A Management Primer from the Decider-in-Chief
In his memoir, George W. Bush breaks his Presidency up into a series of decision-making case studies. Unfortunately, running a country isn't just a series of decisions
By George W. Bush
Crown, 512pp, $35
Midway through his second term as President, George W. Bush again found himself under pressure to fire Donald Rumsfeld, his embattled Defense Secretary. In a Rose Garden press conference, Bush praised Rumsfeld's performance and succinctly explained his rationale for keeping him on the job. Bush had heard the criticism, he insisted, but he knew what was right: "I'm the decider, and I decide what is best."
Seven months later, Rumsfeld was gone. As we learn in Bush's new memoir, being decisive is sometimes less important than just looking decisive.
During his eight years in office, the Decider chose to invade two countries, expand Medicare, reshape the American education system, and temporarily take over the national banking system and automobile industry. After leaving the White House, he decided to set his memoir apart by not writing a mere blow-by-blow account for future historians. As befits the nation's first MBA president, Decision Points is, for better or worse, a management book. Bush breaks his Presidency up into a series of decision-making case studies; some chapters have titles like "Afghanistan" and "Stem Cells," while others are labeled "Leading" and "Personnel." The result is a book that owes as much to Jack Welch's Straight from the Gut as it does to Harry Truman's memoirs—with a bit of Dr. Phil thrown in. "I hope this will give you a better sense of why I made the decisions I did," Bush writes. "Perhaps it will even prove useful as you make choices in your own life."
Many readers will be familiar with the decision-making stratagems in the book because they're the same ones Bush cited while in office. He devotes 50 pages to his decision to invade and occupy Iraq without proof that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, yet sheds no new light on the matter. Now, as then, he argues that Social Security was unfairly burdening our children with debt, that the Surge would give Iraq the stability to form a functioning society, and that John Roberts is a brilliant lawyer of impeccable character. Sprinkled among these are commonsense observations about leadership: "Timeliness is important to make sure an organization does not get sloppy," Bush writes—proof that his trademark diction survived the editing process. Also: "The first step of any successful crisis response is to project calm."
More interesting are the passages where Bush reviews decisions he regrets. In many of these he remains convinced he was right on the merits but simply failed to take into account the potential spin: his failure to visit Louisiana in the first days after Katrina, his theatrical "Mission Accomplished" speech, his "Bring 'em on" provocation to Iraqi insurgents, and the Harriet Miers nomination. As he writes, "While I know Harriet would have made a fine justice, I didn't think enough about how the selection would be perceived by others."
As with the Miers debacle, Bush suggests that faith in his own instincts has sometimes blinded him to the crosscurrents of popular perception. He's less aware of how other decisions, in his own recounting, are shaped by an acute sensitivity to public opinion. One of Decision Points' key revelations is that Bush considered replacing Rumsfeld as early as 2004. Nonetheless, he left him in charge of the faltering effort to stem the Iraqi insurgency for two more years.
This wasn't just a gut call. Bush says he resisted making the change sooner in part because it would have looked like a capitulation to the retired generals calling for Rumsfeld's ouster. "There was no way I was going to let a group of retired officers bully me into pushing out the civilian secretary of defense," he writes. "It would have looked like a military coup and would have set a disastrous precedent." Instead, he stuck with the status quo until after the 2006 midterm elections, then accepted Rumsfeld's resignation.
As a handbook for aspiring leaders, Decision Points main shortcoming is embedded in its premise. Making tough calls is an important part of what a leader does; it's not the only thing. As both an author and President, Bush sees decisions as discrete "points" to be attacked and only revisited between hardcovers. Unfortunately, running a country, like running a business, isn't just a series of decisions, and viewing it that way obstructs a leader's other responsibilities. The major failures of the Bush Administration—whether it was the bloody chaos of the early occupation of Iraq, the inability to establish a just system to detain and try suspected terrorists, or the collapse of Social Security reform—resulted from poor decisions. Yet they also sprung from failures to address other requirements of good management: planning for contingencies, resolving conflicts between subordinates, and making sure that decisions, once made, were properly implemented and revisited after the fact.
It remains to be seen whether Bush's successor, with his more deliberative style, can handle his own challenges any better. If the Bush Administration has shown us anything, though, it's the perils of seeing decisiveness as its own reward.