11/19/2010 02:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

George W. Bush -- and Selective Memory

At the heart of former President George W. Bush's jokey new memoirs is the serious matter of war -- in fact two wars, waged on two fronts. Why the president took us into those two wars -- and how he thinks of them today, in retrospect...

Thousands of Americans have given their lives to fulfill the mission that the president gave them, beginning in 2002; many tens of thousands have suffered often crippling wounds and injuries. Far from being missions accomplished, they were not finished. Instead, they were handed on, festering and problematic, to the president's successor in 2009. We have every right, then, to question the president's account in Decision Points. Is it truthful, is it accurate, is it fair, is it sincere, is it credible? Does it omit important aspects, and does his account justify the loss of so many brave lives?

We will address these questions in the course of this biographical enquiry. But let us start where President Bush begins his life story, with his childhood, youth and formative years -- the period I've called "The Path to the White House" in American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, From Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush. And in looking at those early years, let's subject his story to the same accounting we will later employ for his war story, from truthfulness to omission.

Certainly, President Bush's first-up account of his growing alcoholism, and his decision, at age 40, to give up drinking, has the ring of honesty; moreover it is remarkable inasmuch as few recovering addicts or successfully recovered ones are able to maintain their commitment to reform without the support of organizations like AA. To have made that decision, and to have stuck to it, on his own and without the subsequent support of others beyond his wife and family, testifies to considerable willpower. Moreover the president tells the story economically, and without self-congratulation. His shame at his own prior behavior seems genuine, as too does his tribute to the love of his wife (and life) Laura.

Jacob Weisberg, however, entitled his 2008 biography of the president The Bush Tragedy -- and the author had good reason to do so. In the New Testament parable of the Prodigal Son, related by Jesus in the Book of Luke, the wastrel son who makes good is not the eldest but the younger of two sons. In George W. Bush's family, he was, by contrast, the eldest -- but the Biblical myth is still apposite, for his father forgives him, as in the Bible, indeed metaphorically kills a fatted calf to celebrate not only his return home, but his return to moral goodness. Luke did not relate the sequel to the Prodigal Son's reform, but one can hope it was positive. In George W. Bush's case, however, his path back to sobriety proved, for all its good intent, a veritable tragedy for America and for mankind.

In Weisberg's account of Bush's early childhood the author has two telling observations. The first is Bush's undiagnosed cognitive and behavioral problems: a "combination of some form of dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder," probably accentuated by his father's frequent absences, and the death of his sister Robin, as well as the births of later siblings. President Bush does not allude to these problems in his memoirs beyond saying he was a poor student, and why should he? Carlo D'Este, the military biographer, has tellingly recounted the early problems of dyslexia suffered by General George S. Patton -- who seems to have suffered from what Weisberg calls, in the case of President Bush, a combination of "overconfidence and insecurity, qualities often closely twinned." George Patton, however, translated his deficits into perhaps the greatest display of tank generalship in military history; George Bush's tragedy was that, though he had something of Patton's bravado, he lacked the determination to master his profession as Patton had done. Moreover, blessed with a grandfather who was both a successful Wall Street manager and U.S. senator, and a father who became a congressman, vice president, and president of the U.S., George W. Bush had not the wherewithal to recognize his limitations -- allowing himself to seek the nation's highest office without the requisite credentials for occupying it. It became Weisberg's task, as a biographer, to explain that trajectory.

Roguishly handsome but devoted to his porcelain-pretty wife once he met and married her, Bush had an endearingly subversive sense of humor, but an even deeper need not to be outranked or made to feel inferior. This latter insecurity would be his Achilles heel as a businessman and as a politician, for it reinforced what would become a fatal obstinacy, and lack of self-esteem unless surrounded by fawning loyalists. Instead of learning to be a better, more accomplished entrepreneur in the oil industry that he eventually chose for his career, Bush switched after repeated failure to politics, where he proceeded to demonstrate the same fatal hubris-cum-insecurity: leading him to rely on what, in education, would be called cheating -- relying on men like Karl Rove to offer egregious short cuts to electoral success, by cynical gaming of the system: a story that is heart-breakingly well-told in Weisberg's book. Heartbreaking because we now know the result -- and cost of such hubris.

In President Bush's own account, of course, the past looks very different. Selective memory is surely one of nature's most effective ways of ensuring the survival of our species. After all, if we dwelled on our mistakes and misfortunes (as some do), we would be ill-equipped to face the vicissitudes of the future. President Bush cannot be criticized for leaving out unpleasant memories, or failing to confront them honestly -- we are all guilty of that. But he and we are on different courses, as author and readers: his is to explain who he was and is, in his own eyes, and ours is to second-guess his account, and seek perhaps deeper explanations for the "Bush Tragedy" that would affect so many millions of people in the twenty-first century.
Let us take, for example, President Bush's account of his born-again Christian epiphany. In his new book, this is ascribed to Billy Graham; Jacob Weisberg, however, relates Bush's "conversion" several years earlier to Arthur Blessitt, an evangelical preacher who "walked throughout the world lugging a twelve-foot-tall, forty-five pound cross" - and who kept a diary of the moment when, on April 3, 1984, he "Led Vice President Bush's son to Jesus today. George Bush Jr! This is great! Glory to God!" (The Bush Tragedy, p76)

Why on earth did President Bush excise Blessitt from his memoirs, given the salient, life-changing experience of that day? We can only speculate -- for the president, characteristically, will not permit himself to be asked direct questions unless previously vetted.
It is unlikely that Blessitt made up the story. Was the president, in retrospect, embarrassed by it? Did it make him feel smaller than he likes to think of himself: more victim of Blessitt's evangelism than a mere ally of Billy Graham? Bush's memoirs, right from the start, reflect his character: namely his strange mix of honesty and ignorance, self-confidence and insecurity. His account of his oil industry experience is tellingly thin, given the years he spent prospecting; equally, his account of his education, at school, college and in the Air Force rings almost defensively hollow. There are nods to some teachers and lecturers whose classes he liked -- but little notion that he learned very much from them. His trip to see his mother in China, while his father headed the U.S. mission there, is given as his reason for despising communism, but in schoolchild language. His world view, as he recounts it, seems extraordinarily circumscribed for the son of America's ambassador to such a rising -- or reviving -- world empire. I certainly could not help comparing it to JFK's 4th year undergraduate thesis at Harvard in 1940, which was turned into a highly topical book, and his amazing letter to his father, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, urging him not to derail President Roosevelt's Lend Lease effort in support of Britain -- at age 23. (Quoted in American Caesars, p. 133).

Both JFK and George W. Bush were the sons of wealthy U.S. ambassadors, and thus privileged to meet distinguished figures; to travel, and to see the world and think about its problems, if they chose. JFK availed himself of this opportunity with amazing intellectual fierceness and energy, given his recurrent ill-health. For example, he went to Berlin and Russia just before World War II broke out, as did Bill Clinton as a far less wealthy student in the 1960s. Their intellectual curiosity was the basis of the political careers they chose. By contrast George W. Bush seems to have lacked curiosity entirely. The only distinguished leader he meets, he tells us, is Lyndon Johnson. "A huge hand swallowed mine. 'Pleased to meet you,' said Gampy's colleague, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson." (Decision Points, p. 9)
Decision Points whisks us, in this vein, swiftly towards the presidency without giving the reader much idea what made the recovered alcoholic think he was qualified to lead the nation in the twenty-first century. A fatal shallowness of intellect begins to be apparent, however much the president, and his co-author/researcher/editor Chris Michel attempt to disguise it in their deliberately backwards-forwards-backwards mini-chapterlet storytelling. We are asked to believe the former president is searching for those landmark experiences and decision points that gave him the chutzpa to believe he could emulate John Quincy Adams, and follow in his father's footsteps to the Oval Office. Yet the book offers no credible account or justification.

In my next post I shall attempt to record, as I have recounted in American Caesars, what really happened in those years, 1946 through 2000 -- without the rose-tinted rear-view mirror. It is a desperately sad story, but one that must not be shut away or forgotten if, as a nation, we are to avoid an Alaskan sequel: history repeated not simply as tragedy, but as farce.

Nigel Hamilton is president of Biographers International Organization, which is holding its second annual conference in Washington DC next May 21 -- see to become a member, and/or to attend. His American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, From Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush is now available (Yale).