11/23/2010 10:45 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

George W. Bush and Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a time of togetherness, and gratitude. I'm grateful that the "Bush Years" came to an end in January 2009, and a president took over who not only has a terrific mind, but a deep and thoughtful understanding of the world beyond our shores.

For me, as an historian, this is the crucial leadership requirement of the modern American presidency. Without it, the United States is doomed to become a second-rate nation; with it, the United States can continue its role as leader of the Western world: a noble empire that was launched, in extremis, on December 7, 1941, and which the United States has conducted ever since, for good and ill.

Every president since FDR possessed at least the credentials to be, for his term (or terms) in office, an outstanding leader of the western, democratic world -- until 2001. Harry Truman had served as an artillery captain in World War I, and a U.S. Senator for ten years before becoming Vice President, then President of the United States. Dwight Eisenhower had served in the Philippines under General MacArthur, then as the U.S.'s European Theater Commander, Allied Supreme Commander, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, and NATO's Supreme Commander in Europe before becoming president. John F. Kennedy had served with distinction as a PT Boat commander in the Pacific, then for sixteen years as Congressman and U.S. Senator before becoming president. Lyndon Johnson had served as a Congressman and U.S. Senator, then Vice President of the United States, for twenty seven years before becoming president. And the list goes on; Bill Clinton, the eleventh "Caesar" of the United States since it became the leading nation of the Western world, had served as Governor of Arkansas for twelve years when he became U.S. President; moreover he had studied at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, then at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and had an advanced law degree from Yale. It was no accident he brought peace to Bosnia, or kept relations with post-Soviet Russia on an even keel, or fathered the peace process in Northern Ireland, or brought the two sides in the Israel-Palestinian conflict within spitting difference of an historic resolution. These eleven men, as I've tried to show in American Caesars, Lives of the Presidents, From Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush, made mistakes as emperors and were sometimes flawed in their private lives, but they were, each of them, men of real substance and world-experience -- men who had every right to assume the mantle of the most powerful individual on earth: commander in chief of the world's mightiest nation.

What, then, made George W. Bush -- C student at colleges that only accepted him on his father's credentials, failed oil company executive and former alcoholic, and a man who had no interest in the world outside the United States, nor had ventured outside the U.S. more than a handful of times, that he possessed the credentials to be a world leader, and to follow in the footsteps of such substantial men, from Presidents Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton?

The answer is not forthcoming in former President Bush's new memoirs, Decision Points. That he possessed a jokey, if sometimes malicious charm, yes; that he fell in love with a wonderful woman, and married her, yes; that she and their twin daughters became the centerpiece of his life, yes; that he had a religious epiphany and became a born-again Christian, giving him the strength to give up the alcohol that was wrecking his life and endangering his family, yes. But of substantive experience in terms of the issues facing America and the world from his birth in 1946 to his inauguration as president in 2001? Nothing save trite and often facetious remarks, in a self-serving, and self-deceiving summary. It may satisfy its author, and allow him to sleep more soundly at night -- but it is disturbingly evasive to those of us who are interested in the biographical and historical truth -- and the lessons we need to draw if this nation is to survive in the twenty-first century under subsequent presidents. Of all twelve Caesars since FDR, George W. Bush was, let us face the facts, the least prepared to lead America, let alone the Western world. And it is we who have paid the price, not the former President in his retirement at Crawford.

What George W. Bush learned in his pre-presidential years -- and what he omits in his new memoirs -- was not how to lead a nation, but how, with sufficient toughness, to cheat the democratic system to get elected. Having proved that corruption can succeed, he allowed to believe in a few years as Governor of Texas (a state where the Lieutenant Governor exerts the major political power) he had the personal attributes to match those of great figures in modern history such as Winston Churchill. To be a successful American Caesar, he reasoned, it would be enough to rely on his roguish charm, as well as his ability to cut corners, make snap decisions - and stick to them.

Never in our history has a U.S. president relied on so little of substance. He entered the Oval Office in 2001 having been declared the winner in one of the most disputed election results in American political annals -- but it was not the first time he had been involved in dirty tricks and electoral malfeasance, though he will not admit this in his memoirs. The reader of Decision Points, for example, is treated to a risible account of his experience, when in 1988 he joined his father's embattled campaign to succeed Ronald Reagan as president. On page 43, he tells us, he began to work with "Dad's top strategist," a "young guy named Lee Atwater. A fast-talking, guitar-playing South Carolinian, Lee was considered one of the country's hottest political consultants. No question he was smart," Mr. Bush acknowledges; the question was, was he loyal to the Bush family?

George W. Bush became co-manager of that 1988 campaign, working alongside Atwater -- as well as his awful acolytes, including Roger Ailes, later the chairman of Fox News. Decision Points casts a veil over what then happened, telling only the story of how George W. defended his father against rumors of adultery. But what really happened is something that should never be forgotten if we want this country to cleave to genuine, as opposed to mock-democracy. I hope the reader will therefore forgive me if I quote from American Caesars, however heart-breaking, at the point where Vice-President H.W. Bush, trailing in the polls against the Democratic contender, Governor Mike Dukakis of Massachusetts, authorized his son and Atwater to go for Dukakis "as a as a wild, out of control 'Liberal' -- sneering," I wrote, at Dukakis' "environmental record in failing to clean up Boston Harbor, and putting out their the infamous 'Willie Horton' racist ads: using the photo of a black Massachusetts murderer who had committed armed robbery and rape while on furlough, fourteen years after he was imprisoned.

This was a new Bush -- licensing Atwater and his accomplices [Ron Kaufman, media consultant Roger Ailes, and George Bush, Jr.] to aim directly at Dukakis' supposed strength, namely his record as an effective modernizing governor of Massachusetts. Having "test-marketed" the Willie Horton ads, Atwater later boasted to reporters: "I realized right then that the sky was the limit on Dukakis' negatives" -- a tactic to "strip the bark off the little bastard," and "make Willie Horton his running mate."

American politics had always had a Wild West frontier quality, expressed in elections that were rife with real or supposed skullduggery. But Atwater's evil genius was to see, like the Nazis in the 1920s and 30s, how modern media could be cynically manipulated to vilify opponents. As Roger Ailes confided to a journalist, George H.W. Bush "hates it, but he knows we'd be getting killed if we didn't go negative." Saturating television with the Willie Horton ads some 600 times, it was estimated 80 million Americans saw them at least once.

Governor Dukakis did not realize, at first, what had hit him -- and when he did, he was too honorable to reply in the same vein. Anxious lest he had made a serious error in choosing the young and handsome but utterly inexperienced Dan Quayle as his running mate, Vice President Bush

confessed in his diary that "it was my decision, and I blew it, but I'm not about to say that I blew it." Instead, he licensed Atwater and Republican national campaign operatives and their funders to work even harder to destroy Dukakis. The New York Times observed that Ronald Reagan had at least run his campaigns on the basis of gaining the confidence of the American people, whereas Bush was aiming to destroy it, at least, in relation to his presidential opponent. Reeling, Dukakis found himself unable to beat off Atwater's personal attacks on his character, his liberalism, his environmental record, his patriotism, and, above all, his "guilt" over Willie Horton, even though Dukakis had not been responsible for the Massachusetts rehabilitation-furlough program, which his predecessor had introduced, and which Dukakis had terminated in the spring of 1988 as a failure. "The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it," Atwater admitted. As Dukakis belatedly did his best to fight back, Atwater worried lest he might have overdone his tactic: "If this sucker lasted forty-eight hours longer, I'm not sure we would make it." In the event, however, the "sucker" failed to beat off Atwater's evisceration. Vice President George H.W. Bush thus won the White House on November 8, 1988, by a comfortable margin: 426 electoral votes to 112, and thereby became the 41st President, at age 64.

The Dukakis character assassination by Lee Atwater marked the start of the most cynical, duplicitous and ruinous assaults on the accountable, democratic process in American presidential history -- one that caused Atwater, on his deathbed, suffering a brain tumor, to ask for forgiveness.

Former President George W. Bush has, so far, not asked our forgiveness, indeed Decision Points amounts to a veritable self-whitewashing, in this respect -- masked by amusing personal anecdotes, and an obstinate refusal to confront his real past. In American Caesars I've quoted his sickening words to Lee Atwater, when his father looked like losing the all-important New Hampshire primary in 1988: "Get out the dirty tricks book, Lee, and start reading!"

Dirty tricks, sadly, would be one of George W. Bush's primary contributions to modern presidential election campaigning -- unacknowledged in his new memoirs. Yet even that sin -- so disastrous for substantive political discourse in the United States -- would be of less consequence than his other, literally deadly sin. After all, despite exploiting Atwater's evil genius, his experienced father George Herbert Walker Bush became in many ways a great transitional American Caesar, as the Soviet Union collapsed, and Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait was rectified in a U.N.-backed operation that had the support of the entire world. His son, however, had no such talent or world-experience: only indifference to the effect of his dirty tricks on American democracy, and a delusional belief in his own minor skills in roguish charm, lightweight jokes and snappy, shallow decisions that ignored their consequences.
In my next post, I propose to examine his account of the tragic events that followed -- namely his own failure to reflect on America's misfortunes in Vietnam, and his crazed rush to war after 9/11. In the meantime, in this time of Thanksgiving, I thank the Almighty he has gone from the White House, and I thank God we have had, once again, a remarkable president, a cautious thirteenth Caesar, able and patiently willing to restore America's stature in the outside world.

Nigel Hamilton, an American citizen, is Senior Fellow in the John W. McCormack Graduate school of Global and Policy Studies, UMass Boston. He is also President of Biographers International Organization, and the author of more than twenty books, including his latest, American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, From Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush (Yale).