What happens when a great nation -- and this is a great nation -- elects a ruler who is not up to the task of being president?
The answer is to be found in George W. Bush's memoirs, Decision Points -- a hastily written, jokey self-portrait that reveals far more than the former president perhaps intended. Shallow, ignorant, self-deluding and possessed of a fatal inferiority complex, he comes across as a friendly buffoon: which is desperately sad, at least for those of us who believe in America's role as "the indispensible nation" in a troubled time. Mr. Bush would have done well to read my American Caesars before publishing his own book, in order to see clearly his place in the pantheon of leaders of the western world. In doing so he would, belatedly, recognize the real, not feigned stature of his predecessors in office since the United States took on the role of guardian of democracy in World War II. Certainly, reading American Caesars, he would not, I think, have dared put himself forward as a worthy successor, given his fatally blinkered worldview, and all too generous view of himself.
If this sounds harsh, it is not because I despise George Bush the man; it is because I deplore what he did to America's position in the world, despite -- if we are to believe him -- his best intentions.
We have had, let us be frank, other presidents since Pearl Harbor who have not been famed for their brains. President Gerald Ford was no intellectual, but he had served with distinction in combat as a naval gunnery officer, and then as Congressman for a quarter century. As I have chronicled, he was remiss in not preparing himself for the presidency during his period as Vice-President, which opened him to the machinations of ambitious apparatchiks like Alexander Haig, Henry Kissinger, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. But fortunately Congress was not called upon during his presidency (1974-1977) to decide whether to go to war; rather, it had to decide whether to abandon war -- and an ally, South Vietnam. Which, to Ford's credit, was the decision he made as president, however painful. Even Ronald Reagan, another C student, had spent a veritable lifetime (he was turning seventy when he became president) in politics -- indeed his obsession with political ideas and issues had cost him his first marriage, to Jane Wyman. Criss-crossing the country he switched from the Democratic to the Republican party, and made factory-floor speeches to GE employees that testified not only to his extraordinary skills as a communicator, but to his profound belief in the non-communist, capitalist system. It was that belief, not going to war, which earned him the sobriquet of the slayer of the Soviet Empire, which collapsed soon after his presidency.
By contrast, George W. Bush failed to complete his service in the U.S. Air National Guard, and evinced no interest in any political issues, domestic or foreign, during his brief career after college. His bid for a seat in Congress in 1978, posing as the son of a distinguished father and grandfather, failed ignominiously. In his new memoirs, President Bush credits his defeat in 1978 for his rise to later gubernatorial office and then the presidency -- a defeat that "was not was not easy for someone as competitive as I am. But it was an important part of my maturing."
Would that this maturation had involved grappling with the real issues that confronted America and the world in the 1990s! Bill Clinton beat Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, for the White House in 1992 by focusing on "the economy, stupid" -- and Clinton's victory led, in time, to the longest sustained boom in American history. Yet, although he had worked for his father, in that election, George W. Bush drew only the lesson that his father was too soft -- and ought to have used the same techniques Atwater had perfected in 1988 when campaigning against Mike Dukakis: namely negative advertising and the politics of personal destruction.
Decision Points, understandably, neglects to mention this aspect of Bush's "maturation"; nor does the president mention the most controversial of his "initiatives" as Governor of Texas, once he beat the popular incumbent, Ann Richards, in 1994, during an historic anti-incumbent year: his authorization of the execution of more than 100 felons, plus his bill legalizing the wearing of concealed hand-guns.
Nevertheless, there can be no contesting that Bush proved popular in Texas. He was roguishly good-looking, with a truly beautiful wife, a school librarian; moreover he went out of his way to befriend Democrats who controlled the legislature, including the all-important Lieutenant Governor. But was that ever going to be enough to step into the shoes of national leaders like FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, his father George H.W. Bush, or Bill Clinton? What possessed George Junior, we ask ourselves, reading a book of memoirs in which there is no serious discussion of any political issue before 2001, to imagine he could lead the world's most powerful nation -- a veritable empire by any other name?
Decision Points offers no explanation, other than Bush's "competitive" streak. Historians will argue for decades to come about his "stolen" election in December, 2000, and the reasons why Vice President Al Gore allowed his commanding early lead in polls to dissipate, but readers of President Bush's memoirs will obtain no further insight beyond the candidate's determination not to make any serious gaffes in the debates, and his surprise when Gore retracted his concession, once reports showed Gore might well win Florida's all-important electoral votes, not just the plurality of votes cast across the nation.
Consistent omission thus characterizes the early part of Decision Points -- and things do not get any better once we reach the White House. Bush has, by then, given his own version why he chose Dick Cheney as his Vice Presidential nominee, maintaining that Karl Rove spoke against the decision -- but he does not mention Cheney's nefarious skulduggery as Bush's appointed vetter of candidates for the position, which is so brilliantly -- and hauntingly -- recounted in Barton Gellman's book Angler (pages 14-30). Indeed what is perhaps the most remarkable omission of Bush's entire account of his life is his near-erasure of the role of Dick Cheney, who scarcely figures in Bush's version of his presidency.
The reason? I can only surmise it is because former President Bush does not wish to see himself as Cheney's poodle for much of his eight years in the White House -- just as Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain hated to be considered Cheney's poodle. Thus there is no mention in Decision Points of the first significant, steely issues of the Bush presidency which Vice President Cheney swiftly made his own: the decision to move ahead and ignore President-elect Bush's proclaimed desire for reconciliation after such a divisive, contested election, which after all had only been decided by the casting vote among nine justices in the Supreme Court; the decision to abandon global environmental concerns and pursue secret meetings among energy moguls; major decisions about tax cuts and the economy (wonderfully recounted by Ron Suskind in his book The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O'Neill); and national security amidst the growing threat of Al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism (as narrated in Richard Clarke's book, Against All Enemies: Inside America's Wars on Terror).
Instead, the very first presidential mini-chapter of Decision Points is devoted to... yes, Stem Cells.
Stem Cells! No wonder the Bush Administration fell asleep at the imperial switch in 2001, ignoring mounting concerns about jihad and a major attack on America -- Bush demoting his counter-terrorism czar, and relying on his musically-gifted but less than competent new National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice. As I've written in American Caesars, Bush "had no business seeking to be leader of the free world. His wife begged him not to do it. He had virtually never traveled abroad, (save for a single trip to China to stay with his father in the 1970s, and one trip to Europe with a group of CEOs). As his national security adviser, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, a Stanford University professor, put it, he was conversant only with Mexico, across the border. 'He has on-the-ground experience there,' Dr Rice explained, 'which I would say is much more valuable than if he had been attending seminars at the Council on Foreign Relations for the last five years.' Guffaws of laughter contested her view."
What on earth was the 43rd President of the United States doing, posing as the Pope of America on stem cell research, while his invidious vice president took over the primary issues facing the U.S. government?
Paul O'Neill, Bush's first Treasury Secretary, was not the only one to be stunned by what amounted to a surreptitious palace coup by the vice president -- especially when, ten days after Bush's inauguration on January 30, 2001, "O'Neill was astonished to hear the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and the vice president, Dick Cheney, talking about invading Iraq."
Of this para-White House, there is, to be sure, no mention in Decision Points. The historian, indeed the serious voter or patriot, can only shake his or her head in despair at the latest confirmation, from President Bush's own pen, that the most powerful man in the world was not only an electoral fraud, arguably, but a political fraud: an emperor with no clothes -- the truth about his Cheney-led administration concealed from the public by a mix of secrecy, high security, and an unwillingness to face questioning that made a mockery of the word democratic government.
To be sure, administrations since Ronald Reagan had gone out of their way to massage and "spin" news to the president's advantage, while the media did its best to un-spin it. George W. Bush's accession to the presidency, however, marked a new departure in presidential performance -- and one we see today in full form in Alaska: namely the deliberate protecting of the president (or would-be president) from critical media questioning, lest he or she be exposed as incompetent, or a dunce.
Political commentators and journalists have taken, and will continue to take issue with President Bush's account of his presidency, but for me, as an historian and biographer who has spent a lifetime charting both leadership and greatness (literary, military and political), President Bush's "decision" to go for national office without being willing to face tough questioning goes to the very heart of the fiasco that was his presidency. Thanks to this protective screen -- subsequently managed by Bush's loyal but challenged chiefs of staff, who were steamrollered by the vice president -- the public had had no idea what they were getting, beyond the son of the esteemed 41st president, who had so deftly managed the collapse of the Soviet Union and so carefully avoided a quagmire in Iraq, while forcing Saddam Hussein to withdraw his forces from Kuwait.
Even today we might not be certain we had the true picture of the 43rd president, before this book. It is in this respect that George W. Bush's work will be of value to historians -- for it is only with publication of Decision Points that we can be sure that, no, we have not misjudged or misunderstood the unfortunate president, who left office with the lowest poll rating of any holder of the office since polls began. Given the former President's famed inability to speak in public, as well as the way he was kept in a sort of purdah by his handlers, it is only now we have access to George W. Bush's thinking and attitudes, behind the eight-year long mask. And the result can be summarized, sadly, in a single word: risible.
President Bush's great "decision" on stem cells, he tells us proudly on page 125, was given out, "in August 2001" -- perhaps, he quotes an unnamed, admiring commentator, the "most important decision of my presidency." In fact it was August 9 of that year -- and his self-congratulation soon segueways into the central event and issue of his presidency, four weeks later, which the president admits hit him like a bombshell: 9/11.
A bombshell? Was the President asleep in national security meetings where ever more concerned warnings were issued, or was he merely thinking about the ethics of stem cell research? He asks us to believe his surprise and sudden "outrage" that "Someone had dared attack America."
Had the president ever bothered to travel abroad, or read political articles, or talked one single time to his counterterrorism czar, he would not have been so astonished -- and might well have led the nation, and the world, to a more measured response. One thinks, for example, of President Clinton in the wake of news of the Oklahoma City bombing, in 1995, and his maturity in leading the nation to a realization that terrorism can come from anti-U.S. government forces and militias within America, not just from without. Instead, thanks to the deliberately protective veil drawn around an incompetent and all too shallow candidate for the highest office, America found itself saddled with a president who, he freely admits in Decision Points, was driven not by rational intellect but by schoolboy venom. "Someone had dared attack America, They were going to pay..."
Thus the Bush Tragedy, as Jacob Weisberg titled his 2008 biography, unfolded -- with a child-like president, and a virtual madman in the background, urging not the pursuit of Osama bin Laden and his followers, but the invasion of Iraq!
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