Decision Points is not likely to change anyone's mind.
Former President George W. Bush has the distinction of having held the highest approval rating of any president (90 percent in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks) and the lowest (22 percent on his departure from the White House in 2009). That final score is just one sign of how divided opinion about him was, and remains.
He's been mostly out of the public eye since leaving office, until the publication this month of his memoir, Decision Points. The book gives his supporters plenty of his characteristic from-the-gut confidence and unswerving conservatism. And it gives his opponents plenty to get steamed about all over again.
Presidential memoirs always preach to the choir. Such books are not objective history, but a president's chance to shine up his image, defend his policies and jab at his enemies — and Bush does just what most other memoir-writing presidents have done.
Decision Points doesn't follow chronological order, instead focusing on meaningful incidents, most during Bush's presidency. It's a reasonable approach to writing a memoir, although it does prevent a strong narrative arc — events that were in fact related often seem isolated from one another, and we see reaction rather than cause and effect.
Bush does begin with a foray into the past, starting with his decision the day after his 40th birthday to quit his heavy drinking. There's no clue, though, why he drank in the first place. He recaps his childhood warmly, describing himself as a "chatty little wiseacre" and expressing deep admiration and love for his parents. (If there ever was contention between him and his father, he's not talking about it.) Bush self-deprecatingly describes some of his hard-drinking days and writes of his Christian faith and his "love at first sight" for Laura Welch, whom he met, courted and married within a few months, "the best decision of my life."
In recounting his early life, Bush repeatedly casts himself as a man without a plan — and particularly a man with no plan to get into politics. Although he spent long stretches working on the campaigns of his father and others, he writes that he never thought of going into politics himself almost up until the moment he decided to run (unsuccessfully) for Congress in 1978 — quite a reversal of the usual presidential tale of ambition and drive.
The book captures Bush's voice well, particularly his sense of humor, which he says he shares with his mother. (Sample Barbara Bush quip: When Bush runs a marathon, she urges him on by shouting, "Keep moving, George! There are some fat people ahead of you!")
On the other hand, Bush has not developed a sense of irony. The son and grandson of wealthy, powerful Yale alumni and himself a graduate of both Yale and Harvard, his favorite term of insult is "Ivy League elites." And just pages after he thrills to his father's ill-fated "Read my lips: no new taxes" vow at the 1988 GOP convention, he cheerfully notes how helpful it was to have a taxpayer-supported stadium built for the Texas Rangers while he was a team owner.
Decision Points does not offer a lot of surprising revelations, although Bush's unabashed admission that he ordered waterboarding of terrorist suspects could have consequences. There are a few minor surprises — he observes that, had his father won re-election in 1992, neither he nor his brother Jeb would have entered races for governor in '94 — and some of his fans might be taken aback by his clear admiration for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Questions of plagiarism have been raised about Decision Points. Some of them are flimsy — if Bush and Bob Woodward quote an official in a meeting exactly the same way, it may well be their researchers simply consulted the same meeting notes. But there are some instances in which material is used without attribution that clearly could not have come from Bush's recollections, notably a description of an event at Afghan President Hamid Karzai's inauguration — a ceremony Bush did not attend. (The description seems to have come from a 2004 article in the New York Review of Books by Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. Decision Points has an index but no list of sources.)
Some sections of the book very effectively capture what it must be like to be president. One of the best and most compelling is "Day of Fire," Bush's account of his experiences on 9/11 and in its immediate aftermath — it's chilling, moving and direct.
But Bush is not often that direct. When he's not brushing off controversy during his presidency (like questions about his military service) he's giving it the most positive spin, even if it means omitting significant details. His recollection of the Valerie Plame scandal never mentions Bush's declaration that he would fire anyone on his staff who had revealed the CIA agent's identity, a federal crime. And his point in telling the story is not the questionable intelligence with which he took the nation to war in Iraq but the fact that Plamegate put a strain on his friendship with Vice President Dick Cheney when he refused to pardon Scooter Libby (just one of many instances in which Bush insists Cheney was not running the show in the administration).
Bush is clearly intensely loyal to many members of his team, describing his relationships with Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Karl Rove with special warmth and detailing their experience and qualifications.
Experience doesn't impress him, though, when it clashes with his loyalties. In 2006, a group of retired senior Army generals who had been involved in the Iraq War under Rumsfeld's leadership called for his resignation. Bush writes, "(T)here was no way I was going to let a group of retired officers bully me into pushing out the civilian secretary of defense. It would have looked like a military coup and would have set a disastrous precedent." Calling an expression of concern from veteran officers a "military coup" seems a bit of a stretch.
Bush's judgment of national events often focuses on his personal reactions to them. His account of the 2000 Florida recount makes it sound like an annoyance that prevented him from having a big victory party, and he seems very sensitive to debate partners, writing that Texas Gov. Ann Richards greeted him with a "growl" and that in a town hall debate he feared Vice President Al Gore (that brawler) would chest-bump him.
Much has been made of Bush calling Kanye West's diss after the Hurricane Katrina fiasco "the worst moment of his presidency"; he also writes, rather curiously, that the "single costliest political mistake I ever made" was failing to divulge the DUI he pleaded guilty to in 1976 before it was unearthed by reporters during his first presidential campaign.
Speaking of costly mistakes, Bush spends the book's final chapter discussing the financial crisis and his economic policies. He stoutly defends his tax cuts, deficit spending and the much-reviled Troubled Assets Relief Program he signed into law in 2008: "A program derided for its costs could potentially end up making money for American taxpayers."
He repeatedly asserts, though, that neither he nor anyone else really saw the crash coming. Early in the book, he describes himself while he was working on his MBA at Harvard as "suspicious of the financial industry. I used to tell my friends that Wall Street is the kind of place where they will buy you or sell you, but they don't really give a hoot about you so long as they can make money off you." If only he had remembered that a few decades later.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/critics.