Bush’s memoir tackles his key decisions
His personality, as well as politics, come through
George W. Bush gave a preview of the book that would become “Decision Points’’ in his first post-presidential speech in March 2009. “I’m going to put people in my place,’’ Bush told a group of Canadian businessmen, “so when the history of this administration is written at least there’s an authoritarian voice saying exactly what happened.’’ It was the latest in a long line of Bush malapropisms.
Bush critics were doubtless rubbing their hands together in glee over this book. Bush himself took to joking that people would be surprised he could “write a book, much less read one.’’ In a sense, though, Bush’s writing — which is quite good for this kind of book — doesn’t even matter. Presidential memoirs are not read so much as discussed. You already know the juiciest details of “Decision Points’’ — Barbara Bush showing Bush her miscarried fetus; Bush considering dropping Dick Cheney from his 2004 ticket — just as you knew well before the publication of Bill Clinton’s “My Life’’ that it disclosed how, post-Monica, Clinton had to sleep on the couch. But it begs a larger question about all such modern presidential memoirs, one that certainly applies to the work at hand: Has Bush written a book that’s worth reading — a book that transcends its own relentless media hype?
In nearly 500 pages, or about half as many as “My Life,’’ “Decision Points’’ explores 14 key decisions from Bush’s life and presidency. In an online “book trailer,’’ Bush calls this an “untraditional approach.’’ But that’s not quite accurate. The first two chapters — on Bush’s decisions to quit drinking and to run for president — still cover many of the autobiographical basics. Instead, let’s call it a sometimes mildly frustrating approach. The chapter on personnel decisions contains some of Bush’s best tidbits, but it feels disorienting when an obscure figure gets fired, only to pop up in a later chapter.
This approach also means Bush’s best and most important chapter, on 9/11, doesn’t start until page 126. Bush’s description of the day — a full 14 pages — provides both a reminder of our shared terror and a glimpse from Bush’s unique perspective. As he boards Air Force One, Bush sees two shaken flight attendants and realizes they stand as a microcosm of the entire country. But there’s no time to dwell on this or other mini-epiphanies — Bush must worry about the safety of his wife or the potential threat of every temporarily unresponsive plane in the air.
After 9/11, as Bush points out with some frequency, he became a wartime president. And it is on this count that “Decision Points’’ tries hardest, as Bush promised, to put readers in his place. In one of Bush’s first author interviews, Matt Lauer pressed the former president on his authorization of waterboarding. “Would it be OK for a foreign country to waterboard an American citizen?’’ Lauer asked. “All I ask,’’ Bush replied, “is that people read the book.’’ In the book, as in the interview, Bush remains firm on his decision. But the book surrounds it with, among other things, an anecdote about meeting Daniel Pearl’s wife; a statistical account of the country’s constant level of fear; a discussion of how Guantanamo Bay wasn’t that bad and included a library that stocked the Arabic translation of “Harry Potter’’; a description of ground zero cleanup crews calling out for revenge; and much, much more.
Context is one thing books do better than TV. Another is airing both sides of a debate. But “Decision Points’’ takes advantage of the latter much less often. In his chapter on stem cell research, Bush details both the pressure he felt (from scientists, from the pope) and the process he used — weighing both sides and reaching a final, if still conflicted, decision. It won’t surprise anyone that Bush makes most of his decisions less deliberately. And, to be fair, this same impulse leads to some of the book’s most candid moments. “I was stunned,’’ he remembers of hearing that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. “That plane must have had the worst pilot in the world.’’
Two goals lurk behind every presidential memoir: turning a profit and shaping one’s reputation. After Thomas Jefferson’s family published his fragmentary memoir — they needed the money — John Quincy Adams complained, “Jefferson, by his own narrative, is always in the right.’’ We expect nothing less from Clinton and Bush, which means the slanted presentation in “Decision Points’’ shouldn’t prevent it from being widely read.
What will, though, is the book’s tone. More than most presidential memoirs — more even than the TV interviews Bush has been doing to promote it — “Decision Points’’ puts its author’s persona on display. Bush peppers his prose with colloquialisms like “uh-oh’’ and “No kidding.’’ He not only loves to tell jokes, he loves to tell about the times he told jokes. In fact, your reaction to his “authoritarian’’ slip will provide a good index to your ability to enjoy and learn from this book. Was the flub inconsequential or indicative? Is Bush’s prose hokey and unserious or, now that there are no more voters to pander, refreshingly authentic? “Whatever the verdict on my presidency,’’ Bush writes at the end of his book, “I’m comfortable with the fact that I won’t be around to hear it.’’ Bush is right: History will take decades to decide on his legacy. It will take nearly as long for some readers to bring themselves to read this book.
Craig Fehrman is working on a book about presidents and their books.