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.