David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, is the author of “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.”
The fireball candidacy of Donald Trump has created shock waves of nostalgia for an ostensibly moderate, reasonable Republican Party of yore. Trump’s vulgarity, anti-intellectualism, mendacity, mean-spiritedness and brawling, bullying style have been deemed unprecedented and unparalleled.
But anyone prone to romanticize the old GOP should take a bracing shot of “Bush,” a hefty biography of our 43rd president by the prolific and acclaimed biographer Jean Edward Smith. Written in sober, smooth, snark-free prose, with an air of thoughtful, detached authority, the book is nonetheless exceedingly damning in its judgments about George W. Bush’s years in office. It reminds us anew of Bush’s own arrogance, recklessness, strong-arm politics and scorn for ideas — and of the apoplexy he provoked from liberals and Democrats who felt powerless to rein him in.
On top of the scores of reported books published during his tenure, Bush has already been the subject of several post-presidential studies, most notably Peter Baker’s “Days of Fire.” Unlike Baker’s volume, whose footnotes disclose original interviews with government officials, Smith’s deft synthesis mainly rests on information gleaned from the library of first-wave accounts. His notes abound with citations of enduring works by Jane Mayer, Thomas Ricks, James Risen, Charlie Savage, Ron Suskind, Bob Woodward and other reporters, as well as of the protagonists’ memoirs and periodical journalism. In a few places, Smith draws uncritically from questionable sources, such as Kitty Kelly, who has been widely criticized for trafficking in gossip, but overall “Bush” reads as authoritative and trustworthy.
If Smith’s narrative feels familiar, it may also be because he closely tracks the headlines of the day: Proceeding chronologically, his account showcases whatever was prominent in the news at a given moment. Events or decisions that escaped the spotlight when they unfolded are dealt with only when their ramifications become clear. Thus, Bush’s housing policies — from his promotion of an “ownership society” to the 2008 mortgage-market crash — are shoehorned into the book’s penultimate chapter, not laid out at the earlier moments when he was making or acquiescing in the steps that enabled the crisis.
Structuring the book this way is legitimate. It has the virtue of recalling how events flowed from one to the next during those tumultuous, mean years. But it deprives readers of the opportunity to glimpse events in a fresh light — to learn unexpected backstories or note juxtapositions that are revealing only in hindsight. Some deeply consequential developments, such as Iran’s bid to acquire nuclear weapons, get almost no ink because they didn’t dominate the news until after Bush left office. Yet part of what historians ought to do is to call attention to significant events or actions that were neglected by the press or the public in their day. Smith ably crystallizes and confirms the prevailing understandings of the Bush presidency rather than forcing a reappraisal.
Because Smith dwells on what was in the news, his book is — appropriately — dominated by the wars undertaken in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The invasion of Afghanistan to topple the Taliban, and especially the more dubious choice to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein, will almost certainly define Bush’s presidency for decades to come. It’s hard to imagine a better overview than this volume of both invasions, their troubled occupations, their political fallout, and their implications for civil liberties and executive power at home.
On Bush’s conduct of these wars — and indeed on most aspects of the man and his presidency — Smith is relentlessly critical and may strike some readers as hyperbolic. “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush,” his book begins, and the judgments rarely soften. Several hundred pages in, Smith, with no less surety, declares that “George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq will likely go down in history as the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.” And in his conclusion he shows only a flicker of uncertainty, writing that “whether George W. Bush was the worst president in American history will be long debated.” But if these judgments are stark and in some places too strong — the Vietnam War, for what it’s worth, was hands-down a bigger catastrophe than Iraq — they are buttressed by pages of coolly presented evidence.
Smith is equally harsh in weighing the policies that flowed from the war on terrorism, especially those that infringed on the rights of people suspected of abetting America’s enemies: the wholesale surveillance, without the necessary court warrants, of some suspects; the limitless imprisonment of others; the use of military tribunals to evade constitutional protections of their rights; the use of torture to try to wrest information from them. Smith, again with ample justification, deems all of these violations of civil liberties to have been unnecessary responses to the threat of violence from al-Qaeda or other Islamist groups that were targeting America.
Smith isn’t incapable of offering praise of Bush. He is charitable toward the president on the financial crisis of 2008, recognizing that while Bush remained for too long oblivious to the dangers of an under-regulated mortgage market, he did step up when disaster struck, bucking his party’s fears of government intervention and following the advice of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to stanch the hemorrhaging. Smith is also quite willing to credit Bush’s rhetoric about “compassionate conservatism” as a sign of a genuine moderation on his part, even though the signature policies of his presidency — the surplus-squandering tax cuts, the bid to privatize Social Security, the scuttling of environmental protection efforts, the intermingling of church and state — reveal that Bush was in practice more conservative than even Ronald Reagan.
Between the lines, Smith traces Bush’s failings as president to character flaws. The book is, after all, a biography, and the president’s upbringing and family life are duly covered. (One pet peeve: Smith constantly refers to Bush’s twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, as “the twins,” rather than by their names. Often, he writes about them as a single entity, failing to explore, say, differences in the girls’ relationships with their father or in their politics.)
In sizing up Bush’s character, Smith is plainly put off by his subject’s swaggering manner, his unreflective style and his illiberal attitudes. Perhaps most displeasing to Smith — and, more important, most detrimental to wise leadership — is Bush’s mixture of pious righteousness and gut-level decision-making. Time and again, he writes with dismay of how Bush “dismissed” prescient warnings or thoughtful advice, or took big steps without proper consideration.
He doesn’t buy into the fiction that Bush was somehow a puppet of Vice President Dick Cheney or other aides (though Smith does endorse foul theories about the undue influence of “neoconservatives,” whom he accuses of having too much “chutzpah”). Rather, Smith acknowledges that Bush regularly made the key calls, even if at times that meant following Cheney’s or Paulson’s or someone else’s recommendations. If anything, as Smith sees it, Bush was altogether too much “the decider,” as the president once inelegantly described himself. While professing to take seriously the burdens of his office, he made choices that affected millions of lives and wrought havoc around the globe without giving them the thought they required — before or after.
In this year’s election, Trump’s rise has been chalked up to his brassy, unreflective style — the bluntness, the contempt for liberal niceties, the swagger. Smith’s fine biography reminds us, if indirectly, that while there are many dissimilarities between Bush and Trump, in this key respect they are more alike than different. And even if one rejects the extreme verdict that Bush’s presidency was among the worst ever, the example of his unquestionably troubled tenure suggests that while scorn for ideas and indecision in a leader may have its costs, so too does the instinct for deciding things too quickly.
By Jean Edward Smith
Simon & Schuster. 808 pp. $35