Review: Decision Points, “by” George W. Bush

I’m not sure what I can say about Decision Points that others have not far more eloquently said before me. But here are my impressions of the memoir of a president that I consider to be the worst in American history (worse even than the usual fallback guy, Warren Harding, or the nonentities like Millard Fillmore)—in five points.

1. The book is very well-structured. Though the title is, as my mom pointed out, “so him” (and not in a good way), I actually appreciated the way Bush deviated from the usual political-memoir narrative and organized his story according to topic, not time frame.

2. The book is terribly written. I don’t even blame Bush for this simply because it’s glaringly obvious he didn’t actually write it, but Jesus, you’d think he could have chosen a better ghostwriter. Getting through all 477 pages—and I have to say, I’m kind of proud of myself for actually reading the entire thing—was painful, though there were a couple of genuine laughs, thanks almost solely to Bush’s encounters with eccentric foreign leaders (actually, just Vladimir Putin). 

3. Bush (or whoever’s speaking for him) is astoundingly devoid of any kind of . . . I’m not even sure what to call it. Awareness? Though most reviews have pointed out that Bush is willing to admit his many mistakes (his medal’s in the mail), I found the overall narrative shockingly brazen in terms of its cherry-picking of anecdotes—does he honestly believe Americans have such short attention spans that we won’t remember the Downing Street Memo (in which the head of British intelligence claimed the “intelligence and facts” about WMD “were being fixed around the policy” of war)?  Or the testimony of (among others) counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke, Colin Powell’s chief of staff and Powell himself? Or the Administration’s repeated attempts to link Saddam to 9/11 (the book barely hints at this propaganda campaign, mentioning only that Saddam issued a statement praising 9/11. Yeah, that’s the same.) Or that, in any event, the White House Iraq Group was founded before 9/11? Or the well-and-widely-known fact that General Eric Shinseki was fired for asserting before Congress that more troops would be needed to secure the peace in Iraq, despite Bush’s tepid denial in these pages? Or the infamous August “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Within the United States” memo that was virtually ignored by the Administration? And on and on. It’s one thing for Bush to defend his decisions—every political memoir in the history of the world has done the same, including my idol’s My Life. But Clinton’s defense of, say, Lewinskygate doesn’t go so far as to quibble with the actual details of his crime (I use this term colloquially); rather, he wisely focuses on that upon which I think we can all agree: the fact that his attackers—namely, Ken Starr—went way too far and ended up looking like perverts with their noses pressed up against the glass, hanging on to every revelation about somebody else’s sex life. Bush, on the other hand, isn’t content with simply demonizing his attackers—his narrative actually paints an alternative version of reality and hopes readers are too ill-informed to remember that it didn’t actually happen that way. A few years ago, reading Decision Points would have infuriated me; now, I simply feel weary. Maybe because it’s futile to keep beating the same dead horse . . . I mean, even the most die-hard Bush critics have their limits. But my “outrage fatigue” shouldn’t undermine the fact that Decision Points is basically an abomination.

At one point, Bush tries his hand at logic, explaining that the “Bush Lied, People Died” claims decorating placards at anti-war rallies everywhere didn’t make any sense, for if Bush were simply trying to gin up a case for war based on false pretenses, why would he rely so heavily on assertions that he knew would be disproven when weapons of mass destruction  inevitably weren’t found? In other words, flat-out lying about Saddam having WMD would be a pretty stupid move, even for him. (Bush also makes sure to mention the zillions of other people who believed the WMD existed, including what seems like every Democrat who ever served in Congress). He misses the entire point: “Liberals” never believed Bush didn’t think Saddam had the weapons; most of us were also inclined to think the worst of the Iraqi dictator. Rather, we believed that Bush cooked the intelligence because he believed so strongly that the weapons were there, in a Machiavellian, ends-justify-the-means maneuver, assuming that we’d all thank him later when his instincts about Saddam proved to be correct. Bush’s beliefs, his “gut feelings,” were 100 percent real; what he lied about was the whole “slam dunk” thing. What’s a little intelligence manipulation when it means getting rid of a guy he just knows wants to destroy the world, even if he can’t prove it?

And he’s right, both Clinton and the first George Bush believed Saddam was developing weapons; the difference is, neither of them invaded Iraq. And yes, Democrats in Congress believed in the weapons, too—but the war resolution most of them voted for simply gave Bush the authority to go to war (their big mistake was trusting that Bush would exhaust all diplomatic channels and ultimately abjure unilateralism) and, despite Bush’s repeated claims to the contrary, they were not privy to the same intelligence the White House was. Obviously, I can’t chronicle the full extent of the Bush Administration’s dissembling here—though Frank Rich’s 2007 book The Greatest Story Ever Sold does a splendid job—but the point is, Bush has rewritten history, and quite honestly, I can imagine more than a few gullible souls simply accepting his version of events, no questions asked.

Also, in the epilogue, Bush compares his “liberation” of Iraq with Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon, which I guess he believes has been vindicated by history (as Bush will be too, you see). Sometimes I’m really not sure this guy understands the gravity of, well, anything—not that I need to say it, but hundreds of thousands of lives lost (that’s including Iraqis) thanks to his recklessness isn’t quite on historical par with letting one man off the hook. Just saying.

4. Bush actually comes off like an affable, likeable guy in this thing—no small feat. (Of course, that’s if you’re able to overlook the disingenuousness I just spent the last 500-or-so words highlighting.) And Laura continues to intrigue me. Of course, most of my Laura Bush sympathies are grounded in Curtis Sittenfeld’s wonderful, fictionalized version of her life, but still.

5. Lastly, when I think, years from now, on the time I wasted reading George W. Bush’s memoir, I’ll probably recall first and foremost how many “decent” people Bush believed himself to have encountered throughout his time on this Earth. X, Y or Z congressman, ambassador or general; Bush’s old frat buddies from Yale; random Americans who write the president letters informing him that he’s number one on their prayer lists—they’re all just thoroughly “decent” folks. I’ve never before heard anybody repeatedly assign such a bland, nondescript, faux-humble label to quite so many people. Would it have killed the ghostwriter to use a thesaurus every now and then?

Aaaand that’s pretty much it.

Recommended: Though I’ve posted these reviews before, Michael Kinsley’s in The New York Times and Eliot Weinberger’s in the London Review of Books are the best.

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