Presidents get the memoirs they deserve. In “Decision Points,” George W. Bush writes about his two terms in office much as he lived them -- somewhat offhandedly, almost as if he’s writing about someone else.
Bush prides himself on making “crisp and quick” decisions, even if calling himself “the decider” provided a perpetual laugh line for late-night talk-show hosts. The book is organized around 14 important decisions, beginning with the one that made everything else possible -- the decision to quit drinking.
One day his wife, Laura, “who picks her moments,” asked him to remember the last day he hadn’t had a drink. He recites a daily downing of bourbon, beer, B&B’s and martinis, out on the town or in his house while his family was sleeping, that would render a man twice his size blotto.
After a stupefying night of drinking for his 40th birthday, he vows to stop. No Alcoholics Anonymous for him. With the help of prayer, jogging and chocolate, he quits cold turkey. It’s as simple as that.
Bush diminishes how much his East Coast roots gave him a leg up by dwelling on Midland, Texas, although not with the poignancy Laura summoned in her memoir, “Spoken from the Heart.”
If you prefer Texas, Bush seems to think, it doesn’t count that you went to Andover and Yale, summered in Kennebunkport, had a grandfather in the Senate and eventually a father in the White House easing your way up the ladder. If he weren’t a Bush, he wouldn’t have gotten the chance to be part-owner of the Texas Rangers, the prelude to a successful run for governor in 1994.
A rare glimpse of that charmed life comes when he goes to visit Gampy (Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut) and finds his small hand swallowed up in the huge one of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson at a Georgetown cocktail party.
Still, Bush tells us things we didn’t know. He was blindsided when Senator John McCain went on TV announcing that he was suspending his presidential campaign to attend a White House meeting on rescuing the economy that Bush hadn’t yet agreed to convene. Bush went along with it, hoping it might help McCain “mount a comeback.”
Another bit of news -- Bush briefly considered dumping Dick Cheney, who cast a dark and heartless Darth Vader pall over the White House, in favor of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. He had been behind a similar effort in 1992 when he wanted his dad to install Cheney and get rid of Dan Quayle.
Sept. 11 and War
Much of the book is taken up with Bush’s handling of the Sept. 11 attacks and the two wars in their aftermath. He glosses over the August 2001 memo warning that Osama bin Laden was poised to strike inside the U.S., saying he didn’t act because intelligence never found any “concrete plans.”
Intelligence (not him), he writes, obviously missed “something big.” He decided against pointing fingers at the time. If he had, the finger might have settled on him. Instead, he later awarded his head of intelligence, CIA Director George Tenet, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
He’s honest to a fault, not that he’s likely to be prosecuted, about his response when Tenet asked if the CIA had permission to waterboard 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
“‘Damn right,’” he barked.
He admits to a “sickening feeling” about not finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but not so much that he regrets invading the country.
Because we saw hurricane Katrina with our own eyes, Bush takes some blame for this “cloud” over his second term. While Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco comes off as a complete ninny, Bush admits that for a man who prides himself on decisiveness, he took too long to intervene. He concedes that he shouldn’t have just flown over the Gulf and that he could have touched down in Baton Rouge without disrupting relief efforts to show he cared about the victims.
And yet he wants us to know he was kinda, sorta right about Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He takes a walk down memory lane to prove that when Brown worked for Florida Governor Jeb Bush on four hurricanes in that state in 2004, he really did do a heckuva job.
Most Painful Moment
Bizarrely, Katrina is responsible for Bush’s most painful moment during his presidency. Some critics traced his fumbling response to the fact that most of the victims were not white; Jesse Jackson compared the emergency shelter in the New Orleans Convention Center to the “hull of a slave ship,” and Kanye West said on an NBC telethon that Bush “doesn’t care about black people.”
Bush writes that the suggestion he reacted differently because black people were imperiled “disgusted” him. To this day, it is “the worst moment” of his presidency.
Really, the worst part is about him being called names? For so many others, the worst parts of Bush’s presidency were about the loss of their jobs, houses and pensions; unending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and deficits as far as the eye can see.
At the end of the book, after he has moved out of the White House and back to Texas, Bush recalls taking his dog for a walk, something he hasn’t done in more than a decade. Barney does his business on a neighbor’s lawn and, with his hand sheathed in plastic, the former president picks up “that which I had been dodging for the past eight years.”
Pure Bush, that scatological frat-boy ending, with no awareness of the mess he left behind for others to clean up.
“Decision Points” is published by Crown in the U.S. and Virgin in the U.K. (497 pages, $35, 25 pounds). To order this book in North America, click here.
(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)