rangers a taxpayer-funded stadium that, in turn, sent the team’s value soaring and would ultimately generate a handsome return ($15 million on an original investment of $600,000) when Bush sold his stake.
A decade or so after Bush quit drinking and was born again, he ran against incumbent Ann Richards in the 1994 race for Texas governor. At the same time, Jeb was campaigning to become governor of Florida. Jeb was considered more cerebral and more likely for political success. “The two brothers were not close,” Smith writes. “As adults competing for their father’s attention they became even more distant.”
George W. Bush defied conventional wisdom and defeated the sharp-tongued Richards while Jeb lost. (Jeb went on to win consecutive terms as Florida governor in 1998 and 2002.)
Without a state income tax and without a cabinet, the governor of Texas, in essence, has a part-time job. The state legislature meets for 140 days. Smith describes Bush’s first elected political role this way: “The governor’s office was, as Bush’s most sympathetic biographer has written, the ultimate step for someone who had been the head cheerleader at Andover, a fraternity president at Yale, and the public face of a baseball team.”
Where Bush excelled was in retail politics. Meeting people, shaking hands, delivering casual remarks: Bush possessed all of these vital talents. In other areas, he displayed a knack for building support, particularly among Hispanic voters in two successful governor’s races and again in his presidential campaigns.
He sharpened his political acumen while working on his father’s 1988 campaign. During that time Bush occupied an office between the late strategist Lee Atwater and media consultant Roger Ailes, who went on to make start-up Fox News the most profitable and popular cable news network. Blessed by the arrogant, tone-deaf Democratic nominee, Al Gore, and the hanging chads drama of bungled Florida vote counts, Bush won the presidency in 2000.
Smith shows, in clear, concise language, where Bush faltered in the White House. He ceded too many details to Cheney, an old Washington hand who “was fully conversant with the numbing expanse of the Internal Revenue Code,” to cite one of many examples.
Bush cut taxes again and again even as national debt soared — and subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan exacerbated the federal government’s financial difficulties.
His push for faith-based aid, part of Bush’s compassionate conservatism mantra, came unraveled due to lack of coordination. While Ronald Reagan often delegated and ignored foreign affairs early in his presidency, Smith notes that Reagan subsequently realized the error of his ways and “became a diligent student” who “devoured” detailed briefings that made him a better diplomat and negotiator with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Reagan’s early stumbles and later successes ending the Cold War fed the Bush-Cheney worldview that hardline stances were necessary. Instead, Smith asserts, Reagan shifted his hardline tone and tactics, including the dumping of Alexander Haig for George Shultz as Secretary of State, to reach diplomatic breakthroughs with the Soviets. Bush and Cheney failed to grasp those crucial shifts by Reagan, Smith writes.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, Treasury Secretary O’Neill, and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld “were heavy hitters and seasoned executives with decades of experience in the ways of Washington,” Smith concludes. “Rather than rely on them, Bush preferred inexperienced, in-house talent.... Another difficulty is that the White House staff, like the governor’s staff in Austin, told Bush what he wanted to hear.”
What followed, as we know, is what Smith dissects with a sharp eye: the horrid and humiliating prison-torture scandal at Abu Ghraib; waterboarding and other illegal interrogations at CIA black sites; excessive spying and the dismantling of American citizens’ civil liberties buoyed by the Patriot Act and executive orders; numerous unilateral actions that cost the United States goodwill after 9/11; and a second term marred by a disastrous attempt to privatize Social Security paired with the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.
It’s not an inspiring story, but it is well told and devoid of intellectual laziness. Bush’s missed opportunities and failures are sad and frustrating, but Smith’s account is necessary and valuable in this election year.