The Vision Thing

Reviewed by Jackson Diehl
Sunday, February 5, 2006


Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of

George W. Bush

By Fred Barnes

Crown Forum. 220 pp. $23.95

Fred Barnes's portrait of President Bush offers an inadvertent reminder of how much one year can change a presidency. His book opens on the day of the State of the Union address in February 2005, when a newly reelected and supremely confident Bush was at the height of his power. He had delivered a sweeping inaugural address promising to spread democracy throughout the world and overseen an Iraqi election that his administration interpreted as a vindication. Now Bush was planning to focus on bold reforms of Social Security and the tax system; Barnes describes him dismissing, at a lunch with journalists, a suggestion that Congress might find his plan for private Social Security accounts politically unpalatable. The Bush for whom Barnes began this apologia "controls the national agenda, uses his presidential powers to the fullest and then some, proposes far-reaching policies likely to change the way Americans live, reverses other long-standing policies, and is the foremost leader in world affairs."

That bold and visionary president is no longer with us. By early 2006, far from making revolutionary proposals, Bush's assertion of presidential power had been challenged by Congress and the courts. His Social Security plan was all but discarded; his domestic standing had been badly damaged by his failure to respond effectively to Hurricane Katrina. Above all, the Iraq War had become a painful and polarizing enterprise that teetered near the brink of catastrophe. Bush appeared likely to devote most of the rest of his presidency to trying to find an honorable way out of it.

Barnes, for his part, seemingly felt obliged to stitch some awkward updates into his tapestry of an all-conquering president. "Imagine if the president had won the fight for private accounts in Social Security," he argues. "And imagine if he had expanded consumer-driven health care. . . . Imagine further that he had gained congressional approval of lifetime IRAs and tax reform that lowers individual income tax rates. . . . Achieving it would have been an epic feat. And Bush, having succeeded in creating an ownership society, would be the most important and consequential domestic policy president since FDR." Only he didn't. And he's not.

That's not to say that Barnes's interpretation of Bush is not insightful. The Weekly Standard editor and Fox News pundit convincingly describes a president who thinks and behaves "as an insurgent" in Washington, who scorns small ideas and conventional thinking and who consequently "has found it easy to overturn major policies with scarcely a second thought." Barnes portrays Bush's contempt for Washington elites and the press as a virtue that has allowed him to revolutionize both foreign and domestic policy and fashion a new form of conservatism. The case he makes for Bush's boldness is indisputable, especially in foreign affairs. But the thinness of Bush's counsel in his anti-Washington bubble also stands out. For example, Barnes describes Bush -- "a dissenter on the theory of global warming," despite the overwhelming consensus in the scientific community -- confirming his views in an hour-long conversation last year with the thriller author Michael Crichton, who "had concluded that global warming is an unproven theory and that the threat is vastly overstated."

Similarly, Barnes reports that much of Bush's thinking about his global pro-democracy policy was developed in one-on-one conversations with the White House speechwriter Michael Gerson, who shares the president's evangelical faith. Gerson, he says, was also the source of Bush's promise in the 2003 State of the Union address to commit $15 billion to the global campaign against AIDS over five years. (So far, Bush is close to keeping the pledge, having spent $5.2 billion in the first two years and budgeted more than $3 billion for 2006.) By this account, even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was not aware of the crusade against tyranny to which she and her department were being committed until the inaugural was all but finalized.

Barnes's point is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Bush has been the prime author of some of his boldest policies. That may be true of his press for democracy in the Middle East, but Barnes's argument that Bush revolutionized American thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nonsensical. It's true that U.S. policy has come a long way from President Clinton's 2000 attempt to broker a comprehensive peace accord at Camp David. But Bush merely followed the lead of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who first convinced him to adopt a "road map" calling for gradual steps toward a two-state solution based on Palestinian "performance," then just as easily induced the president to back the opposite approach -- a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in July. Sharon, at least, knew more about his subject than Michael Crichton.

By the time Barnes visited Bush to wrap up his book in August 2005, the president's Washington "insurgency" had been overtaken by that of Iraq, a problem Barnes curiously neglects; his discussion essentially concludes with the January elections. (The prisoner-abuse scandal caused by Bush's policies on torture and the Geneva Conventions is ignored entirely.) Bush tells Barnes he's been reading 1776 by David McCullough; he takes solace in the fact that historians are still debating George Washington's legacy. "History's judgment on Bush, who has not even completed his second term, consists of nothing but conjecture," Barnes defensively observes. Of course, if future historians conclude that Bush singlehandedly remade American foreign policy and created a "strong-government" conservatism that ensured Republican dominance for decades, then Barnes's uncommon judgment of this president will look pretty good. For now, it reads like an argument that might have sounded plausible a year ago but was overwhelmed by an annus horribilis . ยท

Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Post.

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