Thursday, 25 November 2010

Decision Points, George W. Bush - Part 1

I

"You like George Bush?" asked the grinning waiter when he saw what I was reading.  He was probably hoping for a tip, or else he might have been considerably ruder.  Reading this book in public made me feel self-conscious in a way that is rare for a mere item of reading matter.  Even if I'd been able to disguise the front cover, Bush's grinning, look-at-me-I'm-holding-a-coffee-mug shot on the back would have given me away.  I would have felt a good deal less embarrassment on the bus or the Tube reading Piers Morgan or Jeremy Clarkson's latest, or perhaps Razzle.

For George Walker Bush is not a popular man.  Mr Bush, known to his friends as "Bushitler" and "the world's greatest terrorist", was the most despised and hated American president in recent memory.  With approval ratings at home of 25%, the lowest of any president for 56 years, he left office reviled around the world as the architect of the greatest western foreign policy disaster since the Suez Crisis and the most catastrophic economic collapse since the Great Depression.  A 2010 poll of 238 presidential scholars ranked him 39th out of 43 presidents, lower than Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon.

So, what does Dubya have to say for himself?  Is there a case to be made for the defence?  Is the invective in which he is so freely doused merely the progressive version of the Tea Partiers' raging against Obama for improving their healthcare?  Or was he just a really, really bad president?


II

Bush was born with an entire silver cutlery canteen in his mouth, but he is at pains to portray his upbringing and early adulthood as being relatively normal.  His account of his early life is shot through with the same regular-guy folksiness that so charmed his supporters and wound up his detractors.  He takes care not to come across as a snob or a princeling.  He admits to misbehaving as a child and struggling at school.

To a certain extent, the tactic succeeds.  His early life in Midland, Texas seems to have been boringly middle-class, and after graduating he declined the opportunity to use his name and contacts to walk into a stellar job on Wall Street.  But a lot is left out.  The fact is that his background and family circumstances were not normal.  He may have struggled at school, but he struggled at Andover.  Bush's grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a US Senator and a titan of the business world, and his father was an aristocratic diplomat and politician.  From time to time, the privileged nature of Bush's early life comes through.  He tells, for example, of his profound disgust when, at a formal meal with his grandparents back East, the servants put a bowl of borscht in front of him for the first time.

Bush rarely comes out favourably in a comparison with his relatives.  Prescott Bush would have winced at his grandson's declaiming about misunderestimating and wings taking dream.  George H.W. Bush was a bona fide hero, a top-class scholar and athlete who fought bravely in World War II and chose to move away from the Connecticut family home to Texas in order to work his way up through the oil industry from the shop floor.  By comparison, George W. comes over as a bit of a disappointment.

The adult Bush didn't amount to much before his thirties.  He protests that he did not, as rumoured, go AWOL during his service with the National Guard.  On the other hand, we don't hear about how far his father's influence helped in getting him into that particular branch of the military and keeping him at a safe distance from an early death in a rice paddy.  He bummed around during his twenties, deliberately refusing to get tied down - though he does let us know that he worked in a mentoring programme in Houston.

Bush's family background, education and experience in business meant that he was never going to be anything other than a solid Republican.  His right-wing convictions were strengthened when he visited communist China in the 70s while his father was working in a diplomatic post over there.  His political philosophy seems to consist largely of low-tax, small-government conservative platitudes.

His big break, of course, was defeating the popular incumbent Ann Richards to become Governor of Texas in 1994.  He was then just 6 years away from the White House.  He doesn't go into details about the mess of the 2000 election or attempt to refute the argument that Gore would have won Florida if the votes had been counted in an equitable way - though he does highlight the little-appreciated fact that Gore lost 7-2 in the Supreme Court on the main plank of his case (the headline-grabbing 5-4 decision was on a secondary issue).  It hardly needs to be said that he doesn't discuss the rather disturbing allegations that his 2004 victory was equally down to sharp practice by unscrupulous Republicans at state level.