The Reckless Reign of W.

We are still living with the forty-third president’s legacy.

Until his death in 2007, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. served as editor of the Times Books series called “The American Presidents.” Since that time, the Princeton historian and professor Sean Wilentz has edited the collection, which aims to “present the grand panorama of our chief executives in volumes compact enough for the busy reader, lucid enough for the scholar.” For the edition on President George W. Bush, Wilentz enlisted the services of James Mann, award-winning reporter and author of Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet.

Mar15-Mann-Books
George W. Bush

by James Mann
Times Books, 208 pp.

Here, as is sometimes the case, the genre dictates the form: the biographies are supposed to conform to a standard: they should be “meditation-length biographical essays” that distill the “life, character, and career” of each president while focusing primarily on their time in the White House. This is not a polemical book.

That in itself presents a challenge to the author who must contend with a presidency and an era in which the definition of reality itself had become contentious.

On the whole, however, James Mann has done a commendable job of recounting the early life of George W. Bush, his rise as a politician, and the major events and decisions of his two terms as president. Mann maintains an evenhanded tone without being non-committal about the countless controversies that arose during Bush’s presidency. At the same time, to his credit, Mann doesn’t allow the imposed format to force him into an uninteresting recitation of facts.

The Bush presidency was birthed on television as the nation sat riveted to images of poll workers examining hanging chads during the recount in Florida, a painful process that was ultimately short-circuited by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bush v. Gore. When the country and the courts cannot even agree on what constitutes a vote or who actually won an election, it doesn’t augur well for a dispassionate interpretation of a presidency.

Even those who are familiar with Bush’s basic biography and paid close attention to politics during his terms in office will find insights, both trivial and substantive, that help flesh out their understanding of the forty-third president and his administration. The reader will be interested to learn, for example, that when he graduated from flight school in the Texas Air National Guard it was his father who pinned his wings on him and gave the commencement address. Or, that during the Florida recount, Bush spent his time at his Crawford, Texas, ranch, which did not yet have any cable or satellite television. With little details like this Mann keeps an otherwise familiar and dispiriting narrative fresh.

The opening chapters familiarize the reader with the Bush clan and W.’s life and experiences from birth through his two terms as governor of Texas and “election” as president. While Mann treads lightly around controversies like Bush’s alleged time AWOL during his service in the Alabama National Guard (never mentioning the name Dan Rather, for example), he pulls no punches in describing Bush’s period as a self-described “boozy kid.” At Yale, Bush served as president of Delta Kappa Epsilon, a fraternity known for its conspicuous alcohol consumption, and he organized the frat’s first-ever toga party. Mann writes,

The first time George W. Bush’s name ever appeared in the New York Times, it was to defend his fraternity. In 1967, amid the turmoil of the antiwar protests sweeping college campuses, the Yale Daily News reported that DKE had ‘branded’ forty of its new recruits by applying a hot coat hanger to their backs in a way that singed into the flesh the Greek letter Delta.

In another account, Mann notes that Poppy Bush only learned that George had been accepted to the Harvard Business School when Jeb told him, in an effort to defuse a confrontation over George’s drunk and belligerent behavior. As Mann has it, Jeb hoped to show his father that George “was not the ne’er-do-well he may have seemed.”

As we know, the turning point for George didn’t come until he turned forty, gave up drinking, and (with the help of Billy Graham) found religion. Mann doesn’t miss the connection between George’s sudden interest in sobriety and religion and his father’s intention to run for president in 1988. As early as April of 1985, the whole family had been summoned to Camp David, and the campaign strategist Lee Atwater warned all the children that they would be heavily scrutinized by their father’s rivals. Mann notes that Bush’s wife, Laura, and his longtime friend Joe O’Neill have both remarked that a desire not to embarrass the campaign was a major factor in his decision to put down the bottle. The influence of evangelical conservatives had been growing within the Republican coalition, and Bush Sr. had a strained relationship with them. Barbara Bush had even referred to some evangelical leaders as “these fakes.” For Mann, this made George’s “conversion” a valuable device that gave the campaign an in with this important voting bloc. When the campaign put one of the televangelist Jim Bakker’s aides on the staff, George W. became his minder. This interpretation of Bush’s turnaround is as close as Mann comes to being cynical.

Interestingly, it wasn’t Bush Sr.’s election as president but his defeat that opened the door to W.’s political career. Once the Bushes and Karl Rove orchestrated the defeat of Texas Governor Ann Richards, it was but a short step from the Austin statehouse to the White House. Mann writes,

Politically, the details of Bush’s performance as governor did not matter all that much. His name was Bush and he was the Republican governor of the nation’s second-largest state; those facts alone made him a likely presidential contender. Later, after he won the Republican presidential nomination, a reporter asked his father to explain George W.’s rapid ascent. The former president replied that once his son became governor of Texas, “It’s a six-inch putt.”

Mann breaks down Bush’s first term in office, unsurprisingly, before and after 9/11. As Mann notes, “the most consequential piece of domestic legislation of Bush’s entire tenure in the White House was enacted less than five months after he took office.” This was Bush’s first round of massive tax cuts for the wealthy. It was a legislative victory that came with devastating short- and long-term costs. In the short term, the process so alienated Republican Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont that he decided to caucus with the Democrats, taking control of the upper chamber away from the Republicans. In the long term, Bush’s tax cuts squandered the surplus, ran up enormous deficits, and led to the greatest income inequality the country had seen since the eve of the Great Depression in 1929.

Up to this point, the book reads much like any other presidential biography, but things take a sharp turn once 9/11 and its aftermath arrive. Mann recounts the harrowing events of 9/11, noting that Dick Cheney appeared to take charge of the nation’s emergency response, leaving the president looking like he was out of the loop.

The full implications of the Bush administration’s initial reactions to the attacks, from the passage of the Patriot Act to the opening of the detention camp at Guantànamo Bay and the launching of “enhanced interrogations” to the dark prisons and warrantless surveillance, would not be thoroughly known and understood until his second term in office and beyond. In what remained of his first term, everything would revolve around the decision to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein.

“Overall, the Iraq War now seems like a strategic blunder of epic proportions, among the most serious in modern history, and it is difficult to see how future historians can decide otherwise,” writes Mann. In his chapter dedicated to Iraq, Mann notes the faulty assumptions and poor planning that led to this epic blunder, but he doesn’t give full treatment to the magnitude of the deception. There is no mention of Douglas Feith’s Office of Special Plans and the stovepiping of intelligence. Or the role of the New York Times reporter Judith Miller in disseminating propaganda from the vice president’s office. We read nothing about Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge’s color-coded terror charts and advice that we all buy bottled water, plastic sheeting, and duct tape to protect ourselves from weapons of mass destruction.

That the war (or, rather, the occupation) wasn’t going at all as planned was temporarily mitigated in late 2003 when Saddam Hussein was captured. But when the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke in April 2004, Bush claimed to be blindsided. According to Condoleezza Rice, “We never recovered fully.” It was around this time that Bush’s foreign policy team began to come apart at the seams. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell both attempted to resign, and Cheney offered to be left off the 2004 ticket. Meanwhile, nearly two dozen officials at the Justice Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and Federal Bureau of Investigation threatened to resign in protest over unconstitutional practices in the National Security Agency’s Terrorist Surveillance Program. Bush backed down but, again, claimed to have been blindsided.

Considering the bitterness that came later from Powell and his subordinates, the most revelatory element of this part of the book is Mann’s reporting that Powell had a change of heart after Bush’s reelection and offered to stay on in his post.

He was rebuffed.

As the book moves into its third and final section, we’re introduced to something that foreshadows some of the problems that President Obama would face in his two terms in office. George W. Bush thought he had earned some political capital by being reelected, but soon discovered that he had no ability to move public opinion or, especially, Congress in his effort to privatize Social Security. Despite embarking on a multistate trip into the heartland to sell his reforms, the bill never even saw a vote.

The failure of the Social Security privatization push was only one blow in what turned out to be a disastrous 2005. Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to serve on the Supreme Court was soundly rejected by his own party. The violence in Iraq did not abate despite local elections, and the Democrats, emboldened by an invigorated antiwar movement, began to move sharply against the war. Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was indicted for obstructing justice in the Valerie Plame affair. And then came Hurricane Katrina. According to Mann, even Karl Rove had objected to the appointment of Michael Brown to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency, noting his complete lack of relevant experience.

The year 2006 brought even worse news. The Supreme Court ruled in Hamden v. Rumsfeld that the administration had been violating the Constitution in their treatment of prisoners at Gitmo, necessitating a scramble to set up a military commissions system that never worked. In Iraq, the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra set off a sectarian war, leading Condi Rice to tell Bush, “Mr. President, what we are doing is not working—really not working. It’s failing.” A group of retired generals rose up to demand the ouster of Rumsfeld, who was nonetheless retained. As the midterms loomed, Bush was dragging the Republicans to ruin.

In September, Mitch McConnell, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, asked to speak to the president in private. Inside the Oval Office, he told Bush that, because of his growing unpopularity, the Republicans were going to lose control of the House and the Senate in the November elections. He pleaded with Bush to start withdrawing some American troops from Iraq. Bush responded that he was not going to let his policy in Iraq be determined by the polls.

McConnell’s predictions came true, of course, ushering in the last phase of Bush’s presidency, in which he would have to contend with a Democratic Congress. Rumsfeld was finally cashiered, and Robert Gates was brought in to right the ship. (When told that Rumsfeld was gone, Condi Rice later said, “I could barely contain my joy.”) Bush defied the election results and ordered a surge of new troops into Iraq in a desperate effort to salvage the disaster there. For Mann, this was the point at which Bush began to become his own man, less reliant on his advisers. The public didn’t perceive the change at the time “because the Iraq War was still ongoing,” but Bush was moving away from Cheney’s influence.

Slowly, things began to get better. But any hope that Bush might have had of salvaging his legacy came to an end when the housing bubble burst in September 2008 and the Great Recession began in earnest. “As September opened, we expected a harsh presidential campaign but an otherwise calm fall,” wrote Laura Bush. Then, between September 7 and September 16, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had to be bailed out, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, Bank of America bought up Merrill Lynch, and the Federal Reserve had to rescue AIG. On September 24, John McCain briefly suspended his campaign. September 29 saw the biggest drop to date in the Dow Jones Index.

Once again, the president had been blindsided.

Mann is careful to note that the financial collapse had seeds in deregulatory efforts that began in the 1970s and were exacerbated by actions taken during the Clinton administration. And he gives Bush credit for dispensing with his ideological predilections during the crisis to enact TARP and save the auto industry. One sign of this break from his natural allies is that Bush didn’t receive a single vote from the Texas delegation on the first TARP vote.

Given the constraints of the format for the book, Mann does a better than adequate job of covering the essential events of Bush’s presidency in a fair way. Inevitably, some things fall through the cracks. There is no mention of the U.S. attorneys scandal, for example, which may have been the most egregious domestic act of national sabotage of Bush’s entire two terms in office. How can one estimate the damage done by the complete politicization of the Department of Justice?

Mann concludes that Bush wasn’t responsible for all the difficulties that America faced both during and after his two terms in office, but he was poorly prepared for the office and self-consciously reckless: “Once, in the midst of a discussion with his military advisers, Bush made a telling observation. ‘Somebody has to be risk-averse in this process, and it better be you, because I’m sure not.'”

It is hard to believe that posterity will be kind to an accidental presidency that owed its existence more to a flawed ballot design in Palm Beach County and a sympathetic Supreme Court majority than to the will of the people. At one point during the first term, a Bush official speaking to the reporter Ron Suskind derided critics in “the reality-based community” and said, “We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

When we study what they did, we realize that we’re still suffering the consequences.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.