I started reading the book with the prejudices I wasn’t aware I had. Halfway through Chapter 2 I was already moaning that there were too many easy jokes but not a grain of philosophical substance. And suddenly there it was, on page 38, in George W.’s folksy twang:
“My (…) convictions: The free market provided the fairest way to allocate resources. Lower taxes rewarded hard work and risk taking, which spurred job creation. Eliminating barriers to trade created new export markets for American producers and more choices for our consumers. Government should respect its constitutional limits and give people the freedom to live their lives”.
This is what every centre-right politician, the world over, believes in (or ought to). So far, so good – it confirmed what George W. seemed to be about during the presidential elections in 2000: a Man of Small Government. As such he differed strongly from Al Gore, who told the viewers during the televised debates how his big government would change their lives. He wagged his finger while saying it and probably lost 100,000 votes every time he did it.
Before the 2000 election, Bush promised that he would not do any nation building, and that his emphasis would be domestic. Both this and his promise of small government went out of the window on the 11th of September 2001. He freely admits the former, but does not address the latter: when he left office he had overseen the biggest federal budget expansion since Roosevelt seven decades earlier.
The book “Decision Points” follows the pattern of the great positive decisions which were the making of George W. “Debunking the left’s myths” describes more accurately what’s in the tin. I guess every autobiography is self-justifying to some extent; and as such, this one is not different. He tells his own story; and nowhere does it feel contrived or doctored – unless you believe that the sometimes clumsy wording was put there on purpose. It makes interesting reading for anyone who wants to hear the other side of the story – the anti-Bush chorus we know as well as the Hare Krishna mantra.
He is both successful and surprising in debunking some of the left-wing myths. On stem cell research, he opted neither for extreme liberalisation, nor prohibition: he allowed non-embryo based research and research on already destroyed embryos. He was accused by the American left for “not caring about African Americans” when Hurricane Katrina caused unprecedented damage and too slow a response. He points out that by law, the first response to hurricane Katrina was the New Orleans mayor’s, and Louisiana Governor’s job; and that when their response so clearly fell short Democrat Governor Blanco refused to cede terrain to the federal government.
George W. talks a lot about his Christian faith, which he believes gave him the strength to change his liquid lifestyle into one which led him to the Presidency. It clearly guided his actions throughout his two terms. But this one came as a bit of a surprise:
“I was sceptical of politicians who touted religion as a way to get votes. I didn’t believe in a Methodist or Jewish or Muslim approach to public policy. I hadn’t done that as Governor of Texas, and I certainly didn’t intend to do it as president”.
When he was asked to be running mate for the Vice Presidency, Dick Cheney told W. that he was happy with his life; that he had had three heart attacks; and that his daughter Mary was gay.
“I felt he was gauging my tolerance. (…) I smiled at him and said, “Dick, take your time. (…) And I could not care less about Mary’s orientation”.
George W. states that on 9/11 the purpose of his presidency became clear: to protect his people and defend their freedom that had come under attack. In that, he believes he was successful – America did not see another terrorist attack on its soil for the next seven and a half years. 9/11 is described in great emotional detail. The war in Afghanistan, in his eyes, was quick and successful; the war in Iraq wasn’t – Bush admits its partial failure and blames the insufficient troop numbers in the early years, and the fact that Weapons of Mass Destruction were never found.
He goes into some detail about those WMDs. He states that the conclusion that Saddam had WMD was nearly universal: all his security briefings for nearly two years said so; Bill Clinton believed it. Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill believed it. Intelligence agencies in Germany, France, Great Britain, Russia, China and Egypt believed it. The WMDs weren’t found – though Bush does invoke the moral high ground:
“I’ve also wondered why many critics of the war did not acknowledge the moral argument made by people like Elie Wiesel. Many of those who demonstrated against military action in Iraq were devoted advocates of human rights. Yet they condemned me for using force to remove the man who had gassed the Kurds, mowed down the Shia by helicopter gunship, massacred the Marsh Arabs, and sent tens of thousands to mass graves”.
It is a question which people on the right often ask: why is it that so many activists fighting human rights abuses start attacking the USA when it tries to do something about them?
He also (unsuccessfully in my view) tries to explain Guantanamo Bay and the “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”: only 3 prisoners were subjected to waterboarding and the amount of information on al Quada which was extracted was very substantial. Throughout this, as well as when he tries to rebut civil liberties critiques on security issues, he repeats that keeping Americans safe is more important. Was it Voltaire who said (I paraphrase) that “He who surrenders his liberty for security deserves neither” ?
At times the book offers a number of policy ideas which could work in the UK, or which are already being introduced. American Charter Schools are very similar to our Free Schools. Health Savings Accounts work well in America, and there is no reason why they couldn’t be introduced here. George W. proudly states that the Texas legislature only meets 140 days every other year. One could wonder whether thwarting legislative activism is part of Texas’s economic success: between 2009 and 2011 it created half of the US’s 524,000 new jobs. And George W. describes his Faith Based Initiative, which came along before 9/11 messed everything up, as follows: “In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based organizations, to charities, and to community groups”. Sounds familiar?
All in all, Decision Points is a decent read, although attimes it suffers from the “Ultimate Biography Syndrome” in being too detailed and too long. But it’s refreshing to hear the other side of the story – especially when 99% of reporting on George W. Bush in this country came from a certain media for whom The Right is Evil is the default position for every story.
Decision Points, by George W. Bush, Virgin Books 2010, @ Amazon for £12.25