Thanks for the Memories
If it were not so perfectly in line with expectations, George W. Bush’s presidential memoir Decision Points would have to be considered an absolute insult to the reader’s intelligence. Fortunately for Bush, any reader with even a modicum of intelligence would have assumed that he would deliver a superficial, meaningless account of his chaotic eight years in the White House. After all, this was a President who operated in precisely this fashion while in office, routinely offering up only the most banal responses or explanations to the voting public whenever he was forced to face the press or the people. Years ago, George W. Bush branded himself “the Decider,” the idea being that no matter what went wrong (or right), the decisions were his. That they were based on his deep convictions, or the supposed universality of his ideals, made it possible for him to take responsibility for mistakes without either admitting to them, or seeming to feel any regret over them. He begins his memoir in much the same way, where only a page and a half into the introduction, he announces, “If there are inaccuracies in this book, the responsibility is mine.” It is the purest admission in the entire work.
Shortly after the book’s release, ex-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder accused Bush of “not telling the truth,” when he claimed that Schroeder had gone back on a promise to support the invasion of Iraq. Of course, Schroeder can rest easy knowing that the inaccuracy is Bush’s responsibility. Indeed, this is a tactic Bush seems to have employed in explaining many of the mistakes of his presidency. Instead of some actual insight into his understanding of any errors made, he chooses instead to simply not go beyond the regret itself. On Katrina, he admits that he should have made it more clear that he was actively involved, and that he should have put the federal government in control more quickly. But, as to the incredible fallout of these errors, what they did to the city of New Orleans and race relations in America, he is unwilling to offer any type of reflection whatsoever. It makes sense, in the context of his version of born-again Christian faith that prides itself on absolute forgiveness. Simply putting his hands up and offering the most simplistic half-apology seems to be enough for him.
When reading a presidential memoir, one seeks not only the inaccuracies, but what has been omitted, and the degree to which any given event is treated. It is in these respects, more so than outright lies, where the book is clearly a disgrace. Instead of telling us anything substantial about anyone involved in his White House, he explains them quickly, revealing nothing more than perhaps the odd inane fact or two. His description of Stephen Hadley, his National Security Advisor, deals only with the pointless: “I spent many weekends at Camp David with him and his wife, Ann. The two have a great love affair. Both are cerebral. And both are great parents to their lovely girls.” Of course, Ann is never mentioned again, neither are their well-loved children. The description is a complete throwaway that offers nothing. Even worse, the few words devoted to Ann are more than Bush managed to write about Paul Wolfowitz, who was only the Deputy Secretary of Defense. So many key figures, such as Alberto Gonzales, Ari Fleischer, Richard Clarke, and Richard Perle are barely mentioned, if at all.
Even with events that are addressed, his use (or misuse) of proportion would have been stunning had it not been expected. Bush offers the fascinating revelation that “Each president decorates the Oval Office in his own style,” before providing a lengthier and more detailed explanation and analysis of the way he decorated the room than he does the scandal at Abu Ghraib, or the use of waterboarding. Little or no attention is paid to the Clear Skies Act, the firing of U.S. Attorneys, domestic surveillance without proper warrants, the rapid expansion of executive power, or the shift in language used to describe the Iraq War. It seems that he simply has nothing to say on these matters.
On major issues, Bush is quick to play victim to circumstance. To explain himself, he resorts to turning the vast majority of his memoir into the sort of brief history you would expect to find in a biased, American sixth grade textbook. On Al Qaeda: “Al Qaeda had a penchant for high-profile attacks.” On the financial crisis: “If the credit markets remained frozen, the heaviest burdens would fall on American families.” The result is a laughable walk through the first decade of the 21st century, perhaps to explain that while some of his decisions may have seemed narrow-minded, it was all right because his view of history was also childishly narrow. And, of course, any time that version of events led to a mistake, well not to worry, because he was “the Decider,” and it was his responsibility.
Particularly in his disastrous second term, Bush would often publically reassure himself in an attempt to diffuse criticism or, more accurately, simply bypass it all together. When engaged in a key decision, a changed situation, or a failed policy, he would revert to time and history as his excuse. “History will be my judge,” he would often say, unwittingly sounding like so many other loathed political figures at their end. But if this memoir confirms anything, it is that whether you supported or detested George W. Bush, he is at peace siding with Mother Time. He speaks in the memoir of being able to look in the mirror, of having no regrets, of doing what he truly believed to be right. No matter the evidence at hand, his rejection of opposition was outright, firm, unwavering. He genuinely feels he will be judged well, and even if he’s not, well, he’s fine with that too. “Whatever the verdict on my presidency, I’m comfortable with the fact that I won’t be around to hear it. That’s a decision point only history will reach.”
It appears that George W. Bush has moved on. He claims in the book that he began writing it the day he left office. It is no surprise that he wrote it so quickly, and that it came out as less a memoir than a simulation of a memoir. His role in public life is over, the presidency was a goal of his, and once met, the need to continue in any form is not there. While many people seem desperate to forget the Bush presidency, W. himself seems to view that forgetting process as inevitable, and arguably the thing that will scrub his historical record clean. The end of the book shows a man who has settled into a calmer life. He now walks his dog and picks up after it, and, well, that’s about it. He’s tucked away in his infamous Crawford Ranch, and the quick release of his tired memoir seems purposeful, designed not as an attempt to open further discussions on his legacy, but as an effort to say goodbye, to get away. Decision Points is hardly a memoir for the reader, and anyone who bothers to get through it will see just that. No, this is just the last act required of him in his role as President. This is a book written for the author, so that he could put his own ridiculousness to bed, and carry on with the process of forgetting.