The first sentence of Bush, Jean Edward Smith’s biography of George W. Bush, obliterates any pretense of objectivity: “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush.” The sentence is bracing, somehow — even shocking. We expect our presidential biographers to speak in hushed, respectful tones, partly out of deference to the power of the office and partly because presidential biographies are such dense works demanding so much research that a biographer can suffer from a kind of Stockholm syndrome, developing a fond personal connection that dulls the edge of any criticism.
But let’s be clear: objectivity is bullshit. True objectivity doesn’t exist; objectivity as a quality is often not worthy of aspiration. It would be better for more presidential biographies to begin with a clear, transparent sentence like this, to get all the readerly parsing out of the way. Why imbue Bush with any false sense of drama as we try to figure out where Smith stands? He states right up front what he believes; the rest of Bush explains why.
Let’s be clear: Bush is not a smear campaign. Nor is it a work of partisan hackery. Rather than wasting our time with a politically charged blooper reel of the worst presidency of our lifetime, Smith instead has created a dense and fastidiously researched biography that litigates Smith’s point. Bush backers will find something to be incensed about on nearly every page, but thankfully Bush backers are still in very short supply; while Bush’s approval ratings have climbed since leaving office, the actions he committed during his presidency are still wildly unpopular, and rightfully so. Smith knows he’s dealing with the most unloved president of our time, but he still grants him the dignity of humanity.
Clocking in at just over 600 pages not counting the index, notes, or acknowledgements, Bush zips through its subject’s pre-presidential life. Within a couple dozen pages, Bush is in college — “an unpretentious, good middle-of-the-road student, but without gravitas” — and his character has already been, for the most part, forged. Smith quotes Yoshi Tsurumi, a college professor of Bush’s:
This has nothing to do with politics… Most business students are conservative [but] unlike most of the others in class, George Bush came across as totally lacking in compassion, with no sense of history. Even among Republicans his kind was rare. He had no shame about his views, and that’s when the rest of the class started treating him like a clown…I did not judge him to be stupid, just spoiled and undisciplined.
This is the first instance of a recurring question in the book: just how stupid is Bush, anyway? Smith argues that Bush has a knack for campaigning and a certain shrewd intellect for dealing with people. Some underestimate his intelligence, and others overestimate it. Smith seems to land on the Tsurumi’s side: he believes that Bush possesses a natural intelligence, and an obvious hunger for power, but he harbors no interest in challenging himself on an intellectual, moral, or dispositional level. When it comes to Bush, there is no self-reflection, or self-interest, or, really, much of a self at all.
Most of Bush is centered around the Iraq War. For the first third of the book, Bush is an unserious man with a record of failing up and one of the least rigorous presidential work schedules in history. But 9/11 changed him. Smith pinpoints the very second that birthed the Bush doctrine, on the evening of September 11th:
According to Richard Clarke, when [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumseld noted that international law allowed the use of force only to prevent future attacks, not for retribution, Bush exploded. “No,” the president shouted. “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.”
“Kick some ass.” Not “avenge innocent lives,” or even “keep our country safe.” Smith wonders if someone on Bush’s staff might have changed the course of history on that evening: “Should they have challenged Bush’s misplaced trust in the irresistibility of American power? Hindsight clearly says yes.” And so a shallow president who based his international relations on the idea of kicking ass or not kicking ass began to feed himself a steady diet of fear:
Concerned by his failure to grasp the warnings of a terrorist attack on 9/11, the president demanded to see the raw intelligence reports concerning possible terrorist threats on a daily basis. This became known as the “threat matrix,” and was presented to Bush every morning at 8:30 by F.B.I. director Robert Mueller. These reports were not screened and there was no filter. In effect, George W. Bush became an intelligence case officer poring over dozens of pages of uncorroborated reports about impending terrorist attacks. “You could drive yourself crazy reading even half of what was in the threat matrix,” said Jim Baker, head of the Justice Department’s Office of Intelligence Policy and Review
”Most of the threat matrix was garbage,” said one high-level official. Bush had no intelligence background and was not trained to put the raw material in context. After a while “you suffer from sensory overload,” said Baker. “Reading the threat matrix every day is like being stuck in a room listening to loud Led Zeppelin music.”
It’s such a disturbing image: an unqualified man diving into an unregulated sewer of intelligence, poring over every unsubstantiated piece of fear. Is it any wonder that the country responded to the 9/11 attacks by giving up rights and becoming a red, white, and blue parody of itself? Our leader spent every morning diving into the worst of us. He likely saw threats everywhere, and envisioned us as being under constant attack. It’s a sadistic echo of the apocryphal story about Alexander the Great — that he commanded someone to whisper into his ear “you are mortal and you will die” in order to keep himself humble. Bush instead gave his mind over to the twisted and anonymous voices of the world, and every morning they told him, “We’re going to get you. We will kill you. We’ll take thousands of lives and it will be your fault.”
The portrait in Bush is not entirely made up of shadows. Smith praises Bush for his commitment to the global fight against AIDS. He credits Bush for handing the reigns of power to Obama in “the smoothest of any presidential transition involving different political parties in American history.” And he acknowledges that “Bush deserves credit for pushing TARP through Congress [after the economic collapse of 2008]. He also deserves credit for recognizing that his cherished ideas of unfettered free enterprise were inadequate to meet the crisis the nation faced” by pushing for government investment in financial institutions even when every trickle-down-loving bone in his body was screaming for him to let the big banks fail, to let the market sort it all out. (Of course, Smith is clear that the financial crisis was the fault of the Bush administration, too, and that Bush should have gone further to protect the economy when the market started collapsing. “It could’ve been worse” is a particularly damning way to praise someone.)
Smith tends to focus on Iraq at the expense of everything else. In fact, Bush feels almost like a much thinner book about Bush’s misadventures in Iraq that had been blown out at the last minute into a complete biography. Smith only includes one full chapter on Bush’s mismanagement of Katrina, for example, which feels like a gross underestimation of the damage Bush caused. There’s very little on the social impact of the Bush presidency — no Kanye West arguing that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” no Anderson Cooper outraged on live television over dead bodies in the streets of New Orleans, no moronic charges to change French fries to “Freedom Fries” because France didn’t back us in Iraq.
Smith’s is a biography that complains repeatedly about the bubble that Bush created around himself — the yes-men who allowed Bush to plunge even further into Iraq against all common sense — but it is also a biography that very much joins Bush inside that bubble. It’s like a documentary that clings too close to its subject, forcing everyone else out to the edges of the screen and dissolving context into nothingness. Just as Bush didn’t give much thought to those around him, Smith can’t focus on anyone but Bush.
Still, there is great value in a biography this single-minded. Smith’s dogged pursuit of a close-up portrait of Bush’s actions in office will be a great tool when conservatives ten years from now try to diminish the idiocy of Bush’s march to the Iraq War. And for a nation still reeling from Donald Trump’s performance at the Republican National Convention, it’s a chilling reminder of what happens when you hand power to someone who is characteristically unfit to wield it.
But Bush, despite all its detail and research, still feels like a tiny-but-important piece of a larger story. Maybe this isn't Smith's fault. The vacuum that is George Bush’s presidency is so huge, and so intense, that it demands dozens of these sorts of investigations. We can toss biographers into that vacuum until the end of time and never truly manage to plumb the emptiness at its core.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant