|Jan/Feb 2011 Nonfiction|
On the cover of Decision Points is a photo of a suited, stoic, and swaggering George W. Bush. It meshes perfectly with the former president's view of himself as a man forced to make some of the toughest decisions in American history. Flip to the back cover, however, and you're greeted by a smiling, jacketed, coffee-swigging Dubya. Perhaps he ran into you while he was clearing brush at Crawford, or stopped by from next door as you heated up the ol' George Foreman.
I much prefer the distinguished Bush of the front to the friendly but awkward George of the back. His suit is a black and white reminder that he was president—and it has always been easier to view Bush simply as a job title, a man joining a long list of Democrats, Republicans, and Whigs. It never mattered to me that Bush was a friendly guy; what mattered was the power he could and did wield. That suit dehumanized him, made him a god in a white house—nothing else could explain how he could be the source of so much anxiety, hopelessness, and frustration.
When I heard Decision Points was being published, I knew I'd have to read it. Bush was the president of my youth: he led the country during the years of my political and social awakening, ages 12 to twenty. Clinton never registered much on my junior-high mind; I mostly recall stories about blow jobs and the bombing of Kosovo. Though I always considered myself more politically aware than many of my peers (something infused upon me by my parents), it took Bush to galvanize my liberal consciousness. Two years after he'd left office, I wanted to see how this man defended himself.
Decision Points takes a while to discuss Bush's presidency, but once it does, it provides a perfect opportunity to try and reconcile the opposites of the dust jacket. Take September 11th, for example—Bush recounts news of plane crashes whispered in his ear, uncertainty over whether he was a target, and fear of when the terrorists would strike next. He even reveals a time after 9/11 when he believed he'd been infected with a biological toxin. Reading these pages, I remembered my own experience on that day—hearing the news on the radio, the plane crash footage repeated ad nauseam, my eighth-grade biology classmates ducking under their desks when a helicopter flew past my school. We all believed we were targets then, and it was unsettling to see our parents and teachers afraid.
After the attacks, I gained a certain amount of respect for Bush. Yes, my parents disliked him, and yes, I'd laughed as he was lampooned on Saturday Night Live. But I'd been caught in the anxiety and historicity of that day, and perhaps my thirteen-year-old self was excited to have such an important man lead the country. I was definitely fixated on the strength that finely-cut suit implied, and still now I sympathize with Bush's position as leader on 9/11. If I were president, for example, would I, too, have stayed at that school to read about pet goats?
All that respect evaporated with Iraq. Not even a 15-year-old was fooled by allegations of WMD. My parents keep a yellowed newspaper clipping taped to their basement door to attest to this fact, a clipping I remember them hanging in early 2003. "You don't take the country to war on the wings of a lie," the clipping reads, a quote from Thomas Friedman. In Decision Points, Bush insists no lies were told and that France, Germany, and all the other nay-sayers also believed in WMD. History will judge, he says, that the war was good for democracy and peace. I knew by age 15 that you couldn't get an A on a research paper if all your facts turned out to be wrong, all your sources unreliable. Bush had evolved from a leader in a crisis to a thug with an agenda.
Hurricane Katrina brought my conflicting feelings on Bush to a head. I felt loathing for Bush, but also pity for how tragic his presidency had become. September 2005 was just the beginning my senior year, and in many of my classes Katrina was all we talked about. My health teacher railed against the government for its passive response, and many of the students joined in—the class, mind you, was more than two-thirds black. Conventional wisdom held that George Bush was a racist. Bush emphatically denies this in Decision Points, and I believe him. But that doesn't mean there isn't systemic racism in the way resources are distributed and crises are addressed. That is a question Bush completely ignores, unwilling to ask why some people might view him as a bigot. Bush says his biggest mistakes from the storm were being too slow to both visit Louisiana and deploy the military to New Orleans—things I agree with, but not quite the mea culpa I wanted.
Bush highlights many of his admirable qualities, like quitting drinking and his love of family. I can see the Bush of the back cover reflected in these things. His born-again religiosity has always made me nervous, but I respect it—even if God laughably "speaks" to Bush on several occasions, such as when running for president or when meeting Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to achieve Mideast peace (God appears here in the form of a turkey). And Bush rightly devotes two chapters to perhaps his noblest accomplishments, AIDS prevention in the form of PEPFAR and championing of democracy around the world. While taking classes for my political science minor, I was surprised to find most students agreeing that Bush was a friend to Africa (minus the abstinence stuff) and that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.
Decision Points did not change how I view the Bush presidency. There is still a part of me that wants to declare Bush the worst president in American history, though perhaps that's only because I lived through him. I'm sure Fillmore, Harding, and Nixon could all vie for that spot. But I still believe thousands of American and Iraqi lives were not worth the price of invasion, that the response to Katrina was utterly incompetent, and that torture and warrantless spying, no matter what the lawyers say, were morally wrong.
What I want to know is this: where was this kind of self-reflection during Bush's presidency? Where were his admissions of mistakes, his analyses of the big picture? There never seemed to be any of that for eight years, only the swagger of a Wild West sheriff. I do know from Decision Points that the human Bush exists, the jeans-wearing guy who could come over and ask to borrow my lawn mower. But I fear that he would come back explaining, "Hey, I know I broke the blades, but at least my grass is cut!"