George W. Bush’s memoir Decision Points is a surprisingly good read—not that I expected it to be terrible, as Bush-haters probably do. (I rate his presidency middling, better than his father’s, and better than any Democrat’s since at least JFK’s.)
Given the sharp turn our nation has taken leftward—and downward—the memoir made me feel ridiculously nostalgic.
The chapter titles are short, punchy, to-the-point. You can practically hear W reciting them into his mini-tape recorder: “Quitting.” “Running.” “Personnel.” “Stem Cells.”
That would be “Quitting” as in drinking, and “Running” for political offices including governor of Texas and the presidency. “Personnel” relates Bush’s decision-making process for nominating and/or firing staffers Dick Cheney, James Baker and Ted Olson (lawyers in Bush v. Gore), Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Bob Gates, Andrew Card, John Roberts, Harriet Miers, and Samuel Alito.
Not surprisingly, the longest chapter is “Iraq,” which outlines Bush’s decision to invade the country and take out Saddam Hussein. Bush lays out the case for his decision to attack clearly, logically, and unimpeachably, including the overwhelming global consensus that Hussein was producing weapons of mass destruction. Bush chronicles the support he received from steadfast allies Tony Blair, John Howard, and José Maria Avnar, and the backstabbing he encountered from treacherous weasels Gerhard Schroeder, Jacques Chirac, and Vladimir Putin.
The facts Bush provides on the lead-up to the Iraq War remind us that claims he “rushed to war,” “went it alone,” and had no plans for postwar Iraq are the fevered delusions of leftist lunatics. (Just reading about the U.S.’s efforts to rope Security Council members into approving UN resolutions to deal with Hussein “diplomatically,” I grew six inches of facial hair.)
“Leading” describes Bush’s leadership on a variety of issues, including No Child Left Behind and the regrettable Medicare prescription drug benefit, as well as his heartbreaking second-term failure to pass Social Security reform and his (mostly solid) immigration reform.
Three chapters are stinkers; fortunately, they come near the end. “Lazarus Effect” brags how generous Bush was with taxpayer money in starting an AIDS prevention program in Africa that constituted a drop in the bucket because it did nothing to address the corruption in Africa’s tyrannical regimes. (Bizarre revelation: Upon landing in Tanzania, Bush writes, “[A] cluster of women danced to the festive beat of drums and horns. As one rotated to the music, I saw my photo stretched across her backside.”)
“Freedom Agenda” boasts about Bush’s push for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian solution over the objections of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell, and his support for free elections for Palestinians who ended up voting Hamas into power. “Financial Crisis” justifies Bush’s backing of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and automobile industry bailout. It’s not surprising that the “moderate,” “bipartisan” activity outlined in these three chapters was concentrated in Bush’s final two years, after the disastrous political events of 2005 (including the outcry over his response to Hurricane Katrina).
In the introduction, Bush explains that the book is structured thematically: rather than a straightforward chronological narrative, each chapter covers a choice point in his life. The result can feel a bit postmodern at times. For example, we make it through one chapter that ends with his decision to run for president, then are plopped back into his pre-governorship days.
Still, I applaud Bush’s decision to structure the book this way, because it emphasizes something important about the life of a political leader: namely, the importance of free will and personal responsibility. Bush describes his thought process as he faced each momentous decision, and while he admits he didn’t always make the best decision, he insists he was the one who made the decisions, takes full responsibility for them, and learns from his mistakes.
Contrast the active title of Bush’s memoir with the passive title of Barack Obama’s premature first memoir, Dreams from My Father, which emphasizes the hereditary, environmental forces that swept Obama’s worldview into the twisted, collectivist wilderness it inhabits today.
Or contrast Bush’s willingness to take responsibility for his mistakes—and graceful post-presidency silence on Obama’s calamitous first two years—with Obama’s constant badmouthing of Bush and blaming him for everything bad in his administration. As Rush Limbaugh noted last week in his interview with the former president, Bush didn’t spend eight years blaming President Bill Clinton for faulty, impotent foreign policy and failed efforts to prevent the spread of Islamic terrorist networks that attacked the West after 9/11.
Bush enjoys a certain satisfying revenge on his critics by laying out the facts and circumstances behind each decision and forcing them to judge whether they would have done differently.
The crucial passage from the excellent “Surge” chapter—and maybe from the whole book—is this: “Years from now, historians may look back and see the surge as a foregone conclusion, an inevitable bridge between the years of violence that followed liberation and the democracy that emerged. Nothing about the surge felt inevitable at the time. Public opinion ran strongly against it. Congress tried to block it. The enemy fought relentlessly to break our will.” Beneficial outcomes aren’t inevitable or immediate, Bush reminds us—they are the hard-won product of courage displayed at crucial decision points.
One thing supporters and detractors agree on is that Bush’s unpopularity by the end of his second term was the result of choices he had made. His unpopularity was not proof he had made good choices, but it was evidence he had made tough ones.