How Religion Drove George W. Bush's Decisions: An Interview with Biographer Jean Edward Smith

tags: religion, interview, George W Bush, Jean Edward Smith

Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Salon, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, and others. He has a special interest in the history of conflict and human rights. You can find his other interviews here.  His email: robinlindley@gmail.com.

Unprepared for the complexities of governing, with little

executive experience and a glaring deficit in his attention

span, untutored, untraveled, and unversed in the ways of the

world, Bush thrived on making a show of his decisiveness. . .

But his greatest strength became his worst flaw.

Jean Edward Smith, Bush

Professor Jean Edward Smith’s in-depth and incisive new biography of the 43rd president, Bush (Simon and Schuster) begins with this striking sentence: “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush.” He proves his case in the following pages.

In Bush, Professor Smith recounts W’s childhood in Texas; lackluster academic career at Andover, Yale, and Harvard Business School; Air National Guard service; business ventures; alcoholism; marriage to Laura; embrace of born-again Christianity; and term as Texas governor. But the bulk of the book is devoted to Bush’s presidency and his disastrous foreign policy.

Notably, Professor Smith belies the impression that Bush was manipulated by high-level advisors such as Vice President Dick Cheney, Advisor Karl Rove, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and other neoconservatives. Bush prided himself on being “The Decider” and, after 9/11, as “The War President.” He conducted his foreign policy with a religious certitude. He oversimplified conflicts abroad and saw himself as a Christian crusader, as God’s agent to defeat evil.

According to Professor Smith, Bush—not his seasoned advisors— made the decisions to invade Iraq and to prolong the war after “Mission Accomplished,” and then to allow, among other actions, widespread surveillance, torture, and rendition of suspected terrorists—all while testing the bounds of domestic and international law and often ignoring the concerns of military and diplomatic experts.

Professor Smith credits Bush with domestic successes such as No Child Left Behind, drug benefits for seniors, and leading the global fight against AIDS. But he carefully explores Bush’s record and finds that his actions in the Middle East were disastrous. In the last sentence of his book, Professor Smith concludes that Bush’s “decision to invade Iraq is easily the worst foreign policy decision made by an American president.”

Professor Smith’s acclaimed books also include Eisenhower in War and PeaceFDR, winner of the 2008 Francis Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians; Grant, a 2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist; John Marshall: Definer of a Nation; and Lucius D. Clay: An American Life. George F. Will called Professor Smith “America’s greatest living biographer.”

Professor Smith taught at the University of Toronto for 35 years before joining the faculty at Marshall University where he was the John Marshall Professor of Political Science. He has also served as a visiting scholar at Columbia, Princeton, and Georgetown.

Professor Smith generously responded by telephone to a series of questions on his work.

Robin Lindley: I admire your past biographies Professor Smith. In your earlier books, you wrote about exalted figures of the past such as John Marshall, Grant, FDR and Eisenhower. What inspired your book on a living ex-president, George W. Bush?

Professor Jean Edward Smith: I had just finished the manuscript of the Eisenhower book and was in New York talking with my editor. He asked me what I wanted to do and, off the top of my head, I said, “Why not George W. Bush?”

Now, Bush is really the second biography I’ve written about someone who is still alive. My first biography before John Marshall was about Lucius Clay, the governor of Germany and later head of Lehmann Brothers, who was still alive. So I had some experience in writing about someone who was still alive.

Robin Lindley: My editor Rick Shenkman and I are both curious about what it was like for you to work every day for years on the life of George W. Bush?

Professor Jean Edward Smith: It took me about four years and I worked just about every day. I get up early in the morning and write in the mornings. I had signed a contract to write it, so I just wrote it. It wasn’t as enjoyable as writing about Grant or Roosevelt or Eisenhower, but I felt it was a challenge to say how things were. The challenge kept me going.

Robin Lindley: What was your research process for this book on Bush? I understand that Bush refused to talk with you. Did you have an opportunity to talk with other officials from his administration?

Professor Jean Edward Smith: Yes. I spoke with Dick Cheney a number of times and I spoke with Don Rumsfeld a number of times.

Let me say that people write books quite differently and research differently. Some people do their research for two or three years before they start to write, on one end of the spectrum. I’m at the other end of the spectrum. I do it chapter by chapter. I do research on one chapter and write it, then another chapter and write it, and so forth. I find that an orderly way to do it and that way I don’t have to have the whole thing laid out in front of me before I begin. And I think if you do it chapter by chapter it narrows the work down.

Robin Lindley: You tell the story in a masterful and very compelling way. Before I get into the book, I want to ask about your writing process. I understand that you write your drafts on yellow legal pads.

Professor Jean Edward Smith: It’s very primitive. I write on yellow paper with a ballpoint pen. I’ve always done that and, fortunately, I have a secretary who can read what I write. The first draft is handwritten and from then on we’re dealing with typescript. Yes, I write the first draft by hand, and I try to write three or four pages a day. That keeps me moving through.

Robin Lindley: Were you interested in history and biography even as child?

Professor Jean Edward Smith: [Laughter] I’m laughing because, as a child, my grandmother read to me in biography almost every day before I even went to elementary school. So yes, I’ve been dealing with biography from a very early age. Curiously, when I was doing my doctorate at Columbia, the chairman of the department when I took my orals asked me about the books I’d read, and he said, “My goodness. There are a lot of biographies here.” So it’s something I’ve kept up.

Robin Lindley: What was the topic of your dissertation?

Professor Jean Edward Smith: That’s an interesting question. Columbia has a rule that they will accept a book in print as a dissertation. I wrote The Defense of Berlin after I got out of the Army and before I went to graduate school, and it was published by Johns Hopkins University Press, and Columbia accepted it as my dissertation.

Robin Lindley: Was that book on the Berlin Airlift?

Professor Jean Edward Smith: It took up the whole Berlin business from 1944 until the building of the wall in 1961. The book is really about the building of the wall but it starts with the decisions in 1944 to divide Berlin and to divide Germany into zones of occupation.

Robin Lindley: That sounds fascinating. To go to your new biography Bush, you detail the family history and George W. Bush’s younger years. What did you see in his pre-presidential years that hinted at a future presidency?

Professor Jean Edward Smith: There wasn’t much there in terms of executive experience but there’s a lot there in the sense that Bush became a born-again Christian. He believed that he and God were very close and that he was God’s agent here on earth just to fight evil. That’s something Bush developed during that time.

In 1994, after his father lost the election [for the presidency] in 1992, he ran for governor of Texas against Ann Richards who was heavily favored, and Bush upset her. I think that upsetting her energized him a great deal as far as politics.

His brother Jeb also ran for governor of Florida in 1994, and Jeb lost, although Jeb had been favored. I think those two gubernatorial elections in 1994 put George on the road to succeed his father rather than Jeb.

Robin Lindley: You note that the governor of Texas is largely a symbolic role with little authority. Did you see experiences in Bush’s work as governor or other events in his life before the presidency that prepared him for the presidency?

Professor Jean Edward Smith: No, unlike Roosevelt or Eisenhower or Grant, for that matter. But on the other hand, he was very effective in terms of his public relations and in terms of getting votes. He knew how to run an election and to win. That’s very important for a president.

Robin Lindley: And you stress that, as president, Bush was “The Decider,” as he famously proclaimed. There has been a sense that the decision makers were Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove and others in the White House, but you make a strong case that Bush was truly making the decisions and reveled in his role as “the war president.”

Professor Jean Edward Smith: Yes. When he came into office initially, I think Cheney did play an important role because, after all, Cheney had been chief of staff to Ford and Secretary of Defense under George Herbert Walker Bush, and a member of Congress for 11 years. So Cheney did know Washington and initially Cheney did play an important role.

But Bush pursued what he wanted to pursue. For example, when he first came into office, he was interested in tax cuts, so he pursued that. Then he was interested in No Child Left Behind, and he pursued that.

But after 9/11 Bush played his role as commander-in-chief and everyone fell into line, and Bush was comfortable with that.

Robin Lindley: Some commentators have written that Bush and his neoconservative advisors, from day one in office, wanted to go after Saddam even as they dropped the ball on anti-terrorism efforts under Clinton that were targeting al Qaeda. Your account is more nuanced.

Professor Jean Edward Smith: [Saddam] was on a back burner perhaps, but Bush was interested in domestic affairs when he came into office. The National Security Council met 23 times before 9/11, and Bush attended only the first one of those meetings. That was an area he wasn’t much involved in. But after 9/11, that became the center of his attention.

And Bush insisted he was the commander-in-chief. Cheney, for example, the day after 9/11—on 9/12—met with Bush early in the morning and said he’d conduct a meeting of cabinet officials and present Bush with solutions. Bush said no. He was commander-in-chief and he would take care of it, which he then did.

Bush was very much in charge and he was “The Decider.” Cheney’s role diminished after the first year and, of course, the Scooter Libby incident diminished him further. So Cheney was eventually on the sidelines.

Robin Lindley: It’s incredible to me how often Bush rejected the advice of his Secretary of State Colin Powell and other experienced military leaders. As you describe, when Bush proclaimed “Mission Accomplished” on May 1, 2003—weeks after the Iraq invasion, he then went on to proclaim that he aimed to establish a democracy in Iraq, and he said that out of the blue without planning or consulting of anyone else.

Professor Jean Edward Smith: That’s exactly right. That’s one of the crucial decisions in this whole business.

The military and State Department both assumed were going in to topple Saddam and find whatever weapons of mass destruction and get out within 90 days, and leave it up to the Iraqis to solve things. Bush pulled them up short when he did that on May 1, 2003 on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln. They were totally unprepared for it. Rumsfeld objected a bit to it by sending a memo to Bush, but then [his advisors] simply carried out Bush’s instructions.

Let me give you another example of that. In March 2001, the South Korean president came to Washington. The Clinton administration and South Korea had worked from 1994 on to bring North Korea back into the family of nations. North Korea was going to renounce nuclear weapons and the South Koreans and the United States were going to provide financial assistance. Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went to Pyongyang in December 2000, and the president of South Korean came to Washington in March to put the final seal on the deal. Bush unilaterally said no. That was the first time that General Powell was caught off base with Bush who said he wouldn’t do this.

Bush said the North Koreans were evil and we would not deal with them, and that was it. That’s an example of the president doing something by taking personal charge. And that was a great disaster probably.

Robin Lindley: His religious beliefs must have affected that Korean decision and his crusade in the Middle East.

Professor Jean Edward Smith: Exactly. Bush felt he was God’s agent here on earth to defeat evil. If you believe that, you don’t have to worry about all of the other restrictions. The clearest example of that is when he called President Chirac of France just before the invasion of Iraq, and he wanted France to be with us in that. He told Chirac that this was conflict against “Gog and Magog before the final judgment”—from the book of Revelation. Chirac didn’t know what Bush was talking about. When it was explained to him, it made Chirac all the more certain that he didn’t want any part of it.

Robin Lindley: It’s stunning that Bush’s religion played such a key role as he acted as “The Decider” and ignored advisors.

Professor Jean Edward Smith: It led to catastrophe. I think in 2007 and 2008 Bush was aware that he overreacted. He was much more cautious by his last two years in office. That explains why, in 2008 during the financial downturn, he was able to follow the advice of his Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke. So he did two things that he wouldn’t ordinarily have done to stop the downturn.

Robin Lindley: You give Bush a lot of credit for handling the financial crisis, but I sensed he was remote from those decisions by Paulson and Bernanke.

Professor Jean Edward Smith: He made those decisions and those decisions were his. He didn’t insert his own judgment into it. He followed what Paulson and Bernanke advised him to do. That was so much different from what he did in foreign relations.

Robin Lindley: Condoleezza Rice is a somewhat overlooked figure, but I get the sense from your book that she was Bush’s most important advisor. It seems Bush relied on her advice more than on anyone else.

Professor Jean Edward Smith: Yes, I think that’s true. And Condoleezza saw her role as national security advisor differently from all of her predecessors in that position who believed they should present the president with all of the possibilities of an issue, whereas she felt it was her job to put Bush’s views into effect and tell him what he wanted to hear.

Robin Lindley: It seems that Secretary Rice and other advisors isolated Bush and told him what he wanted to hear, and that led to pleasing him rather than ever questioning his decisions.

Professor Jean Edward Smith: I think that’s true. When Bush took office, he had Colin Powell as Secretary of State, Don Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, and Paul O’Neill as Secretary of the Treasury. These were very seasoned Washington hands. O’Neill left after two years, Powell after four years, and Rumsfeld after six. Powell was essentially caught off guard, I think.

Robin Lindley: What do you see as Bush’s role in the decisions on torture or “enhanced interrogation,” the rendition of terror suspects, and the prison at Guantanamo?

Professor Jean Edward Smith: These were all his decisions. The people in charge brought it to him to decide and he believed this was perfectly correct. After all, if you are God’s agent here fighting evil, all of these things are justified. That explains why Bush went to enhanced interrogation procedures and so forth.

Also, with Abu Ghraib [Prison], the pictures are terrible, and we all saw them at the time. I don’t think many people followed the story after that, but if they had followed the story, they would have found that these actions were taken by the guards at Abu Ghraib only at the instruction of the CIA that wanted the prisoners roughed up before they were interrogated. This wasn’t something that the guards did on their own.

Robin Lindley: How did Bush view our international agreements and the Geneva Conventions that condemn inhumane treatment such as torture?

Professor Jean Edward Smith: He thought they were irrelevant. I go back once again to the fact that he saw his job as fighting evil. And if you see your job as fighting the devil and evil, the Geneva Conventions are irrelevant. I think that was his view of both the Geneva Conventions and the laws against enhanced interrogation.

Robin Lindley: He also seemed to regard some sections of the Constitution as irrelevant. You explain his expansive view of the presidency and how he used signing statements on legislation that came before him.

Professor Jean Edward Smith: That’s very interesting. Bush did not veto any legislation until his fifth year in office. He used signing statements. He would sign the legislations and then, in signing statements, take exception to certain provisions in the legislation, which in effect, meant that the administration was not going to put into effect. It was like a line-item veto, which a president cannot do.

I do have some figures. Harry Truman vetoed 250 pieces of legislation. Eisenhower vetoed 181. Bush, in his first five years, didn’t veto any and, all together, he vetoed about six—after the whistle was blown on these signing statements.

Robin Lindley: So Bush believed that, as president, he had the power to nullify parts of the acts he signed. That certainly flies in the face of the Constitution.

Professor Jean Edward Smith: That’s exactly right, and that’s what the American Bar Association said. Finally, he backed off and stopped doing it and began vetoing measures.

Robin Lindley: And, on the act Congress passed prohibiting torture, he added a signing statement that he would follow that act only to the extent he found it constitutional.

Professor Jean Edward Smith: That’s right. With a veto, the act can go back to Congress to override the veto if they want. But there is no way to override a signing statement.

Robin Lindley: You conclude that Bush may not be the worst president in American history, but he made the worst foreign policy decision in our history with the invasion of Iraq. From your book, it seems he may be the worst president in living memory.

Professor Jean Edward Smith: I think Herbert Hoover has that pretty well locked up. But I do believe that the decision to invade Iraq is the worst foreign policy decision a president has ever made. The terrorism we face today is directly attributable to the fact that Bush removed Saddam. There was no ISIS under Saddam.

Robin Lindley: Bush has left us with what some call “Forever War.” Did he have a vision for what victory in Iraq would look like?

Professor Jean Edward Smith: He wanted to make a democracy in Iraq. He said on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln he saw a democracy like the United States. It was very naïve, and Bush was very naïve when it came to foreign policy. He traveled abroad very little and he was not conversant with the field, and this was the result.

Robin Lindley: Have you heard from Bush or any administration officials since your book came out?

 Professor Jean Edward Smith: I have not been contacted by any member of the Bush administration since the book was published, and I do not expect to be. It would be interesting to see if the book was for sale in the Bush library in Dallas. I doubt it.

Robin Lindley: As one of our most esteemed presidential historians, what is your sense of the 2016 presidential campaign?

Professor Jean Edward Smith: The 2016 presidential campaign is unique. At the age of 83, I cannot recall anything similar. I'm surprised that Trump defeated a field of 16 other candidates for the GOP nomination, and I would not write him off for November. He appeals to the great outback, and that may be enough. But I doubt it.

Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add about Bush’s legacy or anything you’ve learned on the road since the book appeared?

Professor Jean Edward Smith: I’d like to say that Bush, as an ex-president, has been exemplary. Let me put it this way. When Obama took the oath of office, Bush told friends that he was “free at last.” I think, by the seventh and eighth year, he was overwhelmed by the job and was happy to leave.

Since leaving office in January 2009, I think he’s done a good job as an ex-president. He has not said anything on political issues. He endorsed his brother Jeb three days before the Florida primary, but it was very matter of fact. He has managed to stay out of politics completely, and I think that’s remarkable. I think Bush realizes he messed up and is happy to stay out of it.

Robin Lindley: Thank you for your insights Professor Smith and congratulations on your exhaustive new biography of President Bush.

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