I'm up to page 107, so almost a quarter of the way through former President Bush's new memoirs, Decision Points. I had two weeks of acute toothache, but it wasn't caused by the book, I assure you. (It was the result, it finally emerged, of a cracked molar.)
No, Decision Points is surprisingly easy to read. Where Bill Clinton's memoirs, My Life, followed a strict chronology in exhaustive detail -- and were so long they were re-issued in two volumes in paperback -- Decision Points eschews linear chronology, and employs the narrative technique of tiny, two-page chapterlets -- each one separated from its predecessor by white spaces and a thin horizontal bar. So it's easy to digest, and though it bounces about, time-wise, it holds the reader's interest, never becoming burdened by detail -- or depth. In this sense, with its jokes and jokey style, it could be the memoirs of a film star or singer -- lots of name-dropping, a friendly, optimistic spirit, praise of colleagues and family, admission of several mistakes, love of one's spouse....
Should the former President of the United States, less than two years out of the White House, be writing like a film actor or singer, though?
I think the public will form a judgment on that. The former President has earned high marks in liberal circles for not criticizing or sneering at his successor -- something that cannot be said for former Vice President Dick Cheney. Decision Points continues that approach, to President Bush's credit, with no attempt to smear or snarl at President Barack Obama, who has had to pick up the disastrous mess that President Bush and his administration bequeathed the nation and the world. Coming across as a genuine, simple guy, working on gut instincts and loyalty to those he trusted, the former president has, I think, gone a long way towards restoring public goodwill towards him, perhaps even a greater measure of forgiveness than two years ago, when he left office. Moreover, by issuing his memoirs in advance of his Vice President and most senior members of his administration, Bush has imprinted the notion of a sincere and genuine individual, a genuine patriot, and a compassionate man at the helm of the United States between 2001 and 2009, for all his failings as a president. As others members of his administration come forward and either contest his account, or give a more aggressive, right-wing version, they will thus find themselves swimming against President Bush's goodwill tide.
So, for now, I feel rather positive about President Bush's memoirs, wearing my hat as an historian of biography. I remember, when I published my Biography: A Brief History in 2007 (Harvard UP), I was ridiculed by several critics for the absurdity of claiming that World War II had changed the face of modern biography -- the result of what became a people's war, on behalf of democracy. "It is impossible to overstate the impact of such a world conflict on Western society," I wrote (page 187). "For the most part, kings and queens had departed after World War I; now, with World War II, the peoples of the threatened democracies had been compelled and conscripted, down to air raid wardens, to fight for the freedoms and values they wished to preserve -- and ultimately, after many defeats, evacuations, surrenders, and reverses, they triumphed. With the fall of Berlin in 1945, Hitler's suicide, the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the surrender of Japan, democracy prevailed: the triumph not of one man's will, but of millions of individuals' wills.
"In Britain, no grand estates or monetary awards were given to the generals - who had to make money for their retirement by writing their autobiographies, in competition with ordinary soldiers..."
In that sense President Bush, as our former Commander in Chief, is simply doing what his parents' generation began. The trend, I pointed out, evolved across a broad spectrum of popular new media, and "was in this sense a wholly modern phenomenon."
I stand by that historical overview as a historian of biography in the Western world. But as a historian -- and especially as an historian of the modern presidency -- I must take issue with Mr. Bush's rather self-serving account of his life, both before he reached the Oval Office, and after.
I applaud Mr. Bush's right to have published his memoirs, and the overall goodwill they evidence. But in the coming days I will try and shine a light on assertions and evasions which, though they make for easy and often amusing reading, give a deeply, deeply false view of the worst U.S. Administration in modern history: one that resulted, after all, in the unnecessary deaths of so many, many brave Americans. And that, unfortunately, is deadly serious for those of us who care about this great nation and the lessons we can and must learn from our mistakes. "Those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it," was George Santayana's famous warning. Worth heeding, even as we exercise our more forgiving instincts.
Nigel Hamilton is Senior Fellow in the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, UMass Boston. His latest book, American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, From Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush (Yale UP) is now available. To watch his one-hour interview by distinguished presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, click here.