A president remembers what some have forgotten.
Nov 22, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 10 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
The president left the White House with abysmal approval ratings, and a war which had begun well—enjoying widespread support and historic resonance—but remained unresolved and unpopular. The keen excitement that attended his successor’s arrival only emphasized the rebuke to the president’s party and his policies, and doubts about his fitness for the office that had dogged his two terms.
I am referring, of course, to Harry S. Truman, not George W. Bush. And while there is a limit to the parallels that may be drawn between these two distinctly dissimilar men, there are lessons to be drawn from their resemblance as well. Like Bush, Truman was regarded in his time as a lightweight and accidental president: In Truman’s case, succeeding the monumental Franklin Roosevelt; for Bush, winning the presidency while narrowly losing the popular vote. Truman’s bluntness and lack of finesse made FDR seem all the more eloquent; Bush’s plain language and emphatic manner were considered, in certain circles, a national embarrassment.
And yet in retrospect—and in both cases, the interval was not protracted—what had seemed to be weaknesses were, in fact, strengths, and the long-term significance of their tenures in the White House transcended the political arm-wrestling of their day. At the end of World War II, and the dawn of the Cold War, Truman was obliged to make decisions about the course of American foreign policy which proved both smart and successful. A decade after the end of the Cold War, Bush was called upon to mobilize the nation, on sudden notice, for the protracted struggle against Islamist terror.
The substance of Decision Points will come as little surprise to students of the second President Bush. Organized in a series of tightly argued, discrete chapters on strategic crossroads in his presidency—the decision to run, to supplant the Taliban and overthrow Saddam Hussein, to establish policy on stem cell research, to contend with Hurricane Katrina, and so on—it bears the hallmark of our first commander in chief with an MBA. However the book was produced, and I am assuming that it was assembled in the manner of presidential memoirs since Dwight Eisenhower, it successfully conveys what we know of the quality and character of George W. Bush, and the sound of his voice. Bush is neither omnipotent nor especially defensive in tone; he admits to mistakes and misgivings, and acknowledges regret and uncertainty. He is careful to explain the principles that informed his actions, and describe the options and dissenting arguments as he reached those decisions. He is, to adapt a famous phrase, fair and balanced.
To be sure, there are minor details that have attracted the attention of the press: the harrowing tale of Barbara Bush’s miscarriage, Dick Cheney’s offer to resign from the ticket in 2004, the still-pulsating wound of Kanye West’s televised assertion that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” But these incidents, insignificant in themselves, serve only to emphasize important impressions that Bush conveys. He is, by his own reckoning, more his mother’s son than his father’s duplicate; Cheney is a politician of integrity, but a politician as well as a statesman; Bush cares very much about African Americans.
Bush was known to be a brisk and exacting taskmaster in the White House, a quick study with a taste for action when action was called for, and a horror of aimless discourse. That side of his managerial style is obvious here. But as might be expected in a memoir that strives to explain as well as defend, it is interesting to observe the president’s varied reactions to problems and incidents, and to appreciate the burdensome detail and dread responsibility of the office.
It is also evident that Bush’s religion is neither disingenuous nor apocalyptic: It is a sincere, mainstream Protestantism which, while described in greater detail than this reader might prefer, is well within the confines of presidential experience. Decision Points begins with an extended version of his choice to quit drinking at age 40, which clarified the course of his life and made his subsequent history possible. But while Bush is at pains to give credit to his admirable wife and Christian faith for the happy outcome, the incident may also be seen as an impressive exercise in self-examination and self-discipline—a process repeated, more than a few times, in the Oval Office. The determination to defy conventional wisdom and switch course in Iraq in the wake of the 2006 elections would seem to derive from the same inner resolve.