Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of the Year
Distinguished presidential biographer Jean Edward Smith offers a “comprehensive and compelling” (The New York Times) life of George W. Bush, showing how he ignored his advisors to make key decisions himself—most disastrously in invading Iraq—and how these decisions were often driven by the President’s deep religious faith.
George W. Bush, the forty-third president of the United States, almost singlehandedly decided to invade Iraq. It was possibly the worst foreign-policy decision ever made by a president. The consequences dominated the Bush Administration and still haunt us today.
In Bush, a “well-rounded portrait…necessary and valuable in this election year” (Christian Science Monitor), Jean Edward Smith demonstrates that it was not Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or Condoleezza Rice, but President Bush himself who took personal control of foreign policy. Bush drew on his deep religious conviction that important foreign-policy decisions were simply a matter of good versus evil. Domestically, he overreacted to 9/11 and endangered Americans’ civil liberties. Smith explains that it wasn’t until the financial crisis of 2008 that Bush finally accepted expert advice. As a result, he authorized decisions that saved the economy from possible collapse, even though some of those decisions violated Bush’s own political philosophy.
“An excellent initial assessment of a presidency that began in controversy…and ended with the international and domestic failures that saddled Bush with the most sustained negative ratings of any modern president” (Dallas Morning News), this comprehensive evaluation will surely surprise many readers. “Written in sober, smooth, snark-free prose, with an air of thoughtful, detached authority, the book is nonetheless exceedingly damning in its judgments about George W. Bush’s years in office” (The Washington Post).
Bush Preface Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush. When Bush took office in 2001, the federal budget ran a surplus, the national debt stood at a generational low of 56 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), and unemployment clocked in at 4 percent—which most economists consider the practical equivalent of full employment. The government’s tax revenue amounted to $2.1 trillion annually, of which $1 trillion came from personal income taxes and another $200 billion from corporate taxes. Military spending totaled $350 billion, or 3 percent of GDP—a low not seen since the late 1940s—and not one American had been killed in combat in almost a decade. Each dollar bought 1.06 euros, or 117 yen. Gasoline cost $1.50 per gallon. Twelve years after the Berlin Wall came down, the United States stood at the pinnacle of authority: the world’s only superpower, endowed with democratic legitimacy, the credible champion of the rule of law, the exemplar of freedom and prosperity.1
Eight years later the United States found itself in two distant “wars of choice”; military spending constituted 20 percent of all federal outlays and more than 5 percent of the gross domestic product. The final Bush budget was $1.4 trillion in the red and the national debt was out of control. The nation’s GDP had increased from $10.3 trillion to $$14.2 trillion during those eight years, but a series of tax cuts that Bush introduced had reduced the government’s revenue from personal income taxes by 9 percent and corporate taxes by 33 percent. Unemployment stood at 9.3 percent and was rising; two million Americans had lost their homes when a housing bubble burst, and new construction was at a standstill. The stock market had taken a nosedive, the dollar had lost much of its former value, and gasoline sold for $3.27 a gallon.2 The United States remained the world’s only superpower, but its reputation abroad was badly tarnished.
Was Bush responsible? Perhaps not for the housing bubble or the disastrous collapse of high-risk investments in derivatives, except that he equated the American dream with home ownership and loosened oversight of the securities industry. Otherwise the answer is a resounding yes. 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. “I’m not afraid to make decisions,” he told a biographer. “Matter of fact, I like this aspect of the presidency.”3 But his greatest strength became his worst flaw. His self-confidence and decisiveness caused him to do far more damage than a less assertive president would have.
The critical turning point came on September 12, 2001. Al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States on 9/11 violated the universal norms of civilized society, and the immediate global outpouring of empathy for the U.S. was unparalleled. Accordingly, September 12 was a defining moment in American history: the United States was not only an economic powerhouse and a military superpower but also enjoyed unprecedented moral authority. Bush could have capitalized on that support but instead he squandered it. He strutted around like a cowboy and then picked a fight with Iraq.4
By conflating the events of 9/11 and Saddam Hussein, Bush 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.5 If Saddam and his secular regime had remained in power, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq could not have been created and the ISIS we know today would not exist. Domestically, the hysteria unleashed by his administration undermined civil liberty, eroded the rule of law, and tarnished respect for traditional values of tolerance and moderation.
“I am the war president,” Bush once boasted, asserting sophomoric delight in military braggadocio.6 Neither Dwight Eisenhower nor Harry Truman would have called themselves “the war president,” even though a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union could at any moment have taken 150 million lives in a few hours.7 George W. Bush had lived in his father’s shadow all of his life: at Andover and Yale, in the oil business, and in politics. To crush Saddam Hussein, which George Herbert Walker Bush had declined to do, would afford him the rare opportunity to succeed where his father had failed.
George W. Bush’s legacy was a nation impoverished by debt, besieged by doubt, struggling with the aftereffects of the worst recession since the Great Depression, and deeply engaged in military conflicts of our own choosing. His tin ear for traditional conservative values, his sanctimonious religiosity, his support for Guantánamo, CIA “renditions,” and government snooping have eroded public trust in the United States at home and abroad. For eight years Bush made the decisions that put the United States on a collision course with reality. To argue that by taking the actions that he did, the president kept America safe is meretricious: the type of post hoc ergo propter hoc analysis that could justify any action, regardless of its impropriety. The fact is, the threat of terrorism that confronts the United States is in many respects a direct result of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
Bush was the decider. But he did not wrestle with the details of policy, particularly foreign policy. By contrast, FDR and Eisenhower determined every nuance of America’s global stance. Roosevelt had no foreign policy adviser. Harry Hopkins was the president’s personal emissary with foreign leaders, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull was relegated to diplomatic housekeeping. Under Eisenhower, the director of the NSC staff was merely an assistant to the president, not the national security adviser, and Ike always kept Secretary of State John Foster Dulles on a short leash.
Bush took a different view of the chain of command. Not since the days of Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover—the Republican hands-off-the-ship-of-state trinity of the 1920s—had a president been so detached from the detailed, day-to-day determination of policy alternatives. Bush saw issues in terms of black and white. There were no subtleties and no shades of gray. The war in Iraq was a biblical struggle of good versus evil—something from the pages of the Book of Revelation. His decision to bring democracy to Iraq was equally arbitrary and unilateral. Bush’s religious fundamentalism often obscured reality. And he expected his cabinet to fall into line, not debate possible alternatives.
Bush was supported by a phalanx of subcabinet appointees, conservative in outlook, crisply articulate, and powerfully motivated to provide the intellectual justification for policies the president had decided upon: men like I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, and Douglas Feith. Never before in American history has an administration come to power with a subcabinet echelon of like-minded ideologues, friends over the decades, dedicated to a common purpose, and armed with a game plan ready to be implemented. All had served in the administration of George H. W. Bush, and during the Clinton years formed a veritable government in exile. Their seminal policy statement had been drafted in 1991 by Wolfowitz and Libby, then serving as Secretary Dick Cheney’s deputies in the Department of Defense, calling for American military superiority, emphasizing the power of the president to act unilaterally “when international reaction proves sluggish,” and advocating preemptive attack against rogue states seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction.8
In 1997, they, along with Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, founded the Project for the New American Century, dedicated to increasing defense spending, challenging “regimes hostile to U.S. interests and values,” and explicitly advocating regime change in Iraq. Had it not been for 9/11, their manifesto would have been little more than a footnote in intellectual history. But with the terrorist attack, the administration’s second echelon dusted off their agenda, Bush signed on, and the direction of the administration was defined. When George W. Bush left office in 2009, the U.S. defense budget exceeded the combined defense budgets of every major country in the world and was clearly unsustainable.9
But the Bush administration was not without its accomplishments. Because of his Texas roots and his admirable freedom from racial prejudice, Bush was far more sympathetic than Clinton or his father to the plight of illegal immigrants, particularly those of Hispanic origin, and he pioneered the nation’s first prescription drug program for seniors. No Child Left Behind may not be a perfect solution, but it reflected the president’s concern to improve the nation’s schools. And Bush led the international fight against AIDS and malaria. On the other hand, the Bush administration turned a blind eye to the growing environmental problems confronting the country and the globe, showed little interest in improving the nation’s infrastructure, and downgraded federal regulatory activity, particularly in relation to Wall Street, noxious emissions, and mine safety.
This book relates the life of George W. Bush—his family heritage of investment banking and public service, his childhood in Midland, Texas (which by the late 1970s had the highest per capita income of any city in the United States), Andover, Yale, Harvard Business School, the Air National Guard, oil business, and the Texas Rangers baseball team. At Andover, George was a Big Man on Campus, and at Yale a solid fourth-quartile student. “We need good men in the bottom quartile,” an Ivy League dean of admissions once said. “Men who won’t jump out of a window if they get a D, and who might leave the university five million dollars.”10
Bush’s personal life was at times unglued. Out of college and at loose ends, he often drank too much and was no stranger to prohibited substances. A premature and unsuccessful run for Congress in 1978 caused him to hesitate about entering politics. His marriage to Austin librarian Laura Welch in 1977, and his reentry into life as a born-again Christian in 1985, led him back to the straight and narrow.11 Bush’s embrace of evangelical Christianity helped anchor him in the fundamentalist culture of contemporary Texas, and facilitated his effort to distance himself from his New England origins and Ivy League education. “The biggest difference between me and my father,” George W. was fond of saying, “is that he went to Greenwich Country Day and I went to San Jacinto Junior High.”12
Bush flaunted his Texas roots while profiting from his family’s establishment connections. For a dozen years he struggled to make a go of it in the oil business, and then struck pay dirt as the public face of the Texas Rangers. Dressed in cowboy boots and blue jeans, chewing tobacco and speaking with a West Texas twang, Bush became the J. R. Ewing of the American League West. In 1994 he rode his public prominence into the governor’s mansion, defeating incumbent Democrat Ann Richards in a banner year for Republicans across the country.
The Texas governorship is primarily a ceremonial post with virtually no executive responsibility—scholars of government consider it the weakest in the nation—and Bush thrived as a consensus builder and state cheerleader. Reelected overwhelmingly in 1998 in what had become the second most populous state in the nation, Bush was poised to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. In 1930, Franklin Roosevelt’s overwhelming reelection as governor of New York, then the nation’s most populous state, made him the odds-on favorite for the Democratic nomination in 1932. Bush’s victory in Texas served the same purpose. After overwhelming John McCain in the primaries, he was nominated virtually without opposition on the first ballot at the Republican convention in Philadelphia. Vice President Al Gore received the Democratic nomination in Los Angeles two weeks later, also on the first ballot.
The election was Gore’s to lose. The nation enjoyed unprecedented peace and prosperity, and Bush’s slogan of “compassionate conservatism” initially fell on deaf ears. The country suffered Clinton fatigue, exacerbated by the Monica Lewinsky affair, but the president had survived impeachment efforts, and the issue seemed to be fading. If Gore could mobilize the Democratic base, he seemed a shoo-in.
Whether it was overconfidence or incompetence, the Gore campaign got off to a shaky start. The selection of Connecticut’s neoconservative Joe Lieberman as the party’s vice presidential nominee found little resonance among African American and Latino voters, and Gore’s failure to protect the party’s left flank allowed third-party candidate Ralph Nader to siphon off almost three million traditional liberal voters. On the campaign trail, Gore appeared as lifeless as a wooden Indian. He refused to appear on the platform with President Clinton, and muffed his three debates with Bush.
Even with Gore’s miscues and an almost flawless campaign waged by Bush and vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney, the election was a cliffhanger. When the dust settled, Bush won thirty states with 271 electoral votes, although Gore enjoyed a slight plurality in the popular vote. In Florida, which Bush ultimately won by 537 votes out of the almost six million that were cast, the Democrats were again asleep at the switch.
It was evident on election night that the Florida vote totals would be contested. The Republicans rushed more than one hundred lawyers to the state and spent over $12 million in legal fees. The Democrats made do with $3 million. The decision was fought out in the courts, and ultimately the Republicans prevailed. Given the complexities of the American electoral system, there can be no question that George W. Bush was legitimately installed as the nation’s forty-third president. What is less clear is why President Clinton did not step in—as Ulysses Grant had done in the contested Hayes-Tilden election of 1876—to organize a special electoral commission to determine the electoral vote from Florida. It would have been a political solution to a political question and would have removed the taint that the Bush administration initially suffered from.
I was not permitted to interview George W. Bush for this book. Vice President Cheney set up an interview for me with the former president, but just before it was to take place I received a telephone call from Logan Walters, Bush’s personal assistant. “The president does not wish to see you,” said Walters. “You have written a book critical of his father, and because of that he does not wish to see you.” Walters was correct. In 1992, I wrote George Bush’s War, highly critical of George H. W. Bush’s decision to commence the first Gulf War.I
Ironically, in 1997 the University of Toronto decided to award George H. W. Bush an honorary degree for his role in ending the Cold War. This decision was highly unpopular in Toronto, largely because of Bush’s earlier role as head of the CIA, and over a thousand demonstrators appeared on campus to protest the award. Our university president, Rob Prichard, said, “Jean, you’re going to introduce Bush at the convocation because you wrote a book about him.”
“But the book is critical,” I replied.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Prichard.
So I introduced former president Bush at the ceremony, and two dozen of my faculty colleagues stood up and walked out. That evening at dinner at the university president’s house I gave Bush a copy of my book. He read it on the plane back to Houston, and several days later I received a two-page single-spaced letter from him. “I have read your book,” said the former president. “Having done that I must tell you that I am surprised you were able to be so darn pleasant to me there at Toronto University . . . Your introduction negated the charges of ‘murderer’ heard outside and set a positive tone for my remarks.”13
Jean Edward Smith
I. Jean Edward Smith, George Bush’s War (New York: Henry Holt, 1992).
Jean Edward Smith taught at the University of Toronto for thirty-five years, and at Marshall University for twelve. He has also been a visiting scholar at Columbia, Princeton, and Georgetown. He is the author of Bush, a biography of the 43rd president; Eisenhower in War and Peace; FDR, winner of the 2008 Francis Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians; Grant, a 2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist; and John Marshall: Definer of a Nation.
"Smith is particularly good on the nuances of Bush’s character. . . . [A] carefully researched portrait.”
– David M. Shribman, The Boston Globe
“Anyone prone to romanticize the old GOP should take a bracing shot of Bush, a hefty biography of our 43rd president by the prolific and acclaimed biographer Jean Edward Smith. Written in sober, smooth, snark-free prose, with an air of thoughtful, detached authority, the book is nonetheless exceedingly damning in its judgments about George W. Bush’s years in office. . . . Authoritative and trustworthy.”
– David Greenberg, The Washington Post
"Harsh though the book is, overall it is well-researched, well-written and convincing."
– Morton Kondracke, The Wall Street Journal
"A swift and damning judgment on the 43rd president. . . . Smith writes with a deft sweep and sense of history."
– Ray Locker, USA Today
"Pulls no punches. . . . A fair, comprehensive and highly readable account of a critical period that is sure to be reassessed by historians over the coming decades.”
– Ray Harkavy, Associated Press
“A thought-provoking book that anybody who wants to understand the opening years of this millennium must read.”
– James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom
“Makes a voluminously detailed — and compelling — case that vindication is unlikely to come for the Bush administration anytime soon.”
– Glenn C. Altschuler, The San Francisco Chronicle
"A well-rounded portrait of Bush as president. . . . Smith’s account is necessary and valuable in this election year.”
– Erik Spanberg, Christian Science Monitor
“An excellent initial assessment of a presidency that began in controversy . . . and ended with the international and domestic failures that saddled Bush with the most sustained negative ratings of any modern president.”
– Carl P. Leubsdorf, Dallas Morning News
“Hard-hitting. . . . A shrewd, nuanced view of Bush. . . . Smith embeds this portrait in a lucid, highly readable narrative, balancing rich detail with clear delineation of the larger shape of policy through the chaos of politics. This is a superb recap and critical analysis of Bush’s controversial administration.”