How Bad Can a President Be?

Roundup
tags: George W Bush



Thomas Mallon, a novelist, an essayist, and a critic, is the author of, most recently, “Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years.”

Jean Edward Smith’s biography of George W. Bush goes on sale a day before the former President’s seventieth birthday, and it’s safe to say that no one will be bringing it as a present to the ranch outside Crawford. Smith, a well-regarded practitioner of military history and Presidential-life writing, comes straight to the point in the first sentence of his preface: “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush.” By the book’s last sentence, Smith is predicting a long debate over whether Bush “was the worst president in American history,” and while the biographer doesn’t vote on the question himself, the unhappy shade of James Buchanan will feel strongly encouraged by his more than six hundred pages.

And yet, for all the overheated denunciations—a rhetorical comparison gets made between Bush and Hitler—“Bush” (Simon & Schuster) doesn’t feel like a hatchet job. Like Bush himself, it is susceptible to sudden changes of heart and tone, and it never quite gets over a sense of loss for aspects of the pre-9/11 figure that Smith seems to enjoy imagining, however sketchily, in the book’s early stages.

The writer certainly doesn’t revile the compassionately conservative candidate of 2000. Bush may have permitted some brutal staff maneuvers against John McCain, but the campaign that Smith re-creates is mostly distinguished for eschewing “Nixon’s classic formula of running to the right in the primaries and then moving back to the center for the general election.” Making plans to govern “as the nation’s C.E.O.,” Bush disavowed nation-building abroad and put forward an agenda almost entirely focussed on what no one yet called the homeland. By Smith’s reckoning, Bush ran a better campaign, and then a better recount, than his opponent. If the author favors the dissent in Bush v. Gore, he never questions Bush’s legitimacy or lets up on the unappetizing aspects of his opponent, from Gore’s inclination toward “résumé enhancement” to his pompous debating demeanor. (Four years later, in his first duel with John Kerry, a charmless, impatient Bush seemed almost fatefully infected with a variant of Gore’s earlier boorishness.)

Smith points out that Bush attended no meetings of the National Security Council in the seven months prior to September 11, 2001. In her reports on these gatherings, Condoleezza Rice—Bush’s national-security adviser, workout partner, and something of an alter ego—tended to synthesize disagreements among the participants, leaving Bush with a false feeling of consensus. The President’s own focus was chiefly on matters like stem-cell-research regulation and the sort of educational reforms he had pushed through a Democratic legislature as governor of Texas. On the morning of 9/11, Laura Bush was in Ted Kennedy’s Senate office, having come to testify for the No Child Left Behind Act; the White House she returned to later that day was a wholly different place, a domestic cruise ship that had become an aircraft carrier.

In Smith’s view, the military and moral calamities began right then. If he is moderately critical of the President for being “asleep at the switch” in the period before the terrorist attacks—Bush felt no particular alarm when an August 6th C.I.A. briefing indicated that Osama bin Laden was up to at least something—the biographer is simply aghast once Bush seizes the controls. Within three days of September 11th, he says, the President had acquired a “boundless” confidence that put the country on a “permanent war footing” and the White House into a “hothouse climate of the President’s certitude.” ...




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