New Bush biography is a damning portrayal
Since George Washington, presidential aides have gotten the credit or blame for their bosses’ popular or unpopular decisions, either because supporters want to scapegoat someone or because opponents want to denigrate the president’s abilities.
George W. Bush, his rivals said, was too incurious to figure out foreign policy himself; his hawkish vice president, Dick Cheney, was pulling his strings. Opponents of Richard Nixon who wanted to deny him kudos for restoring relations with China gave the credit to Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser.
Most likely, however, the president guides the policy; no one manipulates him. That’s the judgment of Jean Edward Smith in the new biography Bush (Simon & Schuster, 832 pp., out of four), which issues a swift and damning judgment on the 43rd president. Bush alone deserves the blame for his administration’s failures. Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld may have pushed some buttons, but the main policy impetus came from the top.
Bush was, as he liked to say, “the decider.” Many times, Smith writes, those decisions were disastrous, starting with the one to invade Iraq. Bush will never escape the consequences of that invasion, which was justified on sketchy intelligence that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
That move, Smith writes, was Bush’s alone. Smith takes the president’s own words and subsequent writing to show how others may have enabled the decision to invade, but Bush pushed the agenda, as he did from the moment he took office.
Smith, who has written biographies of presidents from Ulysses Grant to Dwight Eisenhower, will never be called a sympathetic biographer of Bush. Often, he writes cuttingly of Bush’s abilities and moral conviction, which Smith blames for overreacting to the 9/11 terror attacks, ordering the Iraq invasion and responding with ineptitude after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans in 2005.
“Not since Woodrow Wilson has a president so firmly believed that he was the instrument of God’s will,” Smith writes. “Just as Wilson’s religious certitude led him into disaster at Versailles, so George W. Bush’s messianic conviction distorted his leadership in the days following 9/11.”
Bush, Smith writes, “was in over his head,” and he bumbled into the invasion of Iraq by using bogus intelligence. Those claims, as most Americans now realize, were incorrect, and the war’s legacy — a legion of shattered veterans, a broken Iraq and a stronger Iran — remains with us today.
Smith is not always negative about Bush; he credits the president with preventing the unraveling of the global economy in 2008. “And the manner in which Bush handled the crisis turned out remarkably well,” he writes.
While Smith writes with a deft sweep and sense of history, Bush will not stand as the definitive treatment of this president. It relies too much on contemporary journalism, memoirs and subjective reports, and it drips with condescension toward its subject. Only after the relevant documents are declassified, along with a cooling passions, will a more complete portrait be ready to be written.
Author Jean Edward Smith