In April 1984, a preacher named Arthur Blessitt visited Midland, Tex. He had spent the preceding 15 years literally carrying a 70-pound, 12-foot cross around much of the globe. When the 37-year-old George W. Bush heard Blessitt on the radio, he asked a friend to arrange an introduction, which took place at the local Holiday Inn. Blessitt took Bush's hand, and the itinerant preacher and the vice president's son prayed together for forgiveness and salvation.
George W. Bush was getting closer to Christ. By 1988, he had quit drinking, started discussing with family members how to get into heaven and begun serving as a surrogate to evangelicals for his father's presidential campaign. In A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush (W Publishing Group, $21.99), David Aikman explains that W. instantly found himself among friends: "It was obvious to them all that his conversion experience had been genuine and profound." Aikman's description of how Bush found God is Pollyana-ish, almost heroic and relatively straightforward: An apathetic youth partied too much and wandered aimlessly until, with the help of Blessitt and Billy Graham, he became a "follower of Christ." Then he developed a deeply felt political vision and, eventually, found the strength to run for president and lead a nation in wartime. According to Aikman, Bush heard a sermon in 1999 that convinced him that "the Almighty was speaking through the pastor to encourage him to run for the presidency of the United States." Later, as Bush told Bob Woodward, he had no doubt that invading Iraq was the correct thing to do; every human being, he likes to declare, has a God-given right to live in freedom.
By interviewing Bush's closest friends and spiritual mentors, Aikman provides a new appreciation for Christianity's influence on the president's politics and policies. But its entirely admiring tone all but prevents Aikman from analyzing or even noticing the negative consequences that religious faith has had as well -- such as the alienation of citizens of other faiths and the promotion of faith-based programs that blur the constitutional separation of church and state. Much of this story is partisan, hagiographic and unconvincing; Aikman dedicates his book to "all . . . who pray for the nation and its leadership." In hailing Bush's religious conversion, Aikman, a former correspondent for Time magazine, so closely identifies with the president that he cannot find fault with, or even appreciate the criticisms of, those policies of Bush's that have polarized Americans and alienated much of the world.
The Picture of Preservation
The certitude -- personal and political -- that underpins Bush's decision-making has caught the attention of several other authors of new books. In contrast to Aikman, however, they see not faith but hypocrisy as his signature trait.
The most powerful critique among them tackles a familiar subject: Bush's environmental record. Much ink has been spilled on this subject. But in Bush Versus the Environment (Anchor; paperback, $12) Robert Devine, an Oregon-based journalist, wisely focuses on the techniques that Bush employs to justify and hide the true impact of policies that disturb scientists, environmentalists and many ordinary citizens.
According to Devine, the administration routinely ignores scientific facts, deletes unfavorable evidence from internal memos and wraps its anti-environmental policies in gauzy language that masks its pro-business agenda. To justify their decisions, Bush and his advisers dissemble. They say, for example, that catastrophic wildfires might consume 190 million acres of public land -- when many forest scientists think that 15 to 30 million acres is a far more accurate figure. Devine convincingly argues that "thinning" to prevent wildfires is a euphemism for letting Big Timber chop down healthy trees in virtually the entire national forest system. And he notes that Bush has circumvented environmental laws and convened a task force to look into streamlining regulations that prevent oil and gas drilling and other commercial and military activities in oceans, forests and other long-protected areas.
Another strategy is called "sue and settle": Industry sponsors lawsuits against the government, and the administration almost always settles on terms that favor the corporations. In this way did Bush come to permit snowmobiles in Yellowstone, ease protections for California's red-legged frog and allow two corporations, Monsanto and Solutia, to undertake merely a "partial clean up" of the toxic PCBs that a jury found the corporations had dumped into the air, water and soil in Anniston, Ala. Bush has also ceded enforcement authority to state regulatory agencies, which have a worse track record than their federal counterparts. And instead of relying on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report on the impact of oil drilling on caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Interior Secretary Gale Norton disingenuously cited one British Petroleum-underwritten study.
Bush Versus the Environment is a well-researched book, a handy, perhaps even authoritative primer on the methods that Bush uses to make dangerous policies sound responsible and benign. Devine offers a fresh and shrewd take on a familiar subject.
In Dubious Battle
James Moore shares Devine's view that Bush's faith -- in God and in his own policies -- is misplaced. In Bush's War for Re-Election: Iraq, the White House, and the People (Wiley, $37.99), Moore, co-author of the bestselling Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential, castigates Bush's wartime leadership by focusing on the human side of the Iraq War's costs. Through interviews with soldiers and family members of those who died in battle, Moore conveys the deep resentment toward Bush felt by at least some military families. Moore also conducted revealing interviews with former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, former Sen. Max Cleland and Bill Burkett, a lieutenant colonel in the Texas National Guard and a frequent Bush critic.
But Moore's book treads lots of familiar ground. He criticizes, in a long-winded chapter, Judith Miller's reporting about WMD in the New York Times, which many critics, including Jack Shafer of Slate, have already dissected. Moore discusses Bush's Texas Air National Guard service, another well-mined story, attacking Bush for leap-frogging past peers who were patiently waiting to enter the Guard, and charging that Bush went AWOL in 1972 when he moved to Alabama to work on a Republican senate campaign.
While Moore convincingly identifies some deceptions and brass-knuckle politics, his anti-Bush anger sometimes gets the better of him. He speculates, in rather haphazard fashion and on the basis of relatively thin evidence, that aides expunged Bush's National Guard records. Ditto for his veiled suggestion that Diebold Election Systems might have manipulated electronic voting machines to oust Cleland from his Georgia senate seat.
Baits and Switches
Nicholas von Hoffman's Hoax: Why Americans Are Suckered by White House Lies (Nation; paperback, $13.95) also serves up an angry attack, but von Hoffman has a broader target than Bush -- including the entire "American Biosphere," which he describes as an alternate universe where the citizens brazenly drive gas-guzzling SUVs, consider themselves superior to other nationalities and invade Iraq to build a global Christian empire. Hoax brims with hyperbolic, disconnected and vague generalizations. It lacks a coherent argument. Instead of showcasing serious, detailed research, Hoax traffics in hard-to-decipher phrases ("religion of Americanism (the un-Catholic kind)"); overwrought analogies (Hitler is one favorite); and glib descriptions ("America is the Johnnie Appleseed of democracy").
Von Hoffman's America seems to be a forsaken land led by bloodthirsty hypocrites and populated by gullible naifs. The United States is guilty of killing children in Iraq, dropping atomic bombs on Japan during World War II, and creating an army that staged a "joyride toward Baghdad" that was covered by journalists he describes as "war whores." In 1992, when Dick Cheney opposed toppling Hussein in the first Gulf War, "the monomania of single, hyper-powerhood had not yet got into [the Bush team] and taken over their brains," Von Hoffman writes. "When they rode Boy Bush back into government after the eight Clinton years, . . . the mania had them. They were Blues Brothers on a power trip." While Hoax contains nuggets of truth, it never quite manages to mount a consistent, in-depth indictment of America or the Bush administration.
The Verse of Times
Finally, in Obliviously On He Sails: The Bush Administration in Rhyme (Random House, $12.95), humorist Calvin Trillin reprints poems published in the Nation that poke fun at Bush, his aides and their policies. Trillin has a field day, and justifiably so, with Paul Wolfowitz. Reinforcing James Moore's theme of hypocrisy, Trillin writes that Wolfowitz has "been this war's great glorifier./ With Vietnam, he seemed much shier:/ He didn't think that war'd require/ Himself. No grunt, his goals were higher."
Pithy and at times eloquent, Trillin merrily spoofs the so-called neoconservative "Sissy Hawks" who championed invading Iraq but themselves skipped serving in Vietnam. On weapons of mass destruction, his aim is equally true:
So maybe we will find them yet,
Well stashed away in some place clever.
Or were they just destroyed in March?
Or never there at all? Whatever.
Some poems will make liberals clap their hands in glee: "Rush Limbaugh has been hooked on pills,/ While Bennett's hooked on slots./ Do all the right-wing morals police/ Have copybooks with blots?"
But poems that were enjoyable in a weekly magazine acquire a familiar feel when consumed in book form; readers will quickly get the anti-Bush storyline, and the poems lose some zing as a result. Like many collections of previously published work, the book also is slightly disjointed -- jumping with hardly a pause from poems on corporate tax breaks to ones on global warming. Overall, however, Trillin, in imaginative and irreverent rhymes, takes on what he considers the administration's hypocrisy. He has crafted an amusing polemic in an age when opinions, often loud and ill conceived, are in all-too-ample supply. *
Matthew Dallek, who served as a speechwriter for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, is the author of "The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics."