In this richly sourced volume offering much to admire but also much to view darkly, the biographer of presidents Eisenhower, Grant, and Franklin Roosevelt analyzes the American leader who dubbed himself “The Decider.”
Jean Edward Smith renders George Walker Bush in three dimensions, thoroughly but almost always critically. To the author, his subject is a rough rider of few positive attributes who backed into the Texas governorship when opponent Ann Richards stumbled. Bush then had the good fortune to run for president against Al Gore, whose election it was to lose—a task accomplished agonizingly. Amid flashes of objectivity, the author comes across as a relentless partisan.
Besides selective facts and opinions, Smith provides an interpretation for future readers vague on the Bush era, the presidency, and American politics. In his preface he states, “Rarely…has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush.” That declaration might surprise students of Andrew Johnson, Pierce, Buchanan, Fillmore, Tyler, and Lincoln. Time often changes perceptions; consider the reputations of the Great Emancipator and Harry Truman.
Among negatives, Smith emphasizes Bush’s wartime decisions and leadership style, deploring his “sanctimonious religiosity” and habit of “strutting around like a cowboy.” In the partially positive column, he ranks Bush’s response to momentous financial market challenges. Smith considers the 43rd president’s truly positive achievements to be his overseas efforts against AIDS and his role in the transition to his successor.
Although Smith expertly augments the unfolding of events with comparisons to other presidents’ experiences, he typically ignores Barack Obama, even when Obama faced similar issues.
Bush, Smith writes, “precipitated the deterioration of America’s position abroad, led the United States into a $3 trillion war in Iraq that cost more than four thousand American lives and an unwinnable conflict in Afghanistan, promulgated an egregious doctrine of preventive war, alienated America’s allies, weakened its alliances, and inspired young Muslims throughout the world to join the jihad.” Judging the move to topple Saddam Hussein, Smith trades in hindsight illuminated by information to which, in the moment, Bush 43 did not have access.
In Bush’s post-9/11 statement that “we will make no distinctions between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them,” Smith sees “an extreme example of executive overreach” that has the president “placing the United States on a permanent war footing.” Indicting Bush’s “extreme theory of executive power,” Smith overlooks Jefferson’s purchase of Louisiana, FDR’s wartime confinement of American citizens, and various Obama actions. “The Patriot Act was a direct assault on the civil liberties Americans enjoy, particularly the right to privacy, and may be the most ill-conceived piece of domestic legislation since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798,” Smith writes. Yet he scarcely mentions Franklin Roosevelt’s unconstitutional activities and Supreme Court–packing scheme.
If you seek a book that consistently disparages George W. Bush’s presidency, consider this one. If you want Bush 43 rendered with balance and objectivity, this is not the volume for you.
—Richard Culyer is a writer in Hartsville, South Carolina