Christopher Meyer

Taking the long view

Christopher Meyer agrees with George W. Bush that he was a far better president than his current reputation allows

Taking the long view
Text settings

Decision Points

George W. Bush

Virgin Books, pp. 497, £

While Tony Blair emerged from his memoirs as a chameleon of many colours, there is only one George W. Bush in Decision Points. The book reads like the man speaks. If it has been ghosted — and Bush gives thanks to a multitude of helpers — it has been done with consummate skill to preserve the authentic Bush voice. The result will be unexpected, even unwelcome, to many. This is an interesting and readable book, which clips along in short, spare sentences, with frequent flashes of humour. Don’t take my word for it. It has been praised by none other than Bill Clinton.

Bush, of course, sets out to put the record straight; and, as he sees it, there is a great deal to put straight — the ‘war on terror’, Afghanistan, Iraq, rescuing the banks and hurricane Katrina being some of the more notable areas where his critics have found him wanting. When he left office in 2008, his approval ratings were in the low 20s, a historic nadir for a departing president. Bush takes comfort from the example of President Harry Truman:

The man from Missouri knew how to make a hard decision and stick by it. He did what he thought was right and didn’t care much what the critics said. When he left office in 1953, his approval ratings were in the 20s. Today he is viewed as one of America’s great presidents.

This is the book’s key passage. Bush, like Blair, looks to history for his vindication, which, he confesses, will not come in his lifetime. If 50 years hence Iraq is a stable and prosperous democracy, the agony of its birth pangs will, he thinks, be seen as a price worth paying for the removal of Saddam Hussein. At which point, though he does not say this in so many words, George W. Bush will assume his rightful place in the pantheon of great American presidents.

Bush’s reputation began to be trashed early in the presidential campaign of 2000, both by Al Gore’s Democratic party and a large slice of European opinion, including in Britain. At the time it reminded me of the reaction to the coming of Ronald Reagan in 1981. Too many people then saw only a mediocre Hollywood actor and not the experienced politician who had shown his smarts as California governor and head of the Screen Actors’ Guild.

George W. Bush entered the presidential race with vast experience of politics at state and national levels. He had followed the campaigns of his father, President George H. W. Bush, from his first senate run in 1964 to his unsuccessful defence of the presidency against Bill Clinton in 1992. George W. himself first entered Texas politics in 1978 and, as he points out in his book, was the only Texas governor to win two consecutive terms. Yet he could be a wooden presidential campaigner, prone to verbal stumbles — the notorious ‘Bushisms’ — which made him sound plain stupid. The French news- paper Le Monde talked of the ‘cretinisation’ of American politics. I had met Bush a couple of times when he was Governor of Texas. He was anything but stupid; and his Texan provincialism would prove a political strength not a weakness in Middle America. When I warned London that Bush might beat Gore, it was greeted with disbelief and, among the New Labour zealots in Downing Street, with irritation (I was accused of pro-Republican bias).

As its title suggests, the memoir’s leit- motiv is Bush as decision-taker. Its 14 chapters rotate around the most important decisions of his life and presidency. This allows him, time and again, to present himself as he would like to be remembered: a leader unafraid to take tough decisions. However self-serving (allowing Bush, for instance, to rebut the charge that he was under the thumb of his Vice-President, Dick Cheney), the book offers real insights into the workings of the White House and the dilemmas of policy-making.

The early chapters, about his childhood and beginnings as a businessman and politician in Texas, are fascinating. They show a Bush for whom love of family and religion are central. The big decisions of this early period are to give up alcohol, with the help of the evangelist preacher, Billy Graham, and to marry his librarian sweetheart, Laura. I laughed out loud when Bush describes trying to lull his twin baby daughters to sleep by singing them the Yale fight song, ‘Bulldog, Bulldog, Bow, Wow, Wow’.

Along the way, he denies a number of charges: that he was in competition with his father; that he sought to dodge the draft; that he is incurious and does not read books. He professes a love for history and discloses that he and his political éminence grise, Karl Rove, used to compete over how many history books each could read. In one year Rove won by 110 to Bush’s 95.

The watershed in the story is the atrocity of 9/11. Everything changes. An administration which looked already to be running out of steam in its first year is revived by the threat of terrorism. ‘In a single morning the purpose of my presidency had become clear … it redefined my job.’ The war on terror is declared. Bush has his finest moment, when, standing on a mound of rubble at Ground Zero a few days after 9/11, he takes a bullhorn and rallies the rescue workers around him and the nation beyond. The passages describing those days, when fear of a second wave of attacks was all-pervasive, are gripping and often moving (his critics have never cut Bush any slack for the near intolerable stress and shock of that time).

The heroic moral certainty of that moment passes as fleetingly as it had come, to be replaced by the ambiguities and dilemmas of policy-making. To the disgust of many, Bush continues to justify ‘water-boarding’, while acknowledging the painful tension between protecting the country and preserving civil liberties. He invokes a higher ideological struggle between tyranny and freedom. He speaks of the ‘transformative power of liberty’; and, without batting an eyelid, slips from hostility to nation-building in the Balkans to being its greatest advocate in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In all of this, he gratefully acknowledges the support of the ‘Churchillian’ Tony Blair, who was equally seduced by this Manichean vision of the world. It is a vision which, for all its good intentions, has been at the root of what has gone wrong in those two benighted countries.

Like Blair, Bush is unrepentant about removing Saddam Hussein, but a good deal franker about things that went wrong. It was a ‘big mistake’ to declare ‘Mission Accomplished’ after the taking of Baghdad; the US was not adequately prepared for the disorder that followed; it was a mistake to disband the Iraqi army; above all, the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was false, ‘a massive blow to our credibility — my credibility.’

Yet, when all is said and done, in the seven and a half years that remained to Bush’s presidency after 9/11, America never again suffered a successful terrorist attack, and this, he says, was ‘my most meaningful accomplishment as president’. Even Bush’s most implacable critics cannot deny him that. As for his book, like the author himself, it is far better than his reputation.