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!
I'd like to quote, if I may, American Caesars at this point. American Caesars charts the trials and tribulations of the twelve presidents who led America from the time of Pearl Harbor; in many ways it is a noble story, even when mistakes are made or presidents succumb to the pressures of their great office. But nothing in the sixty years following Pearl Harbor can match the sickening feeling one experiences as an historian when thinking back to September 2001, as the lessons and knowledge gained over six decades of world hegemony were simply cast aside, and "decisions" were made by a charming rogue, completely out of his depth, and by his deputy: a man of Shakespearean malevolence and blinkered, greed-obsessed vision.
In vain, that summer, after sending out word that 'al Qaeda is planning a major attack on us,' and having ordered all agencies onto high alert status, and having asked the FBI and CIA to report to the downgraded Counterterrorism Group everything they could find out about suspicious individuals or activity inside and outside the United States, Richard Clarke, as America's counter-terrorism chief, decided to confront the president's National Security Adviser, Dr. Rice, at the Principals meeting which she belatedly convened on September 4, 2001. There he asked her, in front of her colleagues, to put herself in her very own shoes "when in the very near future al Qaeda has killed hundreds of Americans," and to imagine asking herself what "you wish then that you had already done." On September 11, 2001, Clarke's fears were justified.
Neither the President nor Dr. Rice, nor the senior members of the Bush Administration, would ever admit afterwards to their somnambulance. Nor would any of them be brought to account. It made Clarke's blood boil... The [al-Qaeda] outrage achieved its object: the United States suffered more deaths that sunlit morning, in New York and Washington, than at Pearl Harbor in 1941.
As film and video of the collapsing Twin Towers at New York's World Trade Center were broadcast across the world, America went into shock. The President himself, sitting in on a class of second graders in a school in Sarasota, Florida, seemed as stunned as ordinary people. He appeared unable to comprehend the video footage of an aircraft flying into a high-rise building in Manhattan, playing on a television screen as he went into the classroom, or the news whispered to him, some minutes later, that a second plane had crashed into the second of the World Trade Center towers. Vice President Cheney was equally stunned.
The news came as no surprise, however, to the demoted counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, who knew immediately the organization behind the attack.
The President's message to the nation and the world, written by Karen Hughes and videotaped on board Air Force One, was forceful in asserting that the United States would not be intimidated by terrorists. Yet when President Bush finally spoke, for the very first time in his presidency, to Richard Clarke the next evening in the Situation Room, it was to make what seemed an amazing presidential request. "Look," the President explained to Clarke and his colleagues, "I know you have a lot to do and all, but I want you, as soon as you can, to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this. See if he's linked in any way...."
Clarke, who had scarcely slept or eaten in two days as he grounded the nation's air traffic and attempted to thwart possible follow-up terrorist attacks, was "taken aback, incredulous," he recalled. "But Mr. President, al-Qaeda did this," he protested. "I know, I know," the President said, "but ... see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know..."
Dutifully, Clarke did so -- suspecting the President must already, in the space of a few hours, have been "gotten at' by the madmen controlling National Security: Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz -- men who had, on the very night of the attack, held meetings not to avert further terrorism, or pursue al-Qaeda, but "discussions about Iraq."
Vice President Cheney had advised the President to stay out of Washington, in a "secure location" -- a euphemism for cowardice. To his credit, the President had insisted on returning to the White House, joined by the First Lady -- but the Vice President, who hid away for the next weeks, would not thereby allow his obsession with Iraq to be defused or sidelined. As in a surrealist science fiction, Cheney continue to participate in all discussions via "secure video" communications -- encouraging Bush to see the 9/11 attack not as the premeditated plot of perverted Islamic terrorists answering to Osama bin Laden, but as a global casus belli. George W. Bush could then become the war leader of the American empire.
The President needed little persuasion. Without consulting his Secretary of State, President Bush announced to assembled reporters in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on September 12, 2001, that the "deliberate and deadly attacks" on New York were "more than acts of terror. They were acts of war." America would respond with full-scale war -- a "monumental struggle between good and evil" in which, if other countries did not join the U.S., "we'll go it alone."
Had the last half-century of American experience as the leader of the free, democratic nations of the world, with decades of diplomacy and careful nurturing of allies, been discarded overnight? Half an hour later, when the President again used the word "war," the new Senate Majority Leader, Democratic Senator Tom Daschle, cautioned that, "War is a powerful word." The President ignored him -- and it was left to 83 year-old Senator Robert Byrd, president pro tempore of the Senate, to warn that Congress would not give the "blank check" it had given Lyndon Johnson over the Tonkin incident -- pulling from his pocket a copy of the U.S. Constitution to prove his point. Any riposte, to obtain congressional approval under the Constitution, would have to be targeted on al-Qaeda -- not take America to war on a massive, open-ended scale like Vietnam.
Undeterred, President Bush attended a fateful National Security Council meeting at 4 p.m. that day. "Why shouldn't we go against Iraq, not just Al Qaeda," Rumsfeld asked the President. "... It was left to Secretary Powell to bring the meeting, which was advocating something very close to treason in its indifference to the need for Congress to approve such a war, back to its senses. (American Caesars, pages 493 to 494)
Sadly, nothing in George W. Bush's evasive memoir, Decision Points, contradicts this account -- save his concealment of Vice President Cheney's part in the "plot against America," pace Philip Roth. Far from questioning his own gut-motivated rush to war, in retrospect, President Bush casts himself as a noble warrior, astride his horse, in the manner of a modern Genghis Khan. With each page his self-portrait becomes more emotive, less anchored in fact or perspective -- such as his retrospective claim that all intelligence showed Saddam Hussein as harboring weapons of mass destruction, in 2003.
All? The former president never asks himself whether he acted too hastily, on too little evidence, and above all, without regard for the consequences -- for the truth is, greed had mixed with revenge. The word in Washington, I recall, was that there was a killing to be made by the likes of Halliburton, once we invaded and took possession of Iraq, with its rich oil reserves.
Instead, the killing would be both civil and, within weeks of the invasion, military. The "liberation" led almost immediately to a fierce anti-American guerrilla war - -fanning the flames of anti-Americanism across the entire Muslim world, and providing more and more recruits for al-Qaeda, not less.
At some level I believe Bush to be a man of compassion, and the great virtue of his book is, without doubt, his refusal to throw mud, or engage in vindictive asides at his critics or Democrats -- which will make it very difficult for Dick Cheney to indulge in more sneering venom when he recovers from his latest heart problems and publishes his own memoirs. Or Donald Rumsfeld. But are we to excuse the worst presidential performance in the last seventy years because the president meant well, once he had, by hook and by crook, managed to get to the White House - and once Senator Kerry's bid for the presidency in 2004 had been destroyed in a hail of "Swift Boats For Truth" assassinatory blitz, reminiscent of George W. Bush and Atwater at their "competitive" worst, in 1988?
Many thousands of brave American soldiers in uniform have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, because the 43rd President refused to listen to his Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, who warned him that by "breaking it" one would be subsequently responsible for "fixing it" -- and that, without an exit strategy, mass invasions, however temporarily successful, were bound to end badly -- as many a dictator had found.
Urged by Vice President Cheney and their "Vulcans," President Bush went ahead with his Iraq invasion, however, like a man demented -- and all these years later, we are dealing with the consequences. The Bush Tragedy, in other words, became our tragedy. I applaud President Bush for the civil tone of his memoirs, even if -- like every memoirist as distinct from confessional, self-questioning autobiographer -- his account is, throughout, a collection of anecdotes and impressions he wants to remember, rather than a searching account of what actually took place. It pains me, however, to have to remind our former president of this: that by his willful and reckless conduct as president - particularly in assenting to the takeover of his administration's key elements by Vice President Cheney and the Vulcans -- George W. Bush not only failed the test of greatness, but recklessly endangered America's commanding position and role throughout the world, as well as giving rise to the worst disaster-response in recent American history during the 2005 Katrina debacle, ending the anti-regulatory excesses of his administration with an economic meltdown that had not been experienced since the 1930s.
Almost two thousand Americans lost their lives in New Orleans, Louisiana and Mississippi; in Iraq and Afghanistan almost six thousand American soldiers have now lost their lives - and tens of thousands have been wounded, many of them now disabled. In other words, for all his retrospective bonhomie, President Bush, along with Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and their Vulcan cohort, bear tragic blood on their hands. Though Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney, as well as Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair and other men responsible for the debacle in Iraq, stand to make millions of dollars from their triumphalist memoirs, they should be held accountable. Even if they are not indicted or required to do penance, they should, in my view, be made to donate their book royalties -- or blood monies -- to the rehabilitation clinics serving the maimed and suffering survivors of their much-vaunted "decisions."
Karl Rove, as President Bush's senior political adviser and deputy chief of staff in the White House, boasted that, with the declaration of war on terror, the Republican party would have a lock on electoral victory forever.
It was that kind of hubris that led to catastrophe -- with such senseless casualties. It played into Osama bin Laden's delighted hands, while tying ours for years to come. Before we ever make that mistake again, in my humble opinion as a citizen and as an historian, we must be more careful that we entrust ultimate, presidential power and authority only to prospective leaders who are not masked and protected from critical questioning when seeking power, but who are truly accountable to the electorate. No more free passes given by a craven and trivia-distracted press! If a candidate will not agree to critical questioning, to judge his or her knowledge and ability, then the media should decline to cover the candidate. The stakes are too high and the future of our country are too important to repeat the mistakes of 2000 and 2004.
It is for this reason that I hope and pray our 44th President and thirteenth Caesar -- so rational, calm, thoughtful and cautious -- will stand again in 2012.