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

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