Bush’s Burnish

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In 1999, folks who attended the Texas Book Festival banquet in Austin witnessed an astonishing moment: George W. Bush magically appeared as a mystery guest and began a fumbling reading from his just-published “autobiography.” As folks watched Bush, he seemed to stumble … over the very circumstances of his existence. It seemed, well, unfamiliar to him.

It might not have been so surreal if everyone had known that Bush had not written all of his autobiography. Karen Hughes, the SMU-educated spin doctor, had spent weeks curled up in her home in Austin working on  “A Charge To Keep.” So as we examine Bush’s literary corpus, there are some natural questions that taint the arrival of his second “autobiography.”

Did Hughes know, back then, what we now read in Bush’s “Decision Points” (penned with the help of another speechwriter-spin doctor Chris Michel)? Did she know, as we learn in this new book, that he spent years and years in an aggressive, dangerous alcoholic fog? That he had been arrested in Maine? That he was endangering people?

The great reality of modern America is that you truly do get to have second acts, and third acts, and that you can reinvent yourself. Eliot Spitzer gets his own show on CNN. George W. Bush gets a chance to offer another, different, version of his life, his administration, in this book. If some facts in his first memoir were excluded—what was excluded in the new memoir?

In the latest memoir, Bush continues a predictably clever post-presidential charade of legacy burnishing. He does it, almost shamelessly, by studying the political zeitgeist and trying to surf it. Examined for its tone, its narrative exposition, its hints at a semiconfessional honesty—it’s easy to see that “Decision Points” is slavishly loyal to the popular literary efforts of one Sarah Palin.

There are the clipped sentences, folksy bromides, anti-intellectual asides—plenty of plain-speak to suggest that his administration was at war with Washington elitists, with limousine liberals, with one-dimensional enemies at home and abroad. Just like Palin managing to turn a profit by opening a window into her family’s personal struggles, Bush opens up his book by owning up to his ugly boozing.

That fact is so perfectly planned and placed in “Decision Points” that readers have to assume it was meant to serve as a Holy Inoculation against the powerful criticisms that can be lodged against what comes later. There is a scandalously brief mention of Abu Ghraib (five paragraphs). Former White House Counsel and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is mentioned in six sentences. (Gonzales is still being scrutinized for his role in domestic surveillance, torture, waterboarding, expanding the powers of the executive branch and ceding power to Dick Cheney). There is no substantive analysis of the work former FEMA head Michael Brown did during  Hurricane Katrina.

The one mention of Brown is, perhaps, emblematic of the legacy-polishing that Bush is so desperately in search of (it must be of enduring financial consequence as he tries to raise millions of dollars for his museum-library at SMU). He recounts how he shouted out: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” And how “critics turned my words of encouragement into a club to bludgeon me.” The so-called chief executive officer offers no lessons about the prices to be paid when presidential delegation of duty becomes the norm. Yet that insistence on delegation—to Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wall Street, the neoconservatives—is what really defines his administration.

In the end, the book feels as if Bush looked out the front door, saw the lingering shadows, the disheveled bits of uncomfortable history, and he simply turned away—back to the version inside his head, his home, his silo.

These post-presidency memoirs are carefully timed, agenda-driven tools or moneymaking devices. The Bushes, George W. notes, have always been prolific. Books get spun out of the Bush orbit at the most propitious times. They are, really, weapons. This one was crafted by Team Bush to help him continue his crawl out of the muck of historically low approval ratings.
Other historians, independent and clear, will be more accurate analysts of his legacy.

Watch Bush talk about his memoir with Matt Lauer.