Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Book Review (#28 of 2013) Decision Points by George W. Bush

Decision Points reads like any memoir: highlighting the good while opening oneself to criticism for what your memoir doesn't say. It is nice that Bush published this brief memoir so early, he wants to set records straight while events are still somewhat fresh on peoples' minds.

I have read a few books about life in his administration, particularly in the first term, so I already came into this book with colored lenses. 

Something you don't expect to hear is that Bush read hundreds of books, particularly history, while in office-- including 14 biographies of Lincoln. (Contrast that with FDR who aides never knew to read a single book.)  Yet, his breadth of reading didn't make him softer or more open to varying points of view-- he still boils events down to black-and-white values and simple choices. How can a man who reads that widely not think more deeply? Or at least not be able to argue with the press and debate better-- produce more intelligent soundbites? It boggles the mind.

One problem I had with the book is that it's not chronological, Bush is looking at certain decisions he made and oftentimes context is lost because there's no mention of what was going on that complicated the fallout of that decision. For example, the early decisions and deliberations on invading Iraq were made very close to Afghanistan still being secured. In hindsight, that's a frequent criticism of Bush's decision-- taking his eye off the ball cost us Bin Laden. Bush spends a few sentences defending himself on this point, but largely the context of the massive nation-building Afghanistan was already going to require is lost in his decision.It was as if it were made in a vacuum.

In some cases, Bush makes strong rebuttals of critics' talking points. For example, he chafes under criticism that No Child Left Behind was an "unfunded mandate," pointing out that he increased federal education spending by 38% and that the program saw the improvements in test scores among minorities and the most vulnerable. He gives a timeline of the Katrina disaster and explains why he praised Mike Brown-- because other aides were praising him-- and gives a detailed list of the federal resources made available before the hurricane hit, and the Constitutional problems he had doing more for the state without the Louisiana Governor's express permission.
Bush throws few people under the bus in his memoir. Certain "junior congressmen" and "a Senator from New York" go unnamed. But he selectively quotes Harry Reid several times to illustrate what was either hypocritical or ridiculous criticism.

He does express regrets. He regrets going after Social Security reform after re-election, saying he should have pursued immigration reform first; in the end, he got neither. He regrets not looking at the intelligence on Iraq more closely (but argues that every major nation in the world--including Russia and China, which opposed the war--gave the U.S. intelligence that Iraq had active WMD programs). He points out that his position-- that he'd make the same decision to invade Iraw today with the same information he was given then-- is the same that John Kerry expressed in the 2004 campaign.

One other weakness of the memoir is on Bush's early life. He's shown as sort of moping through colleges and trying various jobs and experiencing all kinds of things without explaining that he was able to do so because of his parents' money and resources. He loves his parents and the Bush's upbringing of their son is evident, but there seems to be a disconnect between his understanding of his life and what an ordinary mortal would be able to experience. 

So many major events happened in Bush's eight years that I look forward to many future biographies and scholarly research done on his administration. 

On a side note, I listened to this book on my commutes and the reader, when sped to 1.75 normal speed sounds an awful lot like Bush with his mannerisms. So, the publisher made a good choice.

In all, I give it 3.5 stars out of 5. I enjoyed hearing Bush's defense and his triumphs and failures as a manager.

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