Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Decision Points, George W. Bush - Part 3

IV

In most other areas of policy, Bush was a failure.  He is proud of his education reforms - the No Child Left Behind Act, which was guided through the Senate by Ted Kennedy - and his faith-based initiative.  But he is unable to spin his much more ambitious projects of immigration and Social Security reform as anything other than gross, abject flops.  His chapter on Hurricane Katrina makes some fair points, but it is difficult to take his efforts at self-exculpation at face value (the villain of the piece turns out to be Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, who happens, by odd coincidence, to be a Democrat).

Worst of all was his inertia on climate change, the greatest challenge of our generation and the one least forgiving of bluffing and incompetence.  Bush wasted precious time doubting the science, then ended up offering too little too late.  He hardly even discusses the subject in the book.  At the other end of the scale, the closest he came to an unqualified success was in his aid programmes for Africa, which sought to tackle problems like HIV/AIDS and malaria.  By the end, sub-sarahan Africa was, together with the Bible Belt and Tel Aviv, one of the few places in the world where people still quite liked him.

Bush has something of a liking for presenting himself as a middle-of-the-road guy beset by extremists on the right as well as the left.  There is something in this.  Conservative Republicans resisted him on Medicare reform, immigration and the bailouts of Wall Street and the auto industry.  But, while he might have been to the left of Glenn Beck, no-one would mistake him for a progressive reformer.  It bears remembering that this was a man who (amongst other things) slashed taxes to a level that continues to threaten Obama's attempts at deficit reduction, attacked the totemic Social Security system that millions of Americans depend on in retirement, and sought to cement the right-wing majority in the Supreme Court for another generation.  His political philosophy, as I have intimated, is boilerplate American conservative capitalism, with limited pragmatic concessions.

American capitalism was very nearly brought down on Bush's watch.  Say what you like about the man, he deserves the gratitude of the whole world for pushing the TARP programme and the bail-out of Wall Street in autumn 2008 rather than siding with the nihilist Republican headbangers in Congress who opposed any government-led attempt to stop the economy from collapsing because that would be socialism and that's bad.  But it was on Bush's watch - and Clinton's watch before him - that Wall Street was deregulated to the extent that it could imperil the financial system of the entire world.  Bush seeks to dodge this criticism, but it is valid enough.  Even Alan Greenspan, a man whom Bush continues to regard as something of a genius, admits that his guiding ideology contained a "flaw" (which makes him "very distressed", poor chap).  Anyone who is ill advised enough to turn to the memoirs of George W. Bush in search of challenging reflections on contemporary deregulated financial capitalism will be disappointed.


V

After a while, I stopped counting how many times Bush mentions God.  He talks repeatedly in religious language and recounts with apparent sincerity his own conversion to evangelical Christianity.  He tells a bizarre story about encountering a turkey on his ranch while in the company of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: for reasons that are not made entirely clear, both men appear to have taken the bird as a sign from God.  Bush also gives an interesting and markedly defensive account of the infamous moment in the 2000 Republican primary debates when he told his audience that Jesus was his favourite political philosopher:

"I thought about citing someone like Mill or Locke, whose natural law theory had influenced the Founders.  Then there was Lincoln, hard to go wrong with Abe in a Republican debate.  I was still thinking when Bachman turned to me: 'Governor Bush?'  No more time to weigh my options.  The words tumbled out of my mouth: 'Christ', I said, 'because He changed my heart.'"

The name-dropping of Mill and Locke highlights a telling aspect of the book.  Bush appears to be quite chippy about his intelligence and education.  At the start, he describes meeting a series of academic historians and reading the autobiography of Ulysses S. Grant.  He later reminds us that he was a history major, and he lists the various courses that he took at Yale.  He insists that he settled his policy on stem cell research only after studying the relevant literature on medicine, law and moral philosophy.  He boasts about getting through 95 books in a reading competition with Karl Rove.

Defensive and exaggerated as all this may be, there must be some element of truth in it.  You do not go to Yale and Harvard Business School, make it in the commercial world, and go on to become Governor of Texas and President of the United States if you are a slobbering moron.  Nepotism alone cannot explain it.  Coming from a political dynasty was a necessary condition for Bush's success, but not a sufficient one.  Bush is no intellectual - and no Obama, for that matter - but the guy isn't dumb.

At the end of the day, Bush comes across as an affable, gregarious sort of chap.  Of course, this says precisely nothing about his political convictions or actions as president: Joe Stalin was apparently up for a laugh at dinner parties, and Kim Jong Il is said to be a witty raconteur, though that may just be because people tend to laugh at his jokes.  Bush very clearly has a sense of humour, though it generally amounts to wisecrackery rather than wit.  Obama probably had the measure of the man when he described the then president as a shrewd guy who would probably be fairly good company as long as the conversation was confined to the kids and sports.  Quite how he became the leader of the free world, nuclear codes and everything, is a mystery which this book doesn't adequately explain.