By Jonathan Yardley
Monday, November 8, 2010; C01
By George W. Bush
Crown. 497 pp. $35
All is sweet reason in "Decision Points," George W. Bush's account of his eight-year presidency and some of the events -- quitting drinking, serving as governor of Texas -- that preceded it. To be sure there are a few hints of the pugnacity Americans came to know so well -- barbs directed at the press, the professoriate, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a few other sitting ducks -- but Bush as he presents himself here is calm, deliberative, reasonable, open-minded, God-fearing, loyal, trustworthy, patriotic.
This should come as no surprise. The presidential memoir as it has evolved, especially in the wake of recent presidencies, is not a memoir as the term is commonly understood -- an attempt to examine and interpret the writer's life -- but an attempt to write history before the historians get their hands on it. Yes, from time to time mistakes must be acknowledged -- on the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, for instance, "I had sent American troops into combat based in large part on intelligence that proved false," or on Katrina, "The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions. It was that I took too long to decide" -- but the clear purpose of these non-apologies is to humanize the person making them, and to make us like him better for making them.
The presidential memoir is a creature of relatively recent invention, a product of the post-World War II era and one that has, to all intents and purposes, no older precedent. Only two memoirs by former presidents are worth reading today. The first, Ulysses S. Grant's two-volume "Personal Memoirs" (1885-86), is almost entirely about his military career and makes only passing reference to his two terms in the White House. The second is Harry S. Truman's memoirs, also two volumes: "Year of Decisions" (1955) and "Years of Trial and Hope" (1956).
Both of these books were written in hopes of rescuing their authors from dire financial circumstances (both succeeded in that regard, though the beneficiary of Grant's hefty sales was his widow, Julia), and both were actually written by the former presidents. They had research assistance, but the hand holding the pen was the president's own. Both memoirs, it also should be added, are works of genuine distinction, Grant's most particularly.
Of the postwar presidents who lived long enough to assemble their autobiographies, not a single one produced a book of any real merit. It's not so much that they're bad books as that they're dull ones, reducing flesh-and-blood presidents -- all of them interesting men, no matter how one may feel about them politically or ideologically -- to cardboard figures representing Virtue in various forms, described in prose that for the most part appears to have been put together by committee, or a computer on autopilot. "Decision Points" is no exception. It's competent, readable and flat. The voice in which it is written is occasionally recognizable as that of George W. Bush -- informal, homespun, jokey -- but more often it's the voice of a state paper, impersonal and dutiful.
As anyone who reads The Post in print or online is fully aware by now, "Decision Points" contains no "news" of any real significance. Going to war over the WMDs that Iraq didn't have was a blunder, but that has been acknowledged for a long time by many veterans of the Bush administration, all of whom continue to insist, as does Bush himself, that "the world was undoubtedly safer with Saddam gone," a claim that, in light of Middle Eastern events post-"shock and awe," certainly merits challenge. The shipboard display of triumphalism under the "Mission Accomplished" banner was "a big mistake," to put it mildly. So, Dick Cheney volunteered to withdraw from the ticket in 2004. Doesn't just about every vice president do that, as a pro-forma courtesy? As for Hurricane Katrina, it was handled clumsily at best, but we all knew that.
And so forth. Bush is smart enough to understand that a memoir asserting nothing except achievements and victories would have serious credibility problems -- especially a memoir dealing with a presidency as polarizing as that of Bush II, though of course he doesn't give the subject anything approximating the attention it deserves. When he does raise the subject, it is with a mixture of candor and self-delusion. He is absolutely right to say that "the breakdown in bipartisanship was bad for my administration and bad for the country, too," and doubtless it's true that some Democrats "never got over the 2000 election and were determined not to cooperate with me," but saying that "no doubt I bear some of the responsibility as well" doesn't begin to tell the tale.
During his White House years, Bush liked to characterize himself as "the decider," a self-portrait that he continues to paint (hence its title) in "Decision Points." A lesson he "took from [Theodore] Roosevelt and Reagan," he writes here, "was to lead the public, not chase the opinion polls. . . . As I told my advisors, 'I didn't take this job to play small ball.' " Whether this is the real person or a calculated persona is impossible to say, at least for anyone outside Bush's inner circle, but in presidential practice it took the form of a pugnacity toward the opposition -- especially as engineered by Cheney in the vice president's office and Karl Rove in the White House -- that virtually asked for a breakdown in bipartisanship.
Surely the transformation of George W. Bush from a genuinely bipartisan governor of Texas to a fiercely partisan president of the United States has more than a little to do with the kind of advice he got when he rose to the higher office. There are hints here of the president he could have been if he had paid closer attention to the example of his father and less to the bellicose neoconservatives whose voices he heeded so often and to such unhappy effect. As governor of Texas he had personal knowledge of the need for immigration reform and free-trade treaties, and he tried hard to pursue both as president, against much opposition within his own party as well as among Democrats. What he says on the matter is important:
"The failure of immigration reform points out larger concerns about the direction of our politics. The blend of isolationism, protectionism, and nativism that affected the immigration debate also led Congress to block free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. I recognize the genuine anxiety that people feel about foreign competition. But our economy, our security, and our culture would all be weakened by an attempt to wall ourselves off from the world. Americans should never fear competition. Our country has always thrived when we've engaged the world with confidence in our values and ourselves."
He's right, as he is when he says a bit later: "Free and fair trade benefits the United States by creating new buyers for our products, along with more choices and better prices for our consumers. Trade is also the surest way to help people in the developing world grow their economies and lift themselves out of poverty. According to one study, the benefits of trade are forty times more effective in reducing poverty than foreign aid." This has been especially true in recent years in Latin America, a part of the world to which Bush, to his great credit, gave considerably more attention than most presidents. It will not be surprising if, when the passions of the present day have faded and history has a chance to examine the Bush presidency, his efforts to improve immigration laws and cut through trade barriers are recognized as among its most laudable aspects.
These are, to me, the most interesting and appealing parts of "Decision Points," but unfortunately they are very brief. Bush wants to clean up the record on Iraq, Afghanistan, stem-cell research, Katrina and all the other major controversies that shaped, and bedeviled, his administration. This is understandable. No one who has been at the very epicenter of world affairs for a full eight years wants to be judged unkindly by history, to which in the end every president turns his attention and his hopes. It's a pity, though, that in the process of presenting himself before the bar of history he didn't make a good book out of it. In the light of precedent, that was to be expected.
Yardley is The Washington Post's book critic.