Wednesday, 8 December 2010

“Soft News Goes to War”, by Matthew Baum (Princeton)

Baum-SoftNewsGoesToWar Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy in the New Media Age

The American public has consistently declared itself less concerned with foreign affairs in the post-Cold War era, even after 9/11, than at any time since World War II. How can it be, then, that public attentiveness to U.S. foreign policy crises has increased? This book represents the first systematic attempt to explain this apparent paradox. Matthew Baum argues that the answer lies in changes to television's presentation of political information. In so doing he develops a compelling “byproduct” theory of information consumption. The information revolution has fundamentally changed the way the mass media, especially television, covers foreign policy. Traditional news has been repackaged into numerous entertainment-oriented news programs and talk shows. By transforming political issues involving scandal or violence (especially attacks against America) into entertainment, the “soft news” media have actually captured more viewers who will now follow news about foreign crises, due to its entertainment value, even if they remain uninterested in foreign policy.

Baum rigorously tests his theory through content analyses of traditional and soft news media coverage of various post-WWII U.S. foreign crises and statistical analyses of public opinion surveys. The results hold key implications for the future of American politics and foreign policy. For instance, watching soft news reinforces isolationism among many inattentive Americans. Scholars, political analysts, and even politicians have tended to ignore the soft news media and politically disengaged citizens. But, as this well-written book cogently demonstrates, soft news viewers represent a largely untapped reservoir of unusually persuadable voters.

Matthew Baum’s Soft News Goes to War is about the considerable changes that have taken place over several decades in how the mass media covers and reports on major political stories. In particular, Baum is interested, as the title suggests, in the impact that “soft news media” have on the public’s attentiveness to, and appreciation and understanding of foreign policy and in particular, crises. For Baum, soft news media are those sources that are not primarily news programs, but because of their nature – variety, comedy, entertainment, and so forth – content can often venture into politics and foreign policy. Examples of such programs would be The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Daily Show and the late night shows.

“Prior to the 1980s, the public learned about politics, particularly foreign policy, primarily from newspapers or the nightly newscasts of the big three broadcast networks.”

Today, the public increasingly draw information from other sources:

“today... political information is available across a far broader array of media outlets and formats, many of which bear only a superficial resemblance to traditional news venues.”

“given the mass media’s – particularly television’s – status as the primary, if not sole, source of political information for the vast majority of the American people, changes in mass media coverage of foreign policy are almost certain to affect how at least some segments of the public understand and evaluate the political world.”

Soft news programs, Baum argues, have democratised the dissemination of political information and knowledge. As some people only notice foreign policy issues when they appear on soft news programs, this is both good (because they notice the issue in the first place) and bad (because there’s no way of controlling the quality of the information they receive). When foreign policy issues cross over into soft news programs, Baum dubs them “water-cooler events”, which will likely be discussed afterwards at length by people who might not always do so. The rise of this

“new class of entertainment-oriented, quasi-news and information programs... has had the unintended effect of increasing the likelihood that... a given foreign policy crisis will become a water-cooler event.”

On why crises are more commonly covered by soft news programs, Baum explains that,

“like celebrity murder trials and sex scandals, foreign crises are easily framed as compelling human dramas.”

Therefore, given the US media’s corporate nature, there have been increased

“market-driven efforts by television broadcasters (and, to a lesser extent, other media outlets) to make certain types of news appealing to viewers who are uninterested in politics.”

Baum argues that, by making political and foreign policy news stories more entertaining, and by including such content in soft news settings, these programs are actually increasing a larger portion of the general public’s understanding of foreign policy. It’s an interesting difference from the plethora of material published bemoaning the rise of soft and opinion journalism.

“By transforming mundane political coverage into entertainment, the soft news media have successfully employed piggybacking and cheap framing strategies in order to capture a substantial segment, or niche, of the television audience. This has the perhaps unintended effect of increasing the likelihood that politically uninterested individuals will be exposed to information about these political issues that cross over from hard to soft news outlets.”

While it is difficult to deny that the depth of discussion is usually lacking and not as useful as that on “hard” news programs, that the soft media is able to make more Americans aware of the issues (whether skewed by bias, submerged in humour, or otherwise delivered) is a useful acceptance of the strengths of the soft news media.

“By altering the cost-benefit calculus for typical individuals, the rise of the soft news media has, without necessarily increasing the public’s overall appetite for political news, nonetheless increased the likelihood that typical individuals will attend to select high-profile issues, primarily those possessing characteristics – such as violence, heroism, scandal, a readily-identified villain, and the like – amenable to framing as dramatic human interest stories.”

Prior to 2000, presidential politics was not much covered in the soft news media. However, because the candidates recognised the wider audience they could connect with through such media outlets, and their willingness to be interviewed on these programs (or even appear in ‘skits’ on Saturday Night Live), presidential politics has become a frequent topic of discussion. Indeed, shows like The Daily Show will devote entire weeks to presidential, congressional and senatorial campaigns, and before the 2010 midterm elections, President Obama came on The Daily Show for an interview. It is becoming increasingly apparent that soft media are influential actors in the media-politics arena – and this has only become more apparent since Baum’s book was published.

“In general, issues that can be readily framed in stark and dramatic terms, thereby priming widely accessible frames, without generating significant cognitive conflict between simultaneously accessible yet contradictory causal narratives, are most likely to be covered by the soft news media. Such issues are thereby most likely to attract the attention of even politically uninterested individuals.”

The proliferation of soft news media outlets has only increased the likelihood that a broader segment of the American population will discover (more) information about any given foreign policy crisis. Taking Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, Kosovo, Bosnia, the Israel-Lebanon crisis as examples, Baum shows how soft news coverage of events has increased, and also how the coverage may have affected policy and presentation of information.

Using the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the Afghanistan-Sudan missile strikes as examples, Baum also discusses the “wag-the-dog” effect – that is, using foreign policy events and/or crises to deflect from domestic political issues or as means to increase domestic support (in the case of a foreign policy success). Baum calls this the “rally-round-the-flag” principle.

“the rally effect is central to the debate in the scholarly literature and the popular press regarding whether political leaders ever use military force for domestic political reasons – the so-called wag-the-dog scenario, or diversionary use of force.”

Baum does not offer an answer as to how effective this strategy can be, as it appears that rally effects are ephemeral and short-lived. He suggests it requires greater study, and this would certainly help students and scholars of media-political influencing. Certainly, a study of this with regards to the George W Bush administration could potentially be illuminating, as the never-ending War on Terror allowed the administration to continuously utilise rally-round-the-flag tactics to boost the president’s approval ratings and also acceptance of any controversial policy proposal (although, the Bush White House also relied on public fear and jingoism to achieve their political goals).

Baum’s research and the presentation of his results is impeccable, not to mention highly detailed and exhaustive. This is a real boon for scholars and researchers, as there is so much data included in the book. This does have the unfortunate effect of making the book less accessible as something to read, rather than study. Baum’s writing is clear and his structuring is logical and well-presented, but Soft News Goes to War could not exactly be considered a ‘good read’. This is not what it was intended to be, however, so one should not take this into account when considering whether or not to read, buy, or consult this book.

Soft News Goes to War is an excellent, highly-detailed academic study of the impact of certain news outlets on the public’s attentiveness and knowledge of foreign policy issues. It focuses on crises, of course, because these events are best suited to the transition from ‘hard’ to ‘soft’ news. Baum acknowledges that such news outlets do not, in all likelihood, impact the positions and consumption of news of politically-minded and -interested individuals. The greatest impact of these programs can, instead, be seen in the larger portion of the population who is less interested in following or learning about politics and especially foreign policy. The study certainly offers plenty to start and further any debate on the role of the media with regards to foreign policy, and is therefore highly recommended to all students and scholars of foreign policy, American politics, and journalism/media.

[Baum has since written another book on the media and foreign policy, in collaboration with Tim J. Groeling – War Stories: The Causes & Consequences of Public Views of War – which I shall review next for this site.]

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

“A Dubya in the Headlights”, by Joseph R. Hayden (Lexington Books)


President George W Bush and the Media

A Dubya in the Headlights trains a critical eye on the curious interaction between America’s forty-third president and the people who write about him, talk about him, photograph him, and draw him. Hayden details a rough, often tense, relationship between George W Bush and media outlets from CBS to the New York Times to The Tonight Show. He also challenges what until recently was the conventional wisdom about Bush’s public relations – the notion that the White House was a masterful manipulator of the media, a Machiavellian puppet-master. According to Hayden, those types of characterisations are not just overly generous; they are distortions and a cop-out for the press. Focusing in particular on the period since Hurricane Katrina, this lively and timely volume details the pattern of mistakes made by the Bush administration in carrying out its communication strategy and offers a clear portrait of a president stumbling from one crisis to another.

In his introduction, Hayden paints a picture of a president hostile to the media and the necessity for a president to deal with them. George W Bush, he writes, “did not understand national news media, he did not like them, he did not want to deal with them.” Because of this dislike, Bush had a “barely existent relationship with the press”, and the limited relations would be “characterized by mistrust and suspicion”. This, of course, would lead to difficulties in conducting the work of the White House, as well as – at times – create a distinctly hostile atmosphere for the president.

There are a number of media-related controversies that occurred during the Bush presidency, all of which are discussed and analysed in this volume – they range from the trivial, such as relying on “faux journalists” in the press corps (including Karen Ryan, Armstrong Miller and Jeff Gannon – who get a good chunk of a chapter late in the book); to the extremely serious (Katrina, Iraq, and so on). In each of the chapters in this book, Hayden takes one theme or issue as its centrepiece and builds a convincing and well-detailed argument. The chapters are introduced well, before the author provides considerable evidence and examples to support his thesis and conclusions.

Hayden starts his analysis of George W Bush’s relationship with the media with a quick look at the 2000 presidential campaign, which laid the groundwork for much of the media’s impression and frequent caricature of Bush for the duration of his presidency.

“[Bush’s] interaction with the media was plagued from the start by chronic problems and liabilities, ones he never solved or conquered. Instead, they came back time and again to damage him politically and expose him to a long-term relationship with journalists that has been extraordinarily dysfunctional.”

During the campaign, Al Gore also made many missteps, of course, but “Bush seldom came across as confident, smooth, or in control.” It was only in carefully controlled or scripted situations when he was able to perform best, otherwise

“he often lurched in awkward and embarrassing fashion. He frequently sounded unprepared. He rarely seemed knowledgeable, engaged or sharp.”

From the campaign onwards, President Bush would give birth to a lucrative sideline in “Bushisms”, as journalists like Jacob Weisberg of began to collect Bush’s malapropisms and vocal hiccups – it resulted in a “cottage industry” springing up that benefited from the president’s vocal mannerisms and mistakes. Hayden includes many of these in the chapter devoted to this element of the media during Bush’s presidency.

“Bush... seemed nearly incapable of speaking in public without butchering the English language, without misspeaking, without uttering startling, Yogi Berra-like pronouncements.”

The chapter is quite funny, of course, as it allows the reader to reminisce about the funnier moments of Bush’s presidency. The chapter is not, however, just about the president’s vocal flubs – Hayden also discusses some other authors who have written about George W Bush, be they positive supporters (e.g. Fred Barnes, David Frum) or vocal opponents (e.g. Ron Suskind). He discusses some authors who also tried to be unbiased and objective (e.g. Robert Draper). From his analysis, Hayden finds that the greatest consistency between almost everyone who’s written about Bush, is that they are disappointed by the president’s “remarkable lack of curiosity”, exhibiting a “vacuousness not easily overcome” – although, of course, supporters try to dress this up as folksy charm or a praiseworthy belief in the president’s gut instincts (see what Charles Pierce has to say about that in Idiot America). Detractors certainly have more material to support their case than do Bush’s supporters.

The Silent Treatment

Because of Bush’s dislike and distrust of the media, there were frequent instances at the beginning of his presidency when the media were simply locked out. This was both surprising and also detrimental to Bush’s ability to convey proper messages to the electorate.

“Relations between presidents and the press have always been uneasy and not infrequently tend toward the turbulent. While journalists and politicians may cozy up to one another, they are seldom satisfied with the result.”

Due to the Bush White House’s obsession with (some might say ‘addiction’ to) secrecy,

“the national press corps quickly came to view the entire Bush Administration as squelchors of information – unhelpful, contemptuous, and always adversarial. This toxic relationship would come back to burn the Bush presidency.”

The president also had to contend with a rapidly changing media environment – one that had, since the 1980s, been evolving at a considerable pace, growing more complicated and also revolutionized by the proliferation of online news sources and the rise of opinion journalism. The mushrooming of information technology in the 1990s spawned a huge number of media outlets from which readers and viewers could draw their news and therefore opinions on any given policy. It also makes the White House’s job that much harder:

“The fragmentation renders each individual media organisation correspondingly less important, for it’s one thing for a politician to try to influence three television networks and a handful of national publications, but what do you do about a thousand political blogs? Commanding media space and attention is much more challenging in the twenty-first century.”

To refer back to opinion journalism, here is Hayden’s critique:

“the centrist, neutral, or ‘objective’ approach has been radically challenged by what is sometimes called ‘opinion journalism’, and that species of information operates more on the fringes than in the middle, more with emotion and innuendo than with facts or investigation” [see, for example, Fox & MSNBC]

“the shady art of fulmination has influenced television news profoundly and even affected print journalism to the point that news sometimes seems to have been trumped by views.”

This “fulmination” and preference for views over news can most noticeably be found on the Web, “which is notoriously dominated by ranting viewpoints and righteous denunciation” (I’m sure we can all identify a couple of sources that make our blood boil...).

War on Terror, Iraq

Hayden devotes a handful of good chapters to the War on Terror and Iraq – discussing the run-up to these events and also the fallout afterwards – specifically, the “frequent mistakes and miscalculations” by the Bush team. Hayden does put the Bush years into wider perspective, however:

“Perhaps any American president would have erred in similar ways at the time. But seen as part of a larger pattern of administration practice, these communication lapses show recurring themes in the Bush record: lack of preparation, lack of careful consideration, lack of precise execution.”

According to Hayden, the lead up to the Iraq war is the biggest failure of the American press corps “to do their duty as vigilant watchdogs of the public trust”. If you’ll permit a personal reflection, I remember being rather confused by the speed with which the administration’s attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq – this is partly because I was at the time relying on just two news sources (TIME and Newsweek) while studying for a year in Japan (I didn’t have an internet connection at home, either). The seemingly sudden shift in focus was jarring, and it has also meant I’ve been distinctly unimpressed by the conduct of the media on this issue (something I’ve included in my PhD thesis).

“Rather than keep the White House accountable for statements that turned out to be erroneous, misleading, or wholly deceptive, the national press corps largely lay down and kept quiet, when it didn’t actually help the administration get away with various misdeeds. The news media, in this view, were snookered into supporting the rationale for going to war.”

One should not overlook the role of “journalistic enablers” (e.g. Judith Miller) who effectively abdicated their journalistic responsibilities to swallow whole what the administration fed them. Hayden includes in this chapter details of the roles of Ahmed Chalabi, the ‘Cabal’ (or the Office of Special Plans), and the jingoist speeches Bush gave during this time, as a means for painting a doomsday scenario as an outcome if action was not taken against Saddam Hussein’s regime. In a later chapter, Hayden describes the “Troop Tricks” the administration used to pump up support for the troops, the wars, and not coincidentally the administration who instigated the conflicts.

While most political and journalism analysts focus on the failure of the press during this period, Hayden also points out that, ultimately, Bush “paid a heavy price for success in that initial battle. In the overall war for public opinion, he has lost mightily.”

Ultimately, Hayden’s conclusion of the Iraq media war is:

“That meticulous planning went into the communication effort there was no doubt. The September rollout, Powell’s U.N. speech, the Mission Accomplished stunt – all were carefully choreographed and, at times, ably executed. But, as with most other elements in the Bush White House, the overwhelming emphasis was on process, on tactics, on the little pictures that wagered on short-term gain.”

The high stakes and long-term potential for catastrophe were ignored by White House strategists and operatives. The focus on short-term vignettes, of course, has become overwhelmingly characteristic of media and politics in the United States. In the Obama age, it seems almost the only political commentary is short-term, uninterested in long-term consequences or trends.

Re-Reporting Vietnam: Media Wars over Iraq & the White House

Hayden devotes two chapters to the media’s “obsession” with Vietnam, and the saturation-level usage of that war as a comparative study for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as discussing how the Vietnam lexicon is used too often to describe the current conflicts. After offering a brief history of Vietnam and what it has meant for American foreign policy and media, he moves on to the post-9/11 examples and discussion. The Vietnam-obsession “distressed a lot of writers, because, among other things, they feared the past was distracting the country from dealing with the present.” Hayden analyses the importance of Vietnam as a campaign issue in 2004, and how it affected each candidate: for John Kerry, it allowed him to paint himself as a decorated war veteran who had become disillusioned with the war and then came home to help end it. For the Bush team, it was less beneficial, considering the President’s muddled National Guard record – therefore, as all good political operatives would, they chose to tear down the virtuous image Kerry’s team created.

After the Storm

A particularly good and detailed chapter deals with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

After briefly mentioning Cindy Sheehan’s protests against the Iraq War outside Bush’s ranch, and the White House’s ineptitude in dealing with the fallout, the author proceeds to discuss what he sees as the turning point in George W Bush’s relations with the press. “Katrina seems to have jolted American journalists out of their post-9/11 daze”, and “exacted a heavy price on the president.”

Impressions of a “bubble” and “White House indifference” made the press “aggressively” question “the federal government’s response, its effort, its motives, its compassion.” Following the devastation of Katrina, “criticism of other Bush legacies likewise increased”. It was a stark turning point in the reporting of Bush presidency, and “a pattern was becoming evident: government neglect on an epic scale.”

“after Katrina... The media woke up from its 9/11-induced spell to find, to detail, and to proclaim the notion that the Bush administration was basically incompetent; that the president was less like Machiavelli and more like Scaramouche, less a master manipulator than a buffoon; that for years there had been a faltering ignoramus in the White House – a Dubya in the headlights.”

I should take this opportunity to address something in the synopsis, related to the above quotation – that of George W Bush as “Machiavellian puppet master”: I don’t think many people thought the President himself was the brains behind the outfit. Indeed, there was plenty of material published suggesting the strings were being pulled by Cheney, Karl Rove, the president’s “handlers”, or a shadow neoconservative cabal within the administration. I’ve not read many (if any, now that I try to recall) accounts of George W Bush himself being identified as a press manipulator extraordinaire... Hayden does address this impression, as mentioned above, stating instead that the Bush White House was mostly inept, and giving the reader the impression that, when a media strategy succeeded, it was more down to luck and outside forces, rather than any brilliant mastermind within the administration.

After Bush’s re-election, Hayden explains, he attempted to change the media perception of both himself and his administration. He did this by trying to appear more in front of the press, increasing access, and so forth. What did not change, however, was the secrecy and the administration’s “penchant for dishonest tactics”. For the Bush administration, as time progressed,

“the time-honored democratic political strategy of influencing public opinion included recurring bouts of dissembling and distortion. Some of that misinformation was large in scale, some of it small, perhaps little of it directly the original decision of the president himself.”

In the final chapter of the book, Hayden takes a look at the Bush administration’s late-term obsession with Bush’s presidential legacy and what was done to polish past policies and decisions. The author takes a look at the legacy Bush has had on Hollywood, taking a look at a selection of movies about the War on Terror, all of which include commentary on the methods and machinations of the Bush years. Hayden also takes a quick look at the media’s Bush post-mortems.

If I had one criticism of the book, it would be that Hayden focuses too much on just George W. Bush’s administration. The volume would have benefited from a more generalised introduction and conclusion – something that spent more time locating Bush’s presidency within the history of Presidential media relations. While he does mention, from time to time, the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, I think the reader would benefit from a little more historical context. This book is, in other words, an excellent and extensive case study for a wider piece of research on the American presidents and how they have dealt with the media.

One of the great strengths of the book is Hayden’s level of research, and the convenient presentation of source material after each chapter. His writing style is fluid and accessible, his chapters very well- and logically-structured, and he avoids almost all academic dryness in his descriptions and analysis. This is, as the synopsis proposes, a ‘lively’ volume – helped along in no small part, of course, by the chapter about Bushisms, which lightened a potentially over-serious volume. Hayden maintains a journalist’s objectivity for the most part, but there are times when he cannot help but voice his disappointment – be it with Bush or the media.

A Dubya in the Headlights is a highly recommended book on the president’s relations with the media during the George W Bush years, of considerable value to anyone studying the media, George W Bush, the presidency or the early 2000s.

Also try: Matt Latimer, Speech-Less (2009); Julian Zelizer ed., The Presidency of George W Bush (2010); Robert Draper, Dead Certain (2007); George W Bush, Decision Points (2010); Scott McClellan, What Happened? (2009); Mike Loew, Thanks for the Memories, George (2009)

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

“Lion in the White House”, by Aida D. Donald (Basic Books)

Donald-LionInTheWhiteHouseA Life of Theodore Roosevelt

New York State Assemblyman, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, Vice President and, at forty-two, the youngest President ever — in his own words, Theodore Roosevelt “rose like a rocket.” He was also a cowboy, a soldier, a historian, an intrepid explorer, and an unsurpassed environmentalist.

Lion in the White House chronicles the life of this first modern president. TR’s accomplishments in office were immense. As President, Roosevelt redesigned the office of Chief Executive and the workings of the Republican Party to meet the challenges of the new industrial economy. Believing that the emerging aristocracy of wealth represented a genuine threat to democracy, TR broke trusts to curb the rapacity of big business. He built the Panama Canal and engaged the country in world affairs, putting a temporary end to American isolationism. And he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Throughout his public career, TR fought valiantly to steer the GOP back to its noblest ideals as embodied by Abraham Lincoln. Alas, his hopes for his party were quashed by the GOP’s strong rightward turn in the years after he left office. But his vision for America lives on.

In lapidary prose, this concise biography recounts the courageous life of one of the greatest leaders our nation has ever known.

Theodore Roosevelt is one of my favourite US presidents, and I am always on the lookout for new books about his life, presidency and personality. He is one of the more written about presidents (not to mention the most prolific of writers himself, having published almost twenty books over his lifetime).

Donald gives us a spirited and brisk tour through TR’s youth, upbringing, career at Harvard, and also his early political career. The Roosevelt family was almost picture-perfect; the children were doted upon by both their parents, and TR’s father was his idol and the epitome of what he believed a man should be. His childhood was that of a sickly child overcoming his frail body – a hurdle he cleared admirably and with a tenacity that would characterise much of his political style, not to mention his vigorous conduct as colonel during the war for Cuba (for which he raised his famous unit, the Rough Riders – a move that would ultimately catapult him onto the national stage as the most famous politician in America). At Harvard, he performed admirably, making a mixed impression on his professors but receiving good grades throughout his tenure there, and his father encouraged his pursuit of science and authorial impulses. After Harvard, TR enrolled at Columbia Law School, but “he found the law lacking in social justice and only a cover to protect wealth and business.” This would be the beginning of his long disgust at the power of corporations and business interests in the United States. “It was a critical judgement, made early in life, which would soon carry into a turbulent political career.”

In his early forays into politics, we see the roots of his eventual presidential priorities. His focus on doing and seeing for himself, rather than just taking people at their word, would lead him to acquire an increasing wish to ease the suffering of the lower and labouring classes – walking through New York’s slums was particularly eye-opening and, as a member of the Police Commission in New York City, TR would personally take part in patrols and organising arrests of slumlords and tenement closures.

“Roosevelt intuited that a politician must lead the people with an original set of principles, not just mirror those cobbled to the lowest common denominator.”

TR righteously went after the corruption that characterised New York politics at the time. His reformation of the police force as Police Commission President was particularly noteworthy and impressive, as he slowly eroded the power and influence of Tammany Hall. It was an impressive time for TR, save one considerable blunder at the end of his tenure on the commission (namely, making drinking illegal on Sundays, which resulted in huge opposition & consequent political defeats for Republicans).

The author often mentions TR’s reverence for Lincoln, who he frequently drew inspiration from, and how this impacted his political views and approach:

“As a Republican whose ideal was Abraham Lincoln, Roosevelt would always be color-blind and guided by the tenet of equality.”

Throughout his career, he would hold firm in the face of (usually Democratic) opposition to, and complaints about, his application of equality, regardless of the government post he occupied. In only one instance did he cave to popular resentment, and that was with Booker T. Washington, who consulted and met with TR – but only once, after the meeting caused a racist backlash. This is an example of TR’s pragmatic approach to politics overtaking his personal disinterest in anyone’s colour or creed.

As governor of New York, TR took on the large corporations and trusts by seeking to make them report their profits. Through a slew of provisions, he was able to grow the State’s coffers by roughly $11.5million (a vast sum at the time).

“He sought laws to break monopolies and to oversee accounting reviews to get corporations to pay their taxes. Not incidentally, he thought he made corporations more moral by making them pay their fair share. Roosevelt also knew corporations would now have less money with which to corrupt politics.”

In an example of his progressivism, Donald discusses TR’s appreciation of the needs of the labouring class, who had been struggling for too long against the all-powerful corporations and trusts who were wealthy enough to bribe and buy off government officials to do their bidding.

“Within the broad sphere of society and social relations, Roosevelt preferred order, regularity, and balance. This meant curbing the meretricious, laissez-faire tendencies by business that had injured the laboring population. The way to help labor was to empower it to organize and even strike, although Roosevelt would never condone mob violence either by labor or capital. Labor was expected to negotiate wages and conditions.”

TR’s time as governor of New York would have a considerable impact on how he later conducted himself as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and then as President. Over the course of the political battles to reform the corrupt New York civil and police services, he evolved as a politician and political operative. He was not always successful, and was less opposed to compromising than he used to be when he was a member of the state legislature – willing to allow bills to pass that were the best he could hope for, rather than all he wished for.

“He was fast becoming a practical politician and slipping away from the high idealism of reformers. His hard political life seemed to mimic, more and more, the strenuous life he knew in the saddle, and his resilience owed much to his experience with the ebb and flow of the natural world in the West. If Roosevelt rose like a rocket, he governed like he was shot from a gun.”

His interest and passion for Civil Service reform would again surface in the Governor’s mansion and then the White House. In New York City, it was the police force; in Albany, it was the New York State civil service; in the White House it was the nation.

“He had demanded accountability from corporations when he was governor of New York, when they overvalued stock, watered stock, and fooled investors with corrupt practices, and he would take his battle against what he called ‘bad’ trusts to the larger playing field.”

TR’s anti-trust tendencies also led him to make one of his most significant contributions to American politics and society: the appointment of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., to the Supreme Court.

“The high court was antilabor, probusiness, laissez-faire to the extreme, and prohibited most union activity. In doing so, it put private property above individual or community rights, which Roosevelt thought was wrong.”

Holmes promised to give America a more Rooseveltian Supreme Court. Holmes would, however, side against TR in the first major anti-trust case. Holmes would eventually go on to become a progressive high court judge, in tune with many of TR’s policies and preferences.

“Roosevelt was probably too hasty in his judgement of Holmes, whose promise developed slowly. The president’s instinct was true, but his patience was limited.”

Donald provides us with an excellent, broad account of TR’s foreign policy, and his plans to extend McKinley’s more modest policies. From Hawaii, Cuba and the Philippines to his addition of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, the author provides detailed, well-structured accounts of the policy process. TR’s work on conservation is also detailed and explained, as his continued activity and political and progressive activism post-presidency.

If I have one criticism, it is that more could have been made of TR’s friendship with Henry Cabot Lodge, which (thanks most recently to The War Lovers) we know was an exceptionally close partnership, and one that provided not only a great deal of comfort for both men, but also many political victories. [I should note, at this point, that I am a great fan of Henry Cabot Lodge, and feel he is a man long over-due his own proper biography. Perhaps I should write one...]

The main themes running throughout the book are TR’s progressivism and his character. The former informed all of his political decisions and policies (proposed, rejected and implemented). The latter is what gives the book its great flavour and style – Donald utilises many words and phrases that have a distinctly ‘TR-feel’ to them, matching his brio and eccentricities perfectly. Frequent passages about TR’s devotion to his family, his pastimes and interests help round out a positive portrait of an energetic, charismatic family-man. It is also interesting to note how at odds TR’s policies and wishes are with the contemporary Republican Party – who, it should be pointed out, frequently lay claim to TR, despite their considerable and stark differences in ideology (the same can be said for the GOP’s ownership claim of Abraham Lincoln).

A delight to read, Lion in the White House is both engaging and informative. It kept me awake reading well into the night in two long sittings – something non-fiction works rarely do (Evan Thomas’s The War Lovers – also TR-related – being the only other recent work of history to do this). Donald’s brisk pacing and historian’s authorial skill allows for a quick read that does not skimp on details while avoiding the pitfalls of over-detailing.

Lion in the White House is the best short biography of Theodore Roosevelt I’ve come across. It is insightful, detailed yet not overly so; an enjoyable read, written in a fresh pace and style. If you only read one book on TR, I would strongly recommend it be this one. I thoroughly enjoyed Lion in the White House, and can’t recommend it enough.


Also try: Evan Thomas, The War Lovers (2010); Louis Auchincloss, Theodore Roosevelt (2002); H.W. Brands, TR: The Last Romantic (1998) Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979), Theodore Rex (2001) & Colonel Roosevelt (2010); Theodore Roosevelt, The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt (numerous editions); David McCullough, Mornings on Horseback (1982); Douglas Brinkley, The Wilderness Warrior (2010); Edward Kohn, Hot Time in the Old Town (2010)

Monday, 29 November 2010

“The Presidency of George W. Bush”, edited by Julian E. Zelizer (Princeton)


A first historical assessment of one of the most controversial presidencies

The Presidency of George W. Bush brings together some of today’s top American historians to offer the first in-depth look at one of the most controversial U.S. presidencies. Emotions surrounding the Bush presidency continue to run high – conservatives steadfastly defend its achievements, liberals call it a disgrace. This book examines the successes as well as the failures, covering every major aspect of Bush’s two terms in office. It puts issues in broad historical context to reveal the forces that shaped and constrained Bush’s presidency – and the ways his presidency reshaped the nation.

The Presidency of George W. Bush features contributions by Mary L. Dudziak, Gary Gerstle, David Greenberg, Meg Jacobs, Michael Kazin, Kevin M. Kruse, Nelson Lichtenstein, Fredrik Logevall, Timothy Naftali, James T. Patterson, and the book’s editor, Julian E. Zelizer. Each chapter tackles some important aspect of Bush’s administration – such as presidential power, law, the war on terror, the Iraq invasion, economic policy, and religion – and helps readers understand why Bush made the decisions he did.

Taking readers behind the headlines of momentous events, the contributors show how the quandaries of the Bush presidency were essentially those of conservatism itself, which was confronted by the hard realities of governance. They demonstrate how in fact Bush frequently disappointed the Right, and how Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory cast the very tenets of conservatism in doubt.

History will be the ultimate judge of Bush's legacy, and the assessment begins with this book.

Editor Julian Zelizer offers a good introduction to the volume, which touches on all the issues to be discussed in the book, before offering a quick historical account of, to borrow the chapter’s title, “How Conservatives Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Presidential Power”. This chapter offers a quick and readable historical account of the evolution of conservative opinions of presidential power – from opposition to, specifically under Nixon, whole-hearted support. “The Bush administration formed in direct conversation with the 1970s”, when many high-ranking members came of professional age during Nixon’s and Ford’s administrations – most notably, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz. Zelizer explains the liberal-conservative fight over the scope of presidential power, and how conservatives fought against any and all attempts to limit presidential power – in part spurred by an article by William F Buckley that called for all conservatives to recognise the importance of the presidency to streamline and push policy making. Establishment conservatives clearly accepted his premise, and have rarely (if ever) looked back. During the Clinton years, GOP opposition to presidential power was more ideological and “pragmatic”, simply because they did not have control over the White House (Zelizer points out that much of the opposition to Clinton’s policies were more due to a dislike of the president, rather than the policies themselves).

“The war on terrorism has highlighted the reality that presidential power is integral, rather than aberrational, to modern conservatism. The relationship is more than simply a product of political pragmatism under conditions of divided government.”

Conservative elements of American political landscape have been just as culpable, if not more so, than liberals for the expansion of government power and size: “Since the 1960s, the Right, rather than the Left, has been a much more vociferous champion of an all-powerful White House.”

Mary Dudziak’s chapter takes a look at a broad range of legal issues that the Bush administration was faced with – from the Supreme Court’s involvement in resolving the 2000 election crisis, to Guantanamo Bay and issues of habeus corpus, and also the financial crisis. Each section is clearly laid out and cleanly argued and explained. It’s a good chapter, but not one that particularly fired my interest.

Timothy Naftali’s chapter on the War on Terrorism is interesting, although it suffers from being on a subject that has been written about to almost exhaustion. That being said, he discusses the differences between Bush’s first and second terms in office, after Condoleezza Rice’s move to the Department of State (which saw an “emergence of a more flexible approach” to foreign policy in general). While describing in brief the successes in South East Asia, Naftali also points out that,

“in its zeal to reorder the international system, the Bush administration created a Petri dish for massive amounts of terrorism in Iraq between 2003 and 2007, with immeasurable damage to U.S. soft power in the Muslim world.”

In his second term, Naftali explains, there was a “quiet rebellion” throughout the government, as opponents to a neoconservative/assertive-nationalist foreign policy found their voices and receptive ears. This rebellion also exhibited the US government’s self-corrective nature, as a more realistic foreign policy began to replace the more assertive unilateralism of the first term.

Frederick Logevall tackles the causes of the Iraq invasion. “How the United States got into Iraq is one of the great foreign policy questions of our time,” the author begins. “Iraq was a war of choice, not necessity, and that it was understood as such by top officials in Washington.” Like Naftali’s offering, much of this has appeared or been discussed in innumerable other volumes. Logevall recognises this, and explains how what emerges from the plethora of memoirs and journalistic accounts is “the story of an administration that decided early for military action and then manipulated the truth to make its case.” Aiding this manipulation was the political environment at the time:

“It is also a story about a permissive decision-making environment in which Congress, the press, and the American public were mostly content to go along, unwilling to raise the tough questions that might have halted or slowed the rush to war.”

A good chapter, and one lucidly and clearly written and argued, Logevall finishes on a grim note:

“regardless of the ultimate outcome in Iraq, the damage done by this unnecessary and reckless war has been enormous in terms of lives lost and resources squandered, in terms of America’s standing in the region and the world, in terms of the impact on the broader struggle against terrorism.”

James T. Patterson explains, in a very good chapter, George W. Bush’s tax and stimulus policies. It is clear that Patterson does not approve of Bush’s vehement belief in supply-side economics (which, Patterson argues and shows with plenty of data, were impractical and ultimately completely wrong – in other words, he argues George H.W. Bush’s opinion that it was ‘voodoo economics’).

“Well before George W. Bush left office in 2009, he had succeeded in securing major cuts in federal taxes that contributed over time to mounting deficits and rising income inequality. This dramatic turn in fiscal policy was the most significant domestic legacy of his presidency.”

In addition, in the wake of the 2008 Wall Street collapse, Bush’s stimulus and bailout packages “promised to have large and long-run consequences” for America’s future fiscal health. Bush’s tax policy was assured long before he started running for president – a “tax-cutting zealotry” within the GOP still defined much of the conservative approach to fiscal matters, and in the George W Bush years, “paved the way for passage of legislation that Ronald Reagan would have envied”. In order to ensure Bush didn’t fall foul of his father’s fate (“Read my lips: no new taxes”), the administration was bull-headed about and insistent on internal unity on taxes – “Bush brushed aside serious internal debate over economic matters”, which in some ways explains Paul O’Neill’s quick exit from his post as Treasury Secretary. Patterson acknowledges the long-term structural issues that exacerbated the negative impact of Bush’s policies, and offers a good summary of the various opposition arguments that were levelled at Bush’s policies throughout his term (especially those following the invasion of Iraq, and the president’s ignoring rising unemployment figures to focus on further tax cuts). Patterson finishes with a warning about extending the Bush tax cuts:

“If Congress were to extend or increase the Bush-era tax reductions, it would enshrine a supply-side revolution that had erected the boldest monument of Bush’s domestic agenda.”

Meg Jacobs takes a look at Bush’s energy policy, placing it in an historical perspective, in “Wreaking Havoc from Within”. Jacobs argues that Bush’s priority on the environment was to “reverse thirty years of environmental and energy policy, specifically through deregulation, tax reform, and the opening up of new lands to exploration and drilling” – to do this, he set up the much-criticised National Energy Policy Development Group, which was chaired by Dick Cheney and staffed by energy industry supporters, lobbyists and former-employees. Bush’s policy was nothing new, the author argues, as it adhered to tired and constant conservative opposition to regulation. What was new, however, and therefore what prevented Bush from fulfilling all his goals, was the growth in support for environmentalism in Congress. Jacobs offers an explanation of the roots of conservative energy policy, from the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-4, through Carter’s and Reagan’s presidency – for example, attempts to reduce the dependence on foreign oil (and the resultant desire to open up ANWR for exploration and drilling).

“Understanding the Bush energy policy is not as simple as saying that this was an administration run by two oilmen, though that certainly matters. Nor can the administration’s policies be explained as crude payback for political backers, though again, energy industry contributions were not insignificant.”

Nelson Lichtenstein’s chapter takes a look at ideology and interest in social policy at home. Put blunty, “Ideology and interest structured the domestic social policy over which George W Bush presided”. Lichtenstein argues that ideology and interests were integral to almost all Bush social policies – consistently conservative in the former, and complex but also considerable in the latter, incorporating many corporate and business interests in decision-making and policy implementation – favouring business interests over labour and worker interests at almost every turn. From Bush’s Social Security and Medicare policies, to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (a particularly interesting section), Lichtenstein offers some illuminating treatments of how Bush’s policies conformed to what he calls the “Bush-Cato” social policy approach.

In David Greenberg’s chapter, we get an analysis of the Bush administration’s expertise at navigating an increasingly polarised society and political environment. Specifically, the chapter refers to the difference between Bush administration officials’ contempt for “reality-based” liberals – this refers to a much-cited passage from Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty, when he was told that the US was powerful enough to make its own reality.

“Although the taunts of Bush’s critics frequently descended into glibness, the president’s denigration of independent expertise was real, and it marked one of the more significant and all-encompassing features of his administration.”

The Bush administration made ‘science’ and ‘expertise’ derogatory terms, in an attempt to control the discussion – on everything – to adhere to their own narrow, ideological agenda and world-view.

“As never before, administration officials and their allies in politics and the news media openly disregarded the empirically grounded evidence, open-minded inquiry, and expert authority that had long underpinned governmental policymaking.”

Greenberg explains how conservative control of the White House and both Houses of Congress during much of Bush’s administration helped give rise to this assault on expertise – especially when coupled with the media’s changing role (be it Fox News’ flagrant disregard for facts and balance, or the Mainstream Media’s insistence on giving both sides of an argument attention – be it ridiculous or grounded in something concrete). This disregard for expertise and the denigration of those with “book learning” is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, the most dangerous legacy of the Bush years – it is a root cause of almost every damaging and dangerous policy that came out of the Bush administration (in both the short- and long-term). Sadly, during the first two years of Obama’s administration, political and media conversations show no evidence of realignment towards sensible, informed decision-making or debate.

President Bush wore his religion and beliefs on his sleeve, so a chapter discussing Religion in Bush’s America was a must. The task is taken up by Kevin Kruse. After a couple of decades in the wilderness, the Religious Right was politically adrift – unable to unseat Clinton, and experiencing few (if any) victories on the Culture War issues that fired up its grassroots followers and organisations, they were struggling to remain relevant. Enter George W. Bush who, on all issues dear to the Religious Right, “dutifully took his place on the right” and fought to bring them victories they had long sort. In some ways, he was successful (stem cells, for example). Kruse offers a quick summary of Bush’s religion and how it played in the election, followed by an explanation of purpose and formation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In his memoir, Bush would say his faith-based initiatives were some of his favourite achievements of his administration. Kruse also explains how, with the onset of the War on Terror, Afghanistan and Iraq, faith-based initiatives receded from importance; equally, the author explains how the “old guard” of the religious community have been supplanted by a more moderate generation, which aims to focus on its values, rather than the political issues it opposes. This is a welcome development, and might allow the debate to advance in a more mature manner. Despite his wish to transcend the political partisanship over faith, Bush’s policies were dashed by White House indifference and partisanship on Capitol Hill – his one success was his expansion of AIDS support and aid in Africa (something few will be able to fault or condemn).

Gary Gerstle takes a look at Bush’s success at expanding the multicultural make-up of the GOP’s support-base. Mile removed from Pat Buchanan, Bush offered real possibility for expanding the Republican Tent. Bush appointed more minorities to high government office than any previous administration, and multiculturalism was enshrined in his signature piece of legislation, No Child Left Behind – which required schools across the nation to conform to certain standards in core subjects, which was hoped to level the playing field sooner for minorities. Gerstle offers an interesting comparison with the McKinley administration (a favourite of Karl Rove’s, apparently), which created a thirty-year Republican majority, only to be brought low by nativist, anti-immigration forces within. This weakness is once again raising its ugly head in the wake of the Bush administration, as Tea Party forces gobble up more and more media-time and Republican seats in Congress and the Senate.

In the final chapter of the book, Michael Kazin takes a look at Bush’s relationship with the Conservative Movement. The author offers a summary of its evolution, and charts Bush’s relationship with it and the issues that matter most to it. The first term of Bush’s presidency is considered the best of times by movement conservatives as the new president promised to fulfil their wishes and chart a properly conservative path in office (only on immigration did the president break with his base). Ultimately, Kazin argues, the Bush presidency was a disappointment for movement conservatives, as the president slowly but surely jettisoned the fierce adherence to conservative political issues and tropes, as evidenced in Bush’s expansion of government and also his administration’s part in the massive economic bailouts in 2008 – this is quite a hypocritical about-turn, as many of its leaders were members of Reagan’s administration, which implemented many of the same ‘heresies’ (particularly in terms of government expansion). The conservative movement’s insistence on ‘ideological purity’ has proven self-defeating many times (certainly during Bush’s first term and its hiring policies).

The focus on Bush and his administration’s decision-making processes is very helpful, and makes this volume far more in-depth and revealing than George W. Bush’s own memoir, ostensibly about his decision-making processes. The authors who produced chapters for The Presidency of George W. Bush offer many insights into the inner-workings of the Bush Administration and those who helped steer, implement or influence certain policies.

I only have three minor criticisms of this book. Firstly, there’s not a whole lot of new material included in its pages. This, to be fair, is unavoidable as large portions of official documents will remain classified for years and decades to come (this is something Zelizer admits early on in the book). I can’t help thinking this book should have waited a few more years before publication, but that might have led to a completely different book. Secondly, Zelizer claims that the chapters do not attempt to answer the question about whether or not Bush was a ‘bad’ or ‘good’, or one of the ‘best’ or ‘worst’ president, and yet these chapters (particularly the foreign and economic policy chapters) have an overall negative and critical bias – thankfully backed up by plenty of evidence – but it doesn’t suggest a historians’ detachment. The freshness of the events of Bush’s presidency do, of course, mean that tempers and passions are still excited and inflamed by discussion of his administration, so this was unavoidable. My final criticism is that a couple of these chapters are a little dry, and not as accessible as others.

An excellent, single-volume account of the various aspects of George W. Bush’s presidency, I think this volume is very valuable and useful companion for anyone studying the presidency, US foreign policy, and contemporary issues of American politics, society and foreign policy. Indeed, it may be the most useful single-volume, broad-focus book on George W Bush currently in print, and a perfect starting place for study.


Also try: Julian E. Zelizer, Arsenal of Democracy (2010); James T. Patterson, Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore (2005); Timothy Naftali, George H.W. Bush (2008); Arthur Schlesinger Jr., The Imperial Presidency (2004); Charlie Savage, The Return of the Imperial Presidency (2007); George W. Bush, Decision Points (2010); Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty (2004); Matt Taibbi, Griftopia (2010); Lou & Carl M. Cannon, Reagan’s Disciple: George W Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy (2008); Jacob Weisberg, The Bush Tragedy (2007); David Farber, The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism (2010); Matt Latimer, Speech-Less (2009); Robert Draper, Dead Certain (2007); Scott McClellan, What Happened (2009)

Monday, 22 November 2010

“Speech-Less”, by Matthew Latimer (Three Rivers Press)

Latimer-Speech-LessHB Adventures in Washington Speech Writing

Despite being raised by reliably liberal parents, Matt Latimer is, from an early age, lured by the upbeat themes of the Reagan Revolution, and sets off from the Midwest for Washington, DC, determined to “make it”.  In Matt’s glory-filled daydreams, he will champion smaller government and greater self-sufficiency, lower taxes and stronger defence — and, by the force of his youthful passion, eradicate do-nothing boondoggleism and lead America to new heights of greatness.

But first he has to find a job.

Latimer chronicles his descent into Washington-hell, as he snares a series of increasingly lofty — but unsatisfying — jobs with powerful figures on Capitol Hill. One boss can’t remember basic facts. Another appears to hide from his own staff, barricading himself in his office. When Fate offers Matt a job as chief speechwriter for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Matt finds he actually admires the man (causing his liberal friends to shake their heads in dismay), his youthful passion is renewed. But Rummy soon becomes a piñata for the press, and the Department of Defense is revealed as alarmingly dysfunctional.

Eventually, Matt lands at the White House, his heart aflutter with the hope that, here at last, he can fulfil his dream of penning words that will become part of history — and maybe pick up some cool souvenirs. But reality intrudes once again.

More like The Office than The West Wing, the nation’s most storied office-building is a place where the staffers who run the country are in way over their heads, and almost everything the public has been told about the major players — Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Rove — is wrong…

As always, one approaches a book like Speech-Less with some caution and no preconceived expectations. The synopsis might suggest a tell-all gossip-volume, and given the subject matter – the Bush administration – a reader will probably come to this expecting something lefty and self-righteous. Perhaps something on the lines of Scott McClellan’s What Happened – a tell-all piece from a disgruntled former employee who sees a Bush-critical publishing environment ripe for exploitation. However, Speech-Less is a different type of memoir. For one, Latimer is a proud conservative and Reagan Republican. Speech-Less is also far better written and amusing than most other books written about the Bush years.

Latimer, after a short introduction about the approaching 2008 economic crisis, offers a chapter that explains his Republican coming-of-age story – growing up in the Liberal bastion that is Flint, Michigan, and his attraction to Reagan’s style and approach:

“I found appealing his belief that government was not the solution to our problems. I was attracted to his philosophy of responsibility, accountability, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Yes, government had a certain duty to help those who couldn’t do it for themselves. But as a last resort. I was suspicious of sending more money to government to create bigger programs that didn’t really solve anything.”

For the young Latimer,

“The Republican Party may not have been hip, but they were the responsible, competent grown-ups. At least, that’s what Republicans were supposed to be.”

Unfortunately, as he would come to discover, this was not the case when many of them were elected to office, or ‘doing the work of government’.

The author describes his rather manic time at the 1996 Republican Convention in San Diego. He seems to have been very much a geeky fanboy (the book also contains a couple of Star Trek references), in awe of the politicians he was seeing – in the flesh! – and meeting and getting his photo taken with. It’s an amusing chapter, filled with wry self-deprecation and plenty of amusing comments. There is, however, one rather cutting jab at Colin Powell:

“Colin Powell... had considered a run for the GOP nomination that year but decided against it. He was the most popular man in the country. Why muck that up by governing? That night Powell was proudly Republican—and he stayed that way every single day that it suited him.”

Throughout the book, I was surprised by some of the criticisms Latimer has for some Republicans: for example, Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and John McCain, among others – all considered not proper conservatives, and Latimer’s criticism seems to be rooted in their willingness to work with Democrats. This was a little disappointing. His criticisms of Rice do, however, echo those of Scott McClellan – both write about Rice’s incredible ability to deflect blame and responsibility for blunders and poor decisions on to others (particularly when the issues in question were entirely her responsibility).

The Senate & Congress

Latimer’s first job was with a forgettable Michigan Senator, Abraham Spencer, who seemed afraid of not only his constituents but also his own staff. Latimer quickly came to see Spencer as a dead-end employer, and quickly became disillusioned by the work:

“it started to occur to me that my entire job in the Senate was to abet a series of deliberate frauds. We were reading letters the senator never read, writing responses he apparently didn’t review, and now even signing his name. Abraham didn’t even have to buy postage stamps. His signature was all that was required on the top of the envelope. And that signature was printed by some machine too.”

The author’s second job on the Hill, however, proved far more entertaining and long-lasting, if a bit unpredictable: he became Congressman Nick Smith’s press secretary. He writes fondly of the Congressman, sparing few details of the fraught office environment and the unpredictable, unreliable, but completely sincere and well-meaning Congressman. When Latimer was appointed to manage his campaign for re-election, he offers a succinct summary of their strategy that looks as though it would have sufficed for his whole experience: limiting the congressman to “one catastrophic gaffe a week”.

After working for Smith, Latimer was hired as press secretary for Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, who he clearly respects as one of the few competent members of the upper house. He was working for Kyl on 9/11, and writes glowingly of the Senator’s dedication and poise in the face of not only the September attacks, but also the anthrax scare at the Hart Senate Offices (where Kyl’s office was based) and the botched government response (a funny episode in the book). Indeed, this chapter has a number of funny descriptions and critiques of the Senate and the Senators.

The second senator Latimer worked for was Arizona Republican Jon Kyl, who Latimer still respects as one of the few Senators able to actually govern properly.

“Every day, Andrew and I struggled to get the media’s attention. Senator Kyl didn’t have time for long palling-around sessions with reporters.”

I found Latimer’s comments about the difficulty he had in getting media attention for Senator Kyl particularly interesting, given the media attention Senator Kyl is currently getting thanks to his opposition to the Obama administration’s New START policy with Russia (see here and here, for example).

Ultimately, however, Latimer felt that he was not getting any closer to his dream of becoming a White House speech-writer, and therefore started to look further afield in Washington.

Luckily for Latimer, when his career felt stalled, a speech-writing position at the Department of Defense caught his attention, and he caught the attention of the Secretary of Defense...

The Pentagon

Latimer’s years at the Pentagon were a mixed blessing. On the one hand, he was working for Rumsfeld, who he admires. On the other hand, the Pentagon was another dysfunctional workplace, as well as exemplifying the government profligacy that the author opposes. The chapters about his time working for Rumsfeld are certainly interesting. We get to see a different portrayal of the contentious Secretary, and Latimer writes of Rumsfeld fondly. It is clear that he valued the experience, and respects Rumsfeld a great deal. But, ultimately, he was disappointed in the way the Pentagon worked: it was clubby, Machiavellian, posturing, totally lacking in media savvy, and too easily affected by outside political operatives.

In a long, amusing indictment of the Pentagon procurement system, Latimer offers a number of examples of waste. They are almost all absurd, and anyone with even an iota of common sense should understand that this is no way to run anything, let alone the department in charge of the world’s most expensive military machine.

“Our office once ordered a shipment of Hi-Liters. The Pentagon supply store sent us five thousand, and not a single one was yellow. We received boxes and boxes of printer cartridges that didn’t fit any of our printers. And, of course, we never gave anything back. Instead, we lined up the superfluous items along one of the office walls until we could find a way to barter with another office for them.”

Because the Pentagon’s staff was, in part, chosen with the ‘advisement’ of the White House liaison office, it was a victim of politics. This is one area where the ‘cronyism’ that many believe characterised the Bush administration (and, to varying degrees, every administration that preceded it) was most apparent, and also blatant. Writing about his own experiences working for Rumsfeld, the author observed some “extraordinary” criteria for employment:

“They tended to possess one or more of the following characteristics: they were just out of college (usually an evangelical one), they had no relevant work experience, or they had been home-schooled. It made no sense.”

The speechwriting department, Latimer remembers, was “one of the few areas of the department actually trying to help Rumsfeld communicate” but the White House personnel system was “working constantly to deny us what we needed”.

Latimer is quite scathing in his descriptions of the press officers who worked at the Pentagon, laying a lot of the blame for Rumsfeld’s and the Pentagon’s poor reputation firmly at their feet. This was a section of the book that was of particular interest to me, as the subject of how foreign policy decision-making has been effect by the 24-hour news cycle forms a good part of my own research. Rumsfeld, the author tells us, was “determined to fix our public affairs operation”, and particularly disappointed with the Pentagon’s inability to keep up with media outlets (perhaps an outgrowth of the most incredible example of the CNN-Effect, when President George H.W. Bush relied on CNN for news of the the Gulf War’s progress). The Pentagon’s public affairs team was made up of about 30 civil servants who “in a 24/7 world the department too often showed a nine-to-five mentality”.

“At night, that giant room was so deserted that tumbleweeds blew by desks. A sizable number of them lacked any sense of urgency or interest in what the administration was doing. One Pentagon reporter compared prying information from them to going on an Easter egg hunt. Sometimes you’d want to put a mirror under their noses to see if they were breathing.”

After Rumsfeld resigned in the wake of the 2006 midterm elections, Latimer failed to click with his replacement, Bob Gates – who he includes in the ‘not a real Republican/conservative’ box as Powell, Rice and McCain. Thanks to another fortuitous turn of events, a job opportunity opened up in the White House speech-writing staff.

The White House

Finally, Latimer got his childhood wish: becoming a White House speech-writer. His early days were a blur as he admits to being rather swept up by the perks and trappings of working in the West Wing. He is clear that he is proud of the work he did for President Bush, but at the same time, he was not blind to the faults and failings of the system. It is in these chapters that we see the real problems inherent in the Washington and White House systems of ‘getting things done’. Instead of it being the idealistic building of his youthful hopes and dreams, “The Bush White House itself was run like most agencies in the federal government: haphazardly and with inconsistent rules.” It was also a bureaucratic nightmare for the speech-writers, especially one like Latimer, who likes to sprinkle jokes into his writing.

The White House was also, unfortunately, filled with fragile egos. Latimer mentions the “notorious... buddy system” that existed, through which “everyone wanted to be friends with everyone else”. While this first appeared like good team relations, it quickly became clear to Latimer that it was both insincere and also potentially dangerous: in such an environment, “it was hard to know what was really good or helpful to the president and what was just being praised out of politeness.” With all this meaningless, knee-jerk praise, any honest criticism (such as a Condoleezza Rice “Boring” comment on a speech) was met with incredulous offence.

When it was explained to Bush that his concept of the bailout proposal wasn’t accurate, the president was “momentarily speechless”. In frustration, he asked, “Why did I sign on to this proposal if I don’t understand what it does?” Latimer remembers being speechless in response.

Latimer mentions George W Bush’s tendency to bestow nicknames on certain staffers, acquaintances and others in his orbit. However, contrary to some people’s belief, Latimer writes, “President Bush didn’t behave like a deranged frat boy, walking around the White House handing out nicknames to everyone.” While this is undoubtedly true, there is something rather sophomoric about the nicknames he did hand out. I’ll admit I am being a snob here, but it’s not exactly presidential, is it? It would be stupid to assume presidents don’t have a sense of humour (Abraham Lincoln and even ‘Silent’ Calvin Coolidge had quick wit and wielded it openly), or have nicknames for certain prized or favourite staffers and advisors. Perhaps the reason such a negative impression of Bush’s nicknames exists is because it spilled into the official record (who can forget, “heckuva job, Brownie”?). In the stand-out cases given in Speech-Less, a speechwriter is known as “Horny” and a pair who worked together known as “Chi-Chi” and “Choo-Choo”...

In general, Latimer’s portrayal of George W Bush is that of an affable, well-meaning and good-hearted president who was nonetheless a little disengaged and not entirely on the ball, and not considerably interested in getting to know those people who worked for him below the Special Assistant level. Equally, his White House is portrayed as quite a mess of egos and territorialism by the various agencies, councils and advisors who worked in and around the White House. The President also appears to be easily handled by his staffers, who seemed too eager to use their ‘initiative’ when interpreting instructions and orders. This would be particularly problematic in Bush’s final two years in office.

Rove is blamed for a lot of the politics involved in decision-making, as well as hiring (those members of the White House liaison office who made political purity tests part of hiring practices are described as Rove’s “minions”). Despite this, however, in the first six years of the administration, Rove appears to have enough influence and power to say no to Rumsfeld. This won’t exactly assuage the concerns that Rove was some sort of puppet-master, or “Bush’s brain”. Latimer came to the White House expecting Rove to be a political genius, but very quickly he came to a different conclusion:

“Karl was not the hero of the Bush White House, the brilliant behind-the-scenes strategist. He was what all the liberals said he was: the villain. And to make matters worse, a clumsy one at that. He employed ham-handed tactics, put forward obviously unqualified subordinates, and stubbornly defended them.”

His political ‘genius’ also doesn’t bear scrutiny, when you consider that “after Karl was promoted to run domestic policy in the second term, not a single major bill proposed by the White House passed through a Republican Congress”.

The 2008 Economic Crisis

It’s worth singling out the events surrounding the Wall Street implosion in 2008, and what effects it had on the White House and its staff. This is predominantly dealt with in the first and last chapters of the book, and are quite damning for all concerned – none more so than Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Latimer characterises the plan Paulson proposed sceptically:

The plan, like the secretary himself, seemed to have come out of nowhere – as if it had been hastily scribbled on the back of a couple of sheets of paper in the secretary’s car on his way to the White House. Basically, it could be summed up as: Give me hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars and then trust me to do the right thing, even though 99.99 percent of you have no idea who I am.”

The real problem in 2008 was not that the president didn’t understand what his administration wanted to do. Rather, “It was that the Treasury Secretary didn’t seem to know, changed his mind, had misled the president, or some combination of the three.” Latimer characterises the bailout plan as a complete deception. Paulson, the author writes, “used scare tactics to get us all to act quickly – and then did exactly nothing with the money he’d said he urgently needed to save the economy”, spending the next few weeks changing priorities and guidelines:

“Incredibly, he’d been given the power to do with that money virtually anything he pleased. All thanks to a president who just wanted to act boldly and a Congress that didn’t stop to think.”

Effectively, the White House ceded all control and input on the bailout plan to the Treasury Secretary, who was ultimately not being wholly forthcoming.

Speech-Less is a rare behind-the-scenes look at the (dys-)functional working environments of Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, and the George W. Bush White House. The author names many opportunistic and/or feckless scoundrels, and laments the apparent death of the principled conservatism he believes in. Towards the end of the book, he wears his conservatism and Republicanism on his sleeve, but thankfully – and unlike some liberal authors – keeps policy suggestions, explanations and ideological proselytising to an absolute minimum. Latimer is far more interested in getting across a sense of what the environment and denizens of Washington are like, and how idols of all stripes frequently disappoint, rather than ramming policy and politics down our throats. This automatically grants Speech-Less very wide appeal, in an otherwise increasingly-polarised publishing environment. Interestingly, the author also has a conservative’s distrust of the media – they are frequently blamed for Bush’s and Rumsfeld’s poor reputation, sometimes fairly, sometimes not. This, despite the obvious influence that FOX News and conservative talk radio has on the national debate (admittedly, it appears to have increased since Obama won election). In his own words,

“As I knew from my previous tours in Congress, Republicans were always at a disadvantage when it came to communicating in Washington. Most thought, not without justification, that the mainstream media were either frivolous or biased and therefore a waste of their time.”

Over the course of the book, a number of themes reappear, regardless of the department or branch of government about which he is writing. He bemoans the Washington phenomenon he refers to as “recycled losers”, and how for some Washington lifers, “No matter how badly a person screwed up, sooner or later he’d turn up somewhere else, with everything forgiven and forgotten.”

There’s a sense of distaste running throughout the book, aimed at those Republicans who are not considered “true” conservatives; those who have deviated from the sacred texts and positions held by the Gipper (despite the disconnect between a lot of the conservative ideals espoused by Reagan and what his administration actually did) and William F. Buckley. This is strange for two reasons: First, because Latimer’s general demeanour in the book is one of disappointment with how government works, and not a strident political or policy-heavy screed – indeed, the absence of political discussion in the book will no doubt form a great deal of its appeal to a broad audience. Second, it’s peculiar because he strongly criticises the White House liaison office for having a political purity test for aspiring employees. It would seem that he is only comfortable with a certain type of conservative purity, and the Bush administration failed.

Latimer’s conservatism also explains his concerns during the 2008 presidential election. After already becoming disillusioned with the Republican Party, he found the fanfare surrounding McCain’s nomination ludicrous. He was sceptical of Palin (and describes a similar scepticism coming from Bush), as well as the reaction she received, offering this cynical observation:

“The overall reaction to Palin at the White House, however, was almost frenzied. I think what was really going on was that everyone secretly hated themselves for supporting McCain, so they latched on to Palin with over-the-top enthusiasm.”

With the Republican Party effectively in disarray, however, the election season was a very sorry time for the GOP. “All we beleaguered Republicans had left, it seemed, were personal attacks.” For Latimer, a strict fiscal conservative, he also found criticising Obama on policy grounds extremely difficult:

“we’d abandoned our own principles. How... could we credibly claim Obama would be a liberal big spender when we’d spent more than any administration since LBJ’s?

For Latimer,

“The Republican Party I believed in—smaller, smarter government—was unidentifiable. We’d thrown it all away amid excessive spending, corruption, dishonesty, and petty partisanship.”

Understandably, and also rightly, the author is particularly disappointed and even angry about the Washington work-ethic, particularly that of Senators and Congressmen. While he is generalising, his points are well-made and important, and there is ample evidence to support his criticisms. For example,

“The only thing I’d ever seen people in Washington do was spend money. I’d never seen them actually solve a problem in my life.”

And on the tendency of former- and current-officials to shirk responsibilities and hard work, he describes how sometimes their approach can be to “look busy and wait for someone else to do the hard stuff.”

“Professional Republicans no longer cared, it seemed, about supporting candidates who believed in our ideals. They were more interested in keeping their cushy houses in Georgetown or Cleveland Park, and their contracts with the revolving door of Republican bigwigs. It was all about being close to power for the sake of power.”

A speech-writer by trade, it should come as no surprise that Speech-Less is very well written, and the author’s prose flows freely and quickly across the pages. He has also filled the book with a self-deprecating humour and witty and cutting impressions of Washington and those who work there.

I really enjoyed reading this book, and I definitely recommend it to anyone who wants a Bush-administration memoir that is a bit lighter and more entertaining, without resorting to the tired and all-too-common Bush-bashing volumes. Latimer’s insights into the broken methodology of the Washington press machine are very useful, intelligent and frequently witty, though his complaints about ‘impure’ conservatives are a little disappointing – not to mention highlight his (self-confessed) naïveté about those who work in Washington.

A good, mostly non-ideological book about Washington, D.C., Speech-Less will make you chuckle, frown, and also disappointed that things still don’t appear to be on the mend in US politics.

Also try: Matt Taibbi, Smells Like Dead Elephants (2006); Charles Peters, How Washington Really Works (199?); Robert Schlesinger, White House Ghosts (2008); Scott McClellan, What Happened (2009)

Latimer-Speech-LessPBPaperback Edition

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

“Decision Points”, by George W. Bush (Virgin Books)


A Controversial President, a Run-of-the-Mill Memoir

Since leaving the Oval Office, President Bush has given virtually no interviews or public speeches about his presidency. Instead, he has spent almost every day writing Decision Points, a strikingly personal and candid account revealing how and why he made the defining decisions in his consequential presidency and personal life.

In gripping, never-before-heard detail, President Bush brings readers inside the Texas Governor’s Mansion on the night of the hotly contested 2000 election; aboard Air Force One on 9/11 in the gripping hours after America’s most devastating attack since Pearl Harbor; inside the Situation Room in the moments before launching the war in Iraq; and behind the Oval Office desk for his historic and controversial decisions on the financial crisis, Hurricane Katrina, Afghanistan, Iran, and other issues that have shaped the first decade of the 21st century.

The former President offers intimate, unprecedented details about his decision to quit drinking, his discovery of faith, and his relationships with his family. He writes honestly and directly about his flaws and mistakes, as well as his historic achievements in reforming education, providing life-saving treatments for HIV/AIDS and malaria for millions of people in Africa, safeguarding the country from another terrorist attack, and other areas.

Decision Points was always going to be a difficult book to review. First, as someone who was never a fan of Bush, I knew my opinion would be biased from the get-go. Second, many didn’t have high hopes of it being more than a puff-piece, or as one reviewer described it, “The rehabilitation of George W Bush starts here”. I, on the other hand, did have high hopes that President Bush would take the opportunity to explain properly how and why certain policies were pursued and implemented, in addition to addressing the criticisms that were levelled at the time and since. Sadly, the former president has not met my hopes.

Bush’s writing style is breezy and accessible, making this certainly one of the easier presidential (auto)biographies I’ve encountered. There are amusing anecdotes that will raise the occasional smile, and one thing that comes across loudest of all is his affection for his family. All of the main hot-topics are addressed, at varying levels of detail: his two presidential campaigns, Medicare reform, Social Security, immigration reform, the prescription drug benefit, his AIDS policies, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Surge, Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis, and a handful of other issues. Bush accepts that certain events and policies are forgotten, on purpose, in order to structure the book around the specific, “most consequential” decisions of his presidency.

One ‘revelatory’ chapter in the book deals with Bush’s decision to stop drinking. He deserves credit for not turning what is, ultimately, a rather mundane decision, into something grander than it was – he himself admits that he wasn’t chemically dependent on alcohol, he just seemed to find himself in situations when drinking was acceptable and perhaps expected. He begins the book with this decision because, as he puts it, no further decision or success would have been possible without quitting drinking.

Even though the book clocks in at over 450 pages, Decision Points is more a summarised description of the Bush presidency than actual memoir. I felt that I’d read everything in here already, in one form or another, making the reading experience rather unsatisfying. I was expecting far more self-analysis and explanation of why, not just a summary of what.

GWOT, Afghanistan, Iraq & the Surge

Bush offers semi-detailed descriptions of the lead-up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq which are good and easily digested. However, if someone really wanted to know what went on, I’d recommend Bob Woodward’s Bush At War series – they’re infinitely better written, and far more detailed. I didn’t feel that there was much new here, and therefore Bush’s accounts add very little to the picture readers will probably already have from journalism and other books. It’s not that he’s presenting an opposing perspective, there’s just simply nothing new here.

Except for the comments he’s made on waterboarding and enhanced interrogation techniques. These have been mentioned quite widely in the media, but I thought I’d include them here. It’s a subject Bush shows the most passionate defence of, so it’s one area where the book offers some considerable value. In the wake of 9/11, Bush “grappled with three of the most critical decisions I would make in the war on terror” – specifically, where to hold captured terrorists, how to determine their legal status, and how best to learn what they knew about other plans and potential attacks. When the CIA presented him with enhanced interrogation briefings, he recalls,

“the choice between security and values was real. Had I not authorized waterboarding on senior al Qaeda leaders, I would have had to accept a greater risk I was unwilling to take. My most solemn responsibility as president was to protect the country. I approved the use of the interrogation techniques.”

The techniques were “highly effective”, Bush writes (he offers a few pages of examples of high-value targets who were caught or killed through waterboard-interrogations), and he is utterly unrepentant for approving them. One interesting statement he makes, is his assertion that only three captives were subjected to waterboarding – this is considerably different to the impression given by almost everyone else who’s written on the subject, but I was unable to confirm this in any greater detail.

“The CIA interrogation program saved lives. Had we captured more al Qaeda operatives with significant intelligence value, I would have used the program for them as well.”

After discussing the impact of 9/11, the government’s and his own response, he moves on to the invasion of Afghanistan. Most accept the necessity of going into Afghanistan, but there was one thing that struck me: “We were acting out of necessity and self-defence, not revenge.” While the first bit may well be true, I think it is disingenuous to claim there was no element of revenge involved. It would be impossible for a country to go through such an attack and not want revenge – even Bush’s words later in the chapter paint a picture of a Congress rather eager for some form of revenge. Ultimately, Bush was intent on showing to the world that the US would not shrink from confronting terrorism, as it had in the past.

“Dropping expensive weapons on sparsely populated camps would not break the Taliban’s hold on the country or destroy al Qaeda’s sanctuary. It would only reinforce the terrorists’ belief that they could strike us without paying a price. This time we would put boots on the ground, and keep them there until the Taliban and al Qaeda were driven out and a free society could emerge.”

Bush concedes that the administration’s plans in Afghanistan required a considerable break with his promises during the campaign, specifically those involving his strong opposition to nation building.

“Afghanistan was the ultimate nation building mission. We had liberated the country from a primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better.”

The president also accepts minor responsibility for the mess that followed – although, it’s half-hearted and comes across as perfunctory.

“in retrospect, our rapid success with low troop levels created false comfort, and our desire to maintain a light military footprint left us short of the resources we needed. It would take several years for these shortcomings to become clear.”

I think unintentionally, Bush vindicates Colin Powell’s recommendations by acknowledging where the administration’s strategies went wrong – particularly in the case of Powell’s insistence on overwhelming force as opposed to Rumsfeld’s stripped-down, shock-and-awe strategy. Also, just to pick up on the “several years” before shortcomings became clear – concerns were raised very quickly (again by Powell, but also by many others within and outside of government).

After detailing both the frustrations (specifically the role of Pakistan) and the under-reported successes of Afghanistan, Bush moves on to Iraq. For those who relish any signs of conspiracy behind the decisions to go into Iraq, you might be disappointed. In the scenes describing the Afghanistan strategy meetings, Bush indicates that Paul Wolfowitz posited going after Saddam, but pretty much everyone else (save Rumsfeld) was opposed to this idea. Colin Powell, in particular, made it very clear that the US didn’t “have linkage” to 9/11 and any move against Iraq “would be viewed as bait and switch” which would lead to an evaporation of support. CIA Director George Tenet agreed that “It would be a mistake”. Even Cheney, everyone’s favourite Bush administration bogeyman, was opposed to going after Saddam at that point.

In the wake of 9/11, Bush writes, “we had to take a fresh look at every threat in the world”. This conveys a rather slippery-slope attitude to the international environment – one attack (with no significant follow-up) should not have resulted in the fortress-mentality that rose from the ashes of 9/11. Bush offers a description and explanation of how bad Saddam’s regime was – something that nobody doubts. But he seems to not fully grasp why people opposed the invasion. He has a genuine complaint against those who supported it until it was politically expedient not to, but he seems to be unaware of (or perhaps uninterested in) the legitimate concerns about opening up a second major warfront at that time. The way he writes it, I am led to believe the post-9/11 environment was perfectly suited to others planting the seed of invasion in a president whose mind was entirely open to the idea.

Two elements of the chapter bothered me. First, his frequent insistence that he wanted diplomacy to work, without putting much presidential heft behind this apparent desire. The impression one gets from most other sources is that while the diplomatic track was supported by some (again, my favourite Bush appointee, Powell), for the main it was considered a nuisance to be dispensed with as soon as possible. Second, his frequent mention that he didn’t want to deploy troops – in either Afghanistan or Iraq – and yet he gives no indication of ever having seriously considered other options.

There are occasional comments that make perfect sense, even if they are written in a rather smug or smart-ass way. He’s right that opposing the Iraq invasion on grounds of human rights was perhaps myopic, as the intention was to stop Saddam’s long list of human rights abuses – which Bush includes in the chapter.

“With diplomacy faltering, our military planning sessions had increasingly focused on what would happen after the removal of Saddam. In later years, some critics would charge that we failed to prepare for the postwar period. That sure isn’t how I remember it.”

In response to which, the only conclusion to be drawn is that those Bush employed to find and implement solutions were utterly incompetent. (See Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City.) He addresses some of the fumbles Bremmer’s CPA made while running Iraq, and includes a handful of excuses – none of which change the debate or will likely change the reader’s mind. Eventually, the administration was set on toppling Saddam’s regime, and Bush remembers Cheney asking him in late 2002, “Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?”

Bush addresses a number of events that arose from his two wars. For example, the botched PR stunt that focussed on the premature ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner on the deck of an aircraft carrier:

“My speech made clear that our work was far from done. But all the explaining in the world could not reverse the perception. Our stagecraft had gone awry. It was a big mistake.”

And also the frequent, oft-shrill accusations of administration lying:

“Nobody was lying. We were all wrong. The absence of WMD stockpiles did not change the fact that Saddam was a threat.”

Unfortunately, President Bush does not acknowledge that the lack of WMD seriously changed the nature of the actual threat that Saddam presented, and certainly the urgency of this threat. Realising this may well have made Iraq a deferrable problem for a future administration, when it could have been done right, possibly (and preferably) without a concurrent war in Afghanistan.

About the lack of WMD, Bush has plenty to say:

“When Saddam didn’t use WMD on our troops, I was relieved. When we didn’t discover the stockpile soon after the fall of Baghdad, I was surprised. When the whole summer passed without finding any, I was alarmed… No one was more shocked or angry than I was when we didn’t find the weapons. I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it. I still do.”

Bush’s account of the Surge and the decision processes involved is concise and readable, but again, there’s basically nothing new here. I would recommend Bob Woodward’s account, Linda Robinson’s Tell Me How This Ends, and also Thomas Rick’s The Gamble.

Bush says a great regret is that “we did not respond more quickly or aggressively when the security situation started to deteriorate after Saddam’s regime fell”, in part a result of the draw-down in troops (which was one reason for approving the Surge).

“the other error was the intelligence failure on Iraq’s WMD. Almost a decade later, it is hard to describe how widespread an assumption it was that Saddam had WMD. Supporters of the war believed it; opponents of the war believed it; even members of Saddam’s own regime believed it.”

One interesting inclusion, for students of American foreign policy, is an explanation of the Bush Doctrine in the man’s own words:

“First, make no distinction between the terrorists and the nations that harbor them – and hold both to account. Second, take the fight to the enemy overseas before they can attack us again here at home. Third, confront threats before they fully materialize. And fourth, advance liberty and hope as an alternative to the enemy’s ideology of repression and fear.”

Historical References

Bush frequently makes reference to former presidents – particularly Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. I’m not sure if this was intended to make readers locate Bush in the same ranks, but this is not what it does. It’s too leading, and unconvincing, and will probably have the opposite effect.


I thought this chapter was quite good, but it really could have done with expansion. All too often, anything written about the Bush administration focuses on Afghanistan and Iraq. This is not entirely surprisingly, of course, but it does mean that other events and issues of the Bush presidency are forgotten. The chapter is broad in scope, somewhat episodic, as it looks at Bush’s successes in No Child Left Behind, faith-based initiatives, the prescription drug benefit and Medicare reform – all of which he writes of fondly, and you really get the sense that he is proud of these achievements. Bush brings up the fact that some of his policies have been lambasted by both sides of the aisle, and certainly he was unafraid to add expensive programs, despite his conservative anti-deficit mentality. (The chapter on the financial crisis addresses the surplus he inherited, and in my opinion does not manage to defend his extravagant tax cuts.) He also addresses his failure to get immigration and Social Security reform passed – he puts almost all the blame on politics and the media, which was disappointingly shallow, but in some ways understandable. Bush also (rather smugly) comments on the 2004 campaign and Kerry’s gaffes and mistakes.

Political Naïveté?

There are a couple of passages in Decision Points that really rang false for me. Both of them are comments Bush makes about political tactics.

“I was skeptical of politicians who touted religion as a way to get votes.”

He writes this, with apparently no realisation that the Republican party has been running as the ‘religious party’ for years, and takes any opportunity to tout the religion of its candidates (including George W Bush). This extends into the ‘culture war’ issues that are so frequently fired up around election time. He states that he couldn’t care less about Dick Cheney’s daughter’s sexual orientation – I believe him entirely, but then why did he sit back while Republican operatives used homosexuality as a wedge issue? He’s right to admonish both Kerry and his running mate Edwards for bringing her sexuality up in the debates – it’s very bad form.

At another point in the book, Bush discusses the PATRIOT Act’s name, and how he never liked it, because it suggested that those who voted against it were unpatriotic. Again, I must point to a Republican Party strategy – which Bush fully benefited from, and never did anything to stop – which painted the Democrats as the unpatriotic party.


This is actually another very good chapter. Again, it doesn’t really contain anything new, but President Bush does address some of the ‘gaffes’ and misunderstandings of the time – particularly his feelings when Air Force One flew over the devastation and he was portrayed (unfairly, I’ve always thought) of being detached and disinterested in the plight of those below. The response to Katrina was bungled, there’s no other way of looking at it – that New Orleans is (oh-so) slowly coming alive again is more testament to those who live there and those who have helped with rebuilding.

Bush is quick to say how disappointed he was with the response and reaction to Hurricane Katrina. Much of the fault cannot be laid at Bush’s feet – under federal law, the governor of an afflicted state must request assistance before the president can order in the National Guard. There are a couple of laws that can supplant this (the Insurrection Act, for example), but Louisiana Governor Blanco was insistent that they could handle the response themselves. Where Bush is at fault, is his praise and belief in what turned out to be incompetent appointees – the same problem as in Iraq. If proper plans were made, they got lost or distorted on the way down from the White House and through the bureaucracy.

“The response was not only flawed but, as I said at the time, unacceptable.”

Bush accepts some of the blame for the difficult aftermath:

“I should have recognised the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster. I prided myself on my ability to make crisp and effective decisions. Yet in the days after Katrina, that didn’t happen. The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions. It was that I took too long to decide.”

One could argue, of course, that deciding to leave things to the states was a wrong decision, as was his dithering over whether or not to send government resources into the region.

This chapter is one of the few in which Bush’s character really comes through. He does come across as genuinely concerned about the plight of New Orleans, and he takes particular offence at the accusation of racism that followed quickly in the hurricane’s wake – particularly from Kanye West, Jesse Jackson and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

“the suggestion that I was a racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all-time low. I told Laura at the time that it was the worst moment of my presidency. I feel the same way today.”


Friends and colleagues have asked me why I expected any more from a President Bush memoir. I guess I was hoping he’d take the opportunity to explain what he did for those who weren’t there, and for those who don’t understand his rationale; to show us why his decisions were the right ones. Instead, the book seems to frequently offer the mere fact of a decision being made as justification for it being right. This, frankly, is not good enough.

Decision Points is disappointing because it fails to reveal as much about the president and his decision-making as one might have hoped. I was never expecting a tell-all piece, filled with gossip or revelations (we have plenty of other books for that), but this memoir is almost not even a memoir: President Bush gives us a run-down of certain events from his presidency, with most of which we are already familiar from the wealth of published material and journalism already in existence. There are some glaring omissions in the book, and these usually revolve around Bush’s decisions to run for president. We simply don’t get a decent explanation of why Bush wanted to be president in the first place, for example. (Jacob Weisberg has written a good book on this subject.) Without dwelling on this, even for a short while, we don’t really get a sense of his driving force – he’s not a president who came into power with a specific agenda, or wrong that he needed to right. More detailed accounts of his two electoral campaigns – a not to mention defense or condemnation of some of the tactics that were used in 2000 and 2004 (we get the slightest comment about the South Carolina tactics used against Republican primary challenger John McCain; and no mention at all about the Swift Boating of John Kerry). Some major foreign policy decisions are ignored (the India nuclear deal, for example), and while he mentions a couple in the epilogue (only positive foreign policies), this is not enough. On a personal note, I think the four pages he spends on China is inexcusable – considering the events that took place between 2000 and 2008, and especially the integral part China plays in the international system and particularly its role in funding American debt. I do not know why Bush thought it was preferable to ignore these issues, but one can’t help wonder if he just wasn’t interested.

Explanations of decisions feel incomplete – there’s very little passion, actually, which is a considerable failing of the book. Only when discussing his family, meeting with wounded veterans, and Katrina does the former president evince much passion or emotion. This might also account for the rather flighty structure – clear chapter titles will be followed by clear introductions before the chapter veers off into random segues. For example, the ‘Stem Cells’ chapter wanders off into Bush’s account of how he decorated the Oval Office and some of its history.

Supporters and loyal employees are mentioned and thanked, but often opponents go nameless – this seems rather petty, and was certainly irritating. Opposition to Bush’s policies or proposals is frequently put down solely to politics or, in a rather Palin-esque way, the influence of the liberal media. Paul O’Neill, the Treasury Secretary who was a considerable source for Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty, is given a short mention and quickly dismissed, with clear animosity and not even a vague attempt to address what Suskind (and many others since) wrote about.

More a thank you note to supporters, and a letter of love to family, Decision Points could have been so much more. Sadly, however, I feel it falls short of what President Bush could have produced and perhaps should have written – as someone who so frequently suggests future historians will redeem him, it is disappointing that he gave them so little to work with. A proper account of his perspective would have been invaluable to students of American history, the presidency, the early 2000s, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

To sum up, there are better books to read on the Bush presidency – from both positive and negative perspectives – all of which offer more and greater understanding of George W Bush’s eight years in office.

These include:

Robert Draper, Dead Certain (2007); Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty (2004); Jacob Weisberg, The Bush Tragedy (2007); James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans (2004); Bob Woodward, Bush At War (2003), Plan of Attack (2004), State of Denial (2006), The War Within (2008); Thomas Ricks, The Gamble (2008); Linda Robinson, Tell Me How This Ends (2007)