I’m just coming to the end of George W. Bush’s memoir Decision Points. I can already say that it’s exceptionally readable and well-written for such a book (I believe Bush’s 28-year-old former speechwriter Christopher Michel did ghost-writing duties).
The book reminds us of what it was like to have a gracious and good man as president, a man who thought more of the office and the country than of himself, a man who treated even his most virulent critics with generosity and respect. It’s a reminder we can all use right about now.
As it should, the book also adds Bush’s own vote to the decision of history. W’s presidency is a tough one to judge at this point. He was elected during the best of times, the legacy of Ronald Reagan’s stewardship of the economy and the Cold War, a legacy maintained through the administrations of Bush’s father and Bill Clinton. He himself intended to add to that legacy and to become known as “the education president.” But all that ended on 9/11, when he was called to respond to one of the worst crises this country has ever faced. Then came Katrina, one of the worst storms ever to hit the US. And of course, the financial crisis, also one of the worst. Rather than a good man for good times, W was called upon to rise to greatness in terrible times.
Whether he succeeded or not – or how much he succeeded and didn’t – is, again, difficult to judge so soon after the events. In Decision Points, W explains his thinking and his feelings, which is all that he can do.
But for those of us who admired W. the man – agreeing with his decisions sometimes, disagreeing other times – the book also highlights one of the most frustrating aspects of his administration: his refusal to engage his critics in the press. I use the word “critics” charitably. They were animals. I’m thinking skunks and weasels mostly, but then perhaps that’s unfair to skunks and weasels. They hammered him with hysterical coverage of non-scandal scandals like the Valerie Plame silliness (the real scandal was Joe Wilson’s perfidy), by elevating the unstable Cindy Sheehan to the level of “Peace Mom,” echoing outright horse manure like “Bush lied, people died,” and responding to his mis-steps – as when he didn’t do a New Orleans photo op during Katrina – with coverage tantamount to hate speech. Worst of all was the coverage of the War on Terror: the New York Times tried to label it a Vietnam-like quagmire less than a month after it began. The Times, CNN, CBS – the so-called MSM – their coverage of W’s administration was dishonest and despicable.
Bush never responded to these hateful and hate-filled critics while in office, frustrating those of his friends who wanted the people to hear his side directly from him. In Decision Points, while he responds in the sense of explaining his actions, he still refuses to punch back. In a recent interview with Bill O’Reilly, he said he didn’t want to lower the office of the presidency by getting in the dirt with these people.
All well and good. I admire that. But the fact was that the impression these critics created with their lies and distortions had an effect on W’s decisions and his administration. He admits that the perception they manufactured of his response to Katrina weakened him politically, that their selling of the war’s failures increased pressure to surrender, and their hysteria over his attempt at Social Security reform made consensus next to impossible. By not responding he let the media impressions stand and increased their power.
This, for me, is Paradox W: the fact that he sought to remain above the media lies while his actions were badly hampered by them. It seems to me that men like Reagan – and now New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – understand that an executive can confront the media without demeaning himself, letting the truth have its way while exposing the techniques, assumptions and distortions of our ideologically corrupt press.