David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, is the author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image,” among other books. His history of spin in American politics will be published next year.
By James Mann
Times. 185 pp. $25
For a period of several months in 2006 and 2007, many professional historians, caught up like pundits in the arguments du jour, found ourselves debating in all seriousness whether George W. Bush was the worst president ever. Sean Wilentz of Princeton made the case in a cover story for Rolling Stone; The Washington Post’s Outlook section ran a symposium on the topic. I played along — saying no — but my training as a historian compelled me to admit that the whole discussion was woefully premature. As the great colonial historian Gordon Wood recently told New York magazine when asked to assess President Obama’s historical legacy, the very idea of speaking in the present about what “history” will say amounts to a “fool’s errand.”
Today Bush is considerably more popular than he was when he left office. Some 47 percent of Americans surveyed approve of the way he handled his presidency, compared with only 33 percent at the end of his tenure in office. But it’s probably still too soon to render any confident verdicts. And yet, as James Mann maintains in his slender new biography of Bush, the common assumption “that it will take a long time to judge Bush’s actions,” although “valid for a few of the far-reaching measures” of his presidency, doesn’t preclude prudent evaluations of those policies that have already had “measurable consequences.” For those of us who work in the treacherous space of recent history — that realm between current events and the bygone past, whose actors are all long dead — separating political judgments from historical judgments is the greatest challenge we face.
Mann writes recent history as well as anyone. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, he has in the past decade fashioned a second career writing books like “The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan,” about the end of the Cold War, and “Rise of the Vulcans,” about Bush’s foreign policy team, that weave extensive interviewing and archival research to produce insightful analyses and fresh perspectives on our own times.
“George W. Bush” is one of the last biographies to be published in the American Presidents series from Times Books. (I wrote the volume on Calvin Coolidge.) The series, as its founding editor, Arthur M. Schlesinger, wrote, aims to provide books “compact enough for the busy reader, lucid enough for the student, authoritative enough for the scholar.” Mann’s contribution certainly meets those goals. I can imagine assigning “George W. Bush” to my undergraduates (who, born in the mid-1990s, didn’t typically follow the news during the Bush years) or, indeed, returning to it myself if I were to attempt my own history of some aspect of Bush’s presidency. You may not want to relive those often-agonizing years, but if you do, here’s a way to do it in an afternoon.
That praise may sound modest, but Mann’s achievement is not small. Writing about Coolidge, I had the benefit of eight intervening decades to help sift the major from the minor. I was lucky, too, that the existing literature about him was fairly dated and thus largely neglected subjects of more recent interest, such as his mastery of the news media or his relationship to postwar conservatism, which I could take as my own focus.
But how does one begin to compress into 150 pages of text the entirety of the contentious, cacophonous Bush presidency — the Florida recount bloodbath, the monster tax cuts, 9/11, the counterterrorism controversies, Afghanistan, Iraq (invasion, occupation, surge, political fallout), the fights over Medicare and Social Security, the ugly reelection, Hurricane Katrina, the Supreme Court nominations, and (oh, yeah) that stomach-churning grand finale, the financial crisis of 2008? Mann pulls this off admirably, generally allocating the proper space to each episode. A few important chapters of the Bush years are, to my mind, unfortunately omitted — the U.S. attorneys scandal that brought down Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Bush’s relationship with Vladimir Putin — but, on the flip side, there’s not much in the book that shouldn’t be. Mann also manages, despite his concision, to deploy revealing and memorable details — he notes, for example, that in his college application to Yale, Bush had so many alumni relatives to cite that “he had to write on the back of the page.”
“George W. Bush” is also the relatively rare book about our 43rd president that could be read appreciatively by both supporters and detractors. (Does any other view of Bush exist?) Mann’s tone couldn’t be more different from the hagiographies (David Frum’s “The Right Man,” Fred Barnes’s “Rebel in Chief”) and tirades (my bookshelf boasts a copy of “The I Hate George W. Bush Reader”) that proliferated in the polarized years of the new century and that already feel like historical artifacts. Indeed, Mann adopts an almost studied neutrality, adhering for the most part to the unbiased tone of the newspaper reporter. Though on balance he clearly doesn’t think highly of Bush’s performance, he’s decidedly muted in his language. “There can be no doubt,” he writes, “that Bush’s presidency marked a troubled entry into the twenty-first century for the United States and a turning point in its self-confident approach to the world. It was, by any standard, one of the most consequential presidencies in American history.”
Not unexpectedly, Mann criticizes the tax cuts that turned the Clinton-era budget surpluses into record deficits, as well as the ill-considered haste with which Bush blundered into Iraq. But he’s also willing to credit the 2007 surge with having stemmed the violence there; more surprisingly still, he largely exempts Bush’s anti-regulatory stance from culpability for the debacle of 2008, placing most of the blame on decisions made under Bill Clinton.
Most often, however, Mann reports on divisive events by giving both sides’ perspectives and withholding his own assessment, perhaps to a fault. It’s a bit odd not to hear more analysis of Bush’s role in the post-Election Day donnybrook over which candidate should be awarded Florida’s decisive electoral votes, but when Mann treads lightly over even the secret surveillance programs Bush instituted to prevent terrorism after 9/11, one craves sharper pronouncements. The temporal closeness of the events, the pointlessness of rehashing tired debates, the brevity that the series imposes on all its volumes — for these reasons, Mann’s restraint is understandable. But unlike some of his other books, which included blockbuster revelations, “George W. Bush” winds up being useful primarily as a feat of distillation.
There will be those, surely, who would prefer a remorseless dissection of what they see as Bush’s arrogance, anti-intellectualism, warmongering, contempt for civil liberties, frat-boy smarm, favoritism toward the rich and political ruthlessness. This isn’t the book for them. Fortunately, it’s still easy to get your hands on “The I Hate George W. Bush Reader.”