George W Bush comes, he says, from ‘a family of bestselling authors’. His mother and father wrote books, as did his sister, his wife and his daughter. Even his parents’ dogs, C. Fred and Millie, ‘authored their own works’.
Well, if Millie can do it, W can, too – and, one presumes, using much the same technique.
The real author of Decision Points seems to be speechwriter Christopher Michel, a twenty something wunderkind, who has tweaked Bush’s notes into the bland but serviceable prose of a corporate press release. As the title suggests, the book’s neither a memoir nor a biography but an account of those moments when the man who called himself the Decider did his best deciding.
At least, that’s the idea. The difficulty is that, on the evidence of this book, Bush never really decides anything – at least, not in the way that word’s usually understood. For instance, he opts to run for President, not from fervent convictions, nor any desire for public service, but largely, it seems, because friends raise the idea, with his deliberations over whether or not to stand entirely contained by pages 59 and 60.
That strange passivity combines with Michel’s non-linear chronology to portray Bush less as Decider and more as political Forrest Gump, running gormlessly through the movie of his own life. One moment, Bush’s a frat boy sleeping in lectures at Yale and poisoning his sister’s fish bowl from his vodka bottle; a few pages later, he’s off to Washington, in a transition that befuddles him as much as anyone: ‘Ten years earlier, I had been celebrating my fortieth birthday drunk at The Broadmoor. Now I was being toasted on the lawn of the Texas Governor’s Mansion as the next President.’
Even more curiously, Bush assesses his titular ‘Decision Points’ not in terms of results, nor even actions, but rather on the basis of what he wanted to happen. So, for instance, as the Afghan insurgency is intensifying, he refutes suggestions that launching the Iraq war might have been a mistake by recounting an exchange with his national security team.
‘Damn it, we can do more than one thing at a time,’ he tells them. ‘We cannot lose in Afghanistan.’
And with that, he seems to consider the matter settled, even though, nine years later, Afghanistan remains a disaster.
Likewise, the financial downturn provokes no reconsideration of Bushian economic policy.
‘Get to work,’ he snaps at his advisors, as the meltdown begins. ‘We are going to fix this!’
Again, the small matter that, actually, they didn’t fix it signifies less for Bush than the fact that, well, he wanted to.
Perhaps this peculiar focus on good intentions stems from Bush’s evangelical concern with individual salvation. Yet the conversion that famously ended his drunken years is remarkably flip. ‘The notion of a living God was a big leap,’ he says, ‘especially for someone with a logical mind like mine.’ But leap he nonetheless does – and almost immediately, that logical mind is discovering miracles and wonders everywhere it goes.
Bush sees, for instance, nothing peculiar in Jenna Bush deciding to join her father’s campaign team on the basis of a vision.
‘Although I am not yet as spiritual as you,’ she writes to him, ‘I have taken this dream as a sign.’
Later, W claims he’s glimpses the pure soul of Vladimir Putin (yes, Putin!) after the Russian leader speaks about a blessed cross that miraculously escaped a house fire; he bonds with King Abdullah when a turkey mystically appears before them at the Crawford ranch. (‘My brother,’ says Abdullah, ‘it is a sign from Allah.’)
All of this does nothing to dispel the journalist Mark Ames’s quip that the Bush presidency represented Inspector Clouseau meeting the Book of Revelations.
Yet throughout Decision Points there’s little evidence of that other tenet of conservative Christianity, individual responsibility.
His administrations authorised ‘enhanced interrogations’ of prisoners but Bush still claims to have been ‘blindsided’ by Abu Ghraib. ‘I was not happy with how the situation had been handled,’ he says, with a symptomatic retreat into the passive voice.
It’s the same with Katrina: somehow, the public got the impression he didn’t care about New Orleans when, actually, he was praying as hard as he could. The CIA was to blame for bad intelligence in Iraq; Donald Rumsfeld’s screwed up by not sending enough troops to Iraq; somebody else hung up a ‘Mission Accomplished’ sign when Bush was innocently speaking on an aircraft carrier.
In the end, Bush’s book is less about decision points than talking points, a revisionist account of a disastrous tenure that itself feels phoned in, almost as if, by the end, even the President couldn’t really be bothered. Stuff happened; it was someone else’s fault; and, anyway, I meant well – and this for nearly 500 pages.
There are, however, several mentions of Barney, the Presidential dog. Perhaps his book will be better.