George W. Bush
Crown Publishers, 2010
A Journey: My Political Life
700 pp., 45.00
Two Intertwined Political Lives
It seems somehow fitting that two of the most important, and often controversial, political figures of the past decade published memoirs within a few months of one another. George W. Bush completed his second term in office a year after Tony Blair, his British counterpart, ended the ten year journey that made him the longest-serving Prime Minister in Labour Party history. Blair published his political autobiography this summer; Bush's memoir reached bookstore displays the week after his Republican party achieved landmark victories in the 2010 federal elections.
The memoirs are as different in style as the two countries the leaders served. Blair records his political journey mostly in chronological order, beginning with his win in 1997, detouring only with a brief flashback to his apprentice years as a back-bencher and his ascendancy to party leadership. Not for the faint of heart or for the political neophyte, Blair's account offers much detail about his day-to-day work leading his party, first as the Opposition and then as Government. Replete with acronyms, references to key players by first name, and unexplained details of British policy and governance, the book assumes background knowledge that at times makes it difficult for readers across the pond to follow. A thin index provides little help. Those with an interest in policy and the inner workings of governmental decision making will find Blair's memoir well worth the effort. Rich in detail, the narrative offers insights into how, why, and at what cost Blair and his team made their political choices and what lessons Blair learned along the way.
As the title of his book suggests, Bush's memoir takes a different path. Instead of presenting a strict chronological narrative, the former president revisits what he describes as key "decision points" in his life, fourteen sets of events and decisions that shaped his terms in office. Each chapter begins with a short vignette that highlights the decision at the center of the narrative and then flashes back to fill in some of the details. The first chapter, "Quitting," is also the most personal. Beginning with his decision to quit drinking at age 40, Bush reflects on family, faith, and turning from his youthful ways. The story of his conversion experience is the most complete I have seen in writing. He weaves together the often-told tale of walking on the beach in Kennebunkport beside Billy Graham with the less familiar but equally essential narrative of his transformative experience participating in Community Bible Study with Don Evans and other trusted friends in Midland, Texas. Unapologetic but not overdone or filled with evangelical buzzwords, Bush speaks of faith, prayer, and the comfort he finds in his walk with God in very natural ways.
Although their styles are very different, both authors weave their personal religious views into the larger stories that they tell. Bush's references to his faith journey are more common and overt: in addition to the conversion story near the beginning, he frequently references prayer sustaining him, quotes from sermons that left lasting impressions, and makes occasional scriptural references. Much like the religious culture of which he is a part, Blair's religious references are often more subtle—from brief, unattributed snippets of Scripture to a quotation from the Lord's Prayer—but nevertheless constitute a significant presence throughout the book.
At a time when many celebrity bestsellers are penned in their entirety by ghostwriters, these books appear to be exceptions. Written in the first person, each memoir fits the voice of its author. Clearly, both Bush and Blair benefitted greatly from the teams of assistants they assembled for fact-checking, research, editing, and other essential tasks, but each man maintains that the writing is essentially his own, and I am inclined to believe them. Both authors offer insights and sidebar impressions that have a personal stamp, and they both pepper their narratives with distinctive humor and self-deprecating comments as well as the occasional curse word. More important, both authors seem intent on describing their decision-making without apology, noting moments of success and failure but also reassessing actions they regret. In large part, they succeed. As with any autobiographical account, these books will be best read in concert with the more dispassionate (one hopes) academic assessments of the lessons and legacies each leader leaves in his wake, but readers who approach these memoirs with an open mind will benefit from the effort.
To the outsider, George W. Bush was all-too-certain in his decision-making; he never seemed to second guess a move. Journalists and pundits at home and abroad routinely criticized him as arrogant and inflexible. A famous John Kerry presidential ad attacking the Bush Administration ended with the tag line, "No one can tell them they are wrong." Bush's fiercest critics read his Texas swagger as flippancy, interpreted his folksy humor and occasionally bumbled speech as signs of small-mindedness, and ridiculed his faith as a sign of his dogged disregard of reason.
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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