What should one expect from a presidential memoir? After reading a fair bit of political history, like Nixonland and The American President, my expectations of a piece written by the main character (with plenty of help from ghostwriters) were simple: this is about reframing. Just like What Happened mainly tried to paper over Clinton’s many faults, Decision Points is an attempt to do the impossible: present one of the least successful, least popular presidents as something more.
Which makes Decision Point’s portrayal of Bush as a person simply mystifying. It pulls together a supercut of his childhood that, to me isn’t humanizing, and made Bush seem even less deserving of public office than his contested election implied. He recounts getting into Yale based solely on the strength of his family’s dynasty. When he’s considering running, his mother says, verbatim “George: get over it. Make up your mind, and move on.” At every juncture - at Yale and in the presidency, Bush repeats that he could never have imagined this coming to pass.
George W. Bush often seemed like a man who lacked an inner dialog and the ability to question his beliefs: this book confirms that impression.
Then there’s the issue of the presidency. He describes Kanye West’s famous utterance - “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” - as the lowest point of his stay in office. He papers over multiple staff changes by saying that they “needed a fresh set of eyes on the problem.” He reiterates multiple times in different ways how brave he was, that arriving at the site of 9/11 meant he was taking personal risk, and his staff was amazed. He drove in a motorcade without a glass barrier for the first time since JFK. He flew to Afghanistan to the surprise of some of his staff, supposedly. This is probably intended to reduce the jarring dissonance between his aristocratic life and his decision to send thousands of primarily poor people to war.
Bush wasn’t a good president, and this isn’t a very good book. However, I think it’s worth reading, as an example of a style, a book with a purpose, and a reminder of some of America’s worst tendencies.