George W. Bush
Crown Publishers, 2010
497 pp., $35.00
A Journey: My Political Life
700 pp., $45.00
Two Intertwined Political Lives
Bush attempts to respond to his critics by explaining his actions with an insider's view of key decisions and new details that could not have been revealed during his presidency. He seems resolute that historians decades from now will have their chance to assess his accomplishments, and he appears at peace with this opportunity to tell his side of the story. As he summarizes, "Instead of covering every issue, I've tried to give the reader a sense of the most consequential decisions that reached my desk. As I hope I've made clear, I believe I got some of those decisions right, and I got some wrong. But on every one, I did what I believed was in the best interests of our country."
At its best, Decision Points provides constructive case studies of a president at work. The chapter simply titled "Surge" explains the series of events that led to President Bush's much-maligned decision to change strategy in the Iraq War. Bush walks the reader through his thought process and actions in 2006 and 2007 that led to the controversial plan and convincingly demonstrates how the Surge changed the course of the war. The chapter on the Bush Administration's response to Hurricane Katrina reminds readers of the complexity of federalism, the multi-layered structure of American government that gives states some sovereignty in themselves and freedom from the federal government, limiting presidential power over many state matters.
Decision Points is most disappointing in those chapters that offer so few details about key decisions that the discussion obscures more than it illuminates. For example, Bush devotes a single chapter, oddly titled "Leading," to a discussion of his signature domestic policy initiatives (No Child Left Behind education reform, the faith-based initiative, Medicare reform that added prescription drug benefits, Social Security reform, and immigration reform) as well as the 2004 re-election campaign. Several of these policies failed, and Bush leaves the reader with more questions than answers about his leadership on domestic policy.
In contrast, Blair's Journey is more of a political primer. He describes his actions and decisions, analyzing his successes and missteps big and small to give the reader new insights into the ways of politics. The chapter on the Northern Ireland peace process, for example, details the story of years of negotiations interwoven between ten central principles of conflict resolution. In a later chapter, Blair recounts a major political misreading of the enduring importance of fox-hunting to illustrate another principle: "And here is a real political lesson. You have to 'feel it' to succeed in politics. That's where instinct comes from, the emotional intelligence. By and large I do feel it, and so, on most issues, I get it. On this one, I had a complete lapse. I didn't 'feel it' either way … . Result? Disaster."
With their references to their family lives, Bush and Blair add richness and depth often missing in the genre. Close families appear as a constant, steady backdrop in both narratives. Both men write with admiration about their wives, who offer guidance and calm from the storm. Blair recounts with humor the "global event" of Cherie's pregnancy and the arrival of baby Leo even as he reflects later about the gifts and challenges of raising a young family at Downing Street. Bush mentions Laura, his daughters, and his parents with great affection. He opens the book describing his father as his role model, and vignettes throughout the narrative, such as a letter from the younger Bush written after he issued the military order that began the Iraq War and his father's reply, offer glimpses into the close relationship between father and son.
In today's highly polarized political environment, where many citizens self-select news sources to reinforce their ideological views, the political memoir may have found a new role: it makes sense to hear from the political players themselves as they defend their actions and records. Readers from across the ideological spectrum and on both sides of the Atlantic would do well to give both of these books a fair reading. Of course Bush and Blair write from a particular point of view and remain strong apologists for the policies they championed. Yet the reader need not agree with all the policy decisions either man made to appreciate that both of them led as they thought best, charting different paths, making mistakes along the way, and serving with heart and soul.
Amy Black is associate professor of politics and international relations at Wheaton College. She is the author most recently of Beyond Left and Right: Helping Christians Make Sense of American Politics (Baker).
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