IT'S ONLY FAIR to state at the outset that I bow to no one in my disdain for George W. Bush. I was distraught from the moment the Supreme Court handed him the presidency in 2000 until the moment he relinquished the White House to Barack Obama. The entire culture Bush ushered in — the gutting of regulatory agencies, the compression of power into the hands of a few, the bankrupting of the national treasury, the secrecy, the hypocrisy, the religiosity, the denigration of science — the sheer volume of damage he did every day in a thousand little ways drove me crazy. So why did I agree to review The Decider's recent volume of memoirs, entitled, with no irony whatsoever, Decision Points? Because, frankly, I was curious to read, in his own words, some explanation for his egregious regime.
Bush ended his term in office with the lowest approval rating since they started keeping approval ratings. Call it karma, call it bad luck, call it his date with destiny, but on the heels of the most bitterly contested election in American history, the outcome determined by the state that just happened to be governed by his brother Jeb, George W. Bush was confronted with some of the most agonizing events in American history. Bookended by 9/11 and the world financial conflagration, his two-term stay on the world stage also featured the Enron scandal, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, among other disasters. This avalanche of calamities would have sorely taxed the skills of the most brilliant administration; Bush's team, with its mixture of Machiavellian plotters, bible school mediocrities, and childhood buddies, was quite simply overwhelmed.
It was inevitable that Americans would finally grow weary of his approach to managing this shitstorm. The gaffes, the transparent pursuit of political vendettas, the evil henchmen (including a vice president who shot a man in the face), finally seemed to be taking their toll after eight long years. It wasn't unusual to hear him described as one of the worst presidents in modern history. His good ol' boy bonhomie had worn thin. At the end, even Dick Cheney was mad at him, for not pardoning Scooter Libby. As Lincoln said, "You can't fool all of the people all of the time." He ended fooling few.
So Bush quietly left office, determined, as he told an interviewer during his last month, to "replenish the old coffers." And what better way to start refilling those coffers than to sign a $7 million contract to write his memoirs? I can practically hear W himself crowing, Not too shabby! But I don't for a moment believe that money was his only motivation. Money alone could not sufficiently redeem the massive hit to Bush's self-regard inflicted by his embarrassing performance. Obviously, if he was going to dispel the odor of failure and incompetence that accompanied him out of the White House, a major rehabilitation was in order, and quick.
As he optimistically writes in his introduction: "I believe it will be impossible to reach definitive conclusions about my presidency — or any recent presidency, for that matter — for several decades." That's a matter for debate, but there's no doubt that the rebuilding of his reputation has been gathering steam; there are billboards in Texas bearing his image over the words, "Do you miss me yet?" and Bush loyalists are out there spinning whenever they see an opening.
For instance, did you know that Bush's belief in the right of all people to be free may very well have inspired the Egyptian revolt? That's what Elliot Abrams, Bush's former national security advisor, wrote in the Washington Post on January 17, a week before Hosni Mubarak resigned. More recently, we've been told by Karl Rove, Eric Cantor, Rudy Guiliani and Andrew Card, among others, that it was Bush's brilliant detective work that led Obama to Osama bin Laden.
In keeping with this revisionist strategy, Decision Points is structured around the major milestones in Bush's presidency, purporting to recreate the thought processes that determined his response to those events. In chapter after chapter, Bush methodically marshals his facts and opinions in such a way that his conclusions seem eminently sensible, if not inevitable. If "stuff happened," in Donald Rumsfeld's famous formulation, it was due to the forces of chaos, entropy and evil, not any failure on the part of the wise, clear-eyed, tough yet compassionate George W. Bush, a man who prided himself on his "crisp and effective decisions."
You can't really blame the guy, I suppose, for trying to create a credible narrative of his time in office. But I'm not sure whom he's trying to convince. There are two kinds of people: Those who continued to support him throughout his term, who already believe his excuses for all the things that went wrong, and those — 71%, based on polls taken in 2008 — who didn't. For those of us in the latter group, there's a massive disconnect between his wretched presidency and this sanitized portrayal. We are unlikely to swallow his claims that it was absolutely critical that we invade Iraq, that we never took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan, that No Child Left Behind has been a huge success, that Congress's failure to privatize Social Security was a terrible mistake, and that the financial meltdown was the fault of some very greedy people he had nothing to do with. It's only been 2½ years, after all. Our memories just aren't that bad.
Let's take Iraq. Of all his actions, Bush's decision to invade may go down as the most harmful: nearly 5,000 U.S. casualties, and another 35,000 injuries, many of them grievous; over 100,000 Iraqis killed (according to the respected website Iraqi War Dead), and another million forced to flee the country; it adds up to a tab of $3 trillion and counting. The sheer hypocrisy of his exaltating of the troops while allowing them to ride around in poorly armored vehicles, to shower in improperly installed make-shift stalls that electrocuted them, to go into battle with a shortage of Kevlar for their helmets, continues to shock. Forcing them to endure multiple tours of duty, subjecting them to substandard care at Walter Reed Army Hospital, censoring press coverage of funerals — the true treatment of our troops should have been a great source of shame to Bush. But he doesn't address any of these matters in his chapter on Iraq. Instead, he speaks in grand generalities about his solemn duty to bring Freedom and Democracy to the enslaved Iraqis.
Isn't the world a much better place, Bush demands, with the removal of Saddam Hussein? Perhaps it is. As it would be without Kim Jong Il, Robert Mugabe, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Laurent Gbagbo, Bashar al-Assad, and many, many other "leaders." But an awful lot of eggs were broken to make this omelet, and they're still breaking. As we go to press, it's been reported that 33 people were killed in five Iraqi cities on May 5 alone. Furthermore, a recent story in the New York Times reported that Nuri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, has of late been accused of displaying some disturbingly dictatorial habits, like arresting political opponents, ordering the shutdown of rival parties, and maintaining secret jails where detainees have been tortured, etc. But to Bush, invading Iraq is, was, and always will be the right decision.
Interestingly, the one incident he addresses at length is the "Mission Accomplished" (or, as I call it, "Mishegas Accomplished") debacle. It sticks in his craw, as a matter of fact; even he knows how silly it made him seem. But he has an explanation:
I hadn't noticed the large banner my staff had placed on the bridge of the ship, positioned for TV. It read, "Mission Accomplished." It was intended as a tribute to the folks aboard the [U.S.S.] Lincoln, which had just completed the longest deployment for an aircraft carrier in its class. Instead, it looked like I was doing the victory dance I had warned against ... our stagecraft had gone awry. It was a big mistake.
And that's the biggest mistake he'll admit to, vis à vis Iraq: mishandled stagecraft. He spends way more time on it than on, say, Abu Ghraib. Even in this highly polished artifact of a memoir, his true priority somehow leaks through: salvaging his pride. Ironically — considering his apparently bottomless penchant for behaving foolishly — he doesn't actually like to appear foolish. True to psychological form, the vast breadth of his narcissism seems to go hand in hand with his shaky self-esteem. Once of the earliest choruses of derision was inspired by Bush's first meeting with then-president Vladimir Putin of Russia in June of 2001. Lest we forget, W's initial description of "Vladimir" was rhapsodic; he said he'd looked into Putin's eyes and "was able to get a sense of his soul."
The summit with Putin started with a small meeting — just Vladimir and me, our national security advisors, and the interpreters. He seemed a little tense. He opened by speaking from a stack of note cards ... After a few minutes, I interrupted his presentation with a question: "Is it true your mother gave you a cross that you had blessed in Jerusalem?"
A look of shock washed over Putin's face ... his face and his voice softened as he explained that he had hung the cross in his dacha, which subsequently caught on fire. When the firefighters arrived, he told them all he cared about was the cross. He dramatically re-created the moment when a worker unfolded his hand and revealed the cross. It was, he said, "as if it were meant to be."
"Vladimir," I said, "that is the story of the cross. Things are meant to be."
Oh, grasshopper! Did you truly believe you could forge a bromance with the merciless former KGB bigwig over a soppy story about a religious keepsake? It's not long before Bush sees the error of his ways, however, and hell hath no fury like a President scorned. The wised-up Bush is downright brusque:
Putin liked power, and the Russian people liked him. Huge oil-fed budget surpluses didn't hurt. He used his stature to handpick his successor, Dmitri Medvedev. Then he got himself appointed prime minister ... the low point in our relationship came in August 2008, when Russia sent tanks across the border into Georgia to occupy South Ossetia and Abkhazia...
I was in Beijing for the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games... Laura and I were seated in the same row as Vladimir ... I knew the TV cameras would be on us, so I tried not to get overly animated. I told him he'd made a serious mistake and that Russia would isolate itself if it didn't get out of Georgia...
"I've been warning you Saakashvili is hot-blooded," I told Putin.
"I'm hot-blooded too," Putin retorted.
I stared back at him. "No Vladimir," I said. "You're cold-blooded."
Worse still, he says, Russia turned out to be "a disappointment in the freedom agenda."
It's in discussing the Katrina catastrophe that Bush comes closest to admitting he might have made an actual mistake, rather than a PR one. "As leader of the federal government," he writes, "I should have recognized the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster. I prided myself on making crisp and effective decisions. Yet in the days after Katrina, that didn't happen. The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions. It was that I took too long to decide." Semantic distinction or not, it's refreshing to hear him actually acknowledge some responsibility for the godawful aftermath of the hurricane. But his humility is short-lived; he then goes on to lay it all at the feet of Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco for preventing him from doing the right thing:
On Thursday morning, Day Four, [chief of staff] Andy Card formally raised the prospect of federalizing the response with Gov. Blanco ... [T]he governor did not want to give up authority to the federal government. That left me in a tough position. If I invoked the Insurrection Act against her wishes, the world would see a male Republican president usurping the authority of a female Democratic governor by declaring an insurrection in a largely African-American city. That would arouse controversy anywhere.
I'm sorry, since when did Bush worry about what "the world" thought? The notion that he felt his hands were tied because acting to save the desperate people of New Orleans would "arouse controversy" completely belies his governing style. This is a man who refused to sign the Kyoto climate accords, who described torture as "enhanced interrogation techniques," who used a "signing statement" to assert the government's authority to open U.S. mail without judicial warrants. But when it comes to the wholesale destruction of a major American city, suddenly he's punctilious about observing the political niceties.
Of course, we all want to hear his explanation for one of the most notorious catch phrases in a tenure chock full of notorious catch phrases:
I asked [Alabama Governor] Bob [Riley] and [Mississippi Governor] Haley [Barbour] if they were getting the federal support they needed. Both told me they were. "That Mike Brown is doing a heck of a job," Bob said. I knew Mike was under pressure, and I wanted to boost his morale. When I spoke to the press a few minutes later, I repeated the praise. "Brownie," I said, "you're doing a heck of a job." I never imagined those words would become an infamous entry in the political lexicon. As complaints about Mike Brown's performance mounted, especially in New Orleans, critics turned my words of encouragement into a club to bludgeon me.
Still, even to this day Bush displays a startling lack of understanding of the scope of the disaster. It seems to surprise him that "more than one person interviewed said the same thing: 'I can't believe this is happening in the United States of America.'" More than one? Yes, pretty much everyone.
Bush does dwell at length on accounts of his two presidential campaigns, not surprisingly, since they both ended triumphantly for him. He even goes so far as to delve into incidents that he should probably have left unexamined, because his explanations are so lame. In discussing his first debate with John Kerry, he brings up a matter that most people have probably forgotten:
An even stranger story unfolded a few days later, when a photograph from the debate surfaced. It showed a wrinkle down the back of my suit. Somebody came up with the idea that the crease was actually a hidden radio connected to Karl Rove. The rumor flew around the Internet and became a sensation among conspiracy theorists.
Is that crazy, or what? Karl Rove do something as sneaky as wire W up so he can feed him the answers? Why, that's unthinkable! Except... there are some eminent thinkers who've thought it. According to Salon, Dr. Robert M. Nelson, a senior research scientist for NASA and Caltech and an international authority on image analysis, "stated unequivocally that the strange bulges visible beneath Bush's suit during the debate were not wrinkles." As Salon reported:
Nelson has been analyzing images of the president's back during the debates. "I am willing to stake my scientific reputation to the statement that Bush was wearing something under his jacket during the debate," he says. "This is not about a bad suit. And there's no way the bulge can be described as a wrinkled shirt."
The article in Salon goes on to say that the enhanced photos of Bush's jacket reveal "what appears to be some kind of mechanical device with a wire snaking up the president's shoulder toward his neck and down his back to his waist."
In the context of Bush's eight years as President, the wire, or whatever it was, may seem a mere peccadillo. But it in many ways it's emblematic of his presidency. There he is, at the podium with his flag pin on, speaking with confidence and conviction about the decisions he's made and the leadership he's demonstrated. And behind him, where he doesn't expect you to look, is evidence of another agenda, an undermining glimpse of reality. It was clear to the naked eyes of television viewers, it was clear in photographs published the next day, and it's even more irrefutable thanks to those who weren't willing to take his word for it. Throughout the book, as throughout his Presidency, he ignores the empirical evidence and insists on the truth of his explanation. Don't believe your eyes, he says to us once more. Believe what I'm saying. Pay no attention to the wire you think you're seeing beneath my suit. It's just a wrinkle.