Smith offers up another refreshing presidential biography, turning his attention to a recent resident of the Oval Office and one who brought much controversy to his two-terms. To paraphrase one of this president’s most ominous comments, readers are either in his corner or against all for which he stood. Either way, Smith presents a thorough view of the man and his time from birth to the wonders of life after the spotlight shifted elsewhere. Smith’s well-rooted biography puts George W. Bush in three camps throughout his life to date: the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. All of these meld together to create a man who sought to use his time as POTUS to leave America (and the world) a lasting impression of his decisions. As can be see in the biography, some are surely indelible and will have adverse effects for a generation at least. These themes can be found within this wonderfully structured biographical piece, full of powerful quotes and supported arguments, the sign of a superior tome. Smith is a stellar biographer and this biography is not only timely, but is surely worth the reader’s time and attention.
No matter how you feel about the man they called Dubya, he was able to show that he had a good side and one that meant well for the larger populace. While he was born into a family with a silver spoon wedged in his mouth, Bush was not free of the foibles that beset men of the generation. Boozing, drugs, and random sexual partners all played a role in his twenties, something that has never been refuted. However, by finding himself and a path on which he wanted to lead his life, Bush changed his lifestyle for the better, putting his wife and family before himself. Smith explores this selfless act and allows Bush to attribute it to finding Jesus, a personal choice that he used for the rest of his public life. While the reader can accept the born-again philosophy or not, it is apparent that there was a “one-eighty turn” after this personal choice, which is chalked up to one of Bush’s great feats in life. Additionally, Bush sought to shape America in his early days as president, pushing forward with the ‘No Child Left Behind’ program, an educational initiative that would ensure children from all walks of life receive adequate and equivalent educational opportunities. Scoffed at by some, Bush’s Compassionate Conservatism tried to accentuate that there were issues with the current system and that children, the building blocks of the future, needed to find themselves on equal footing, no matter their socio-economic background or familial situation. Smith applauds Bush for this and shows how the impetus for this program came not only from his wife, Laura, but also a sense that there needed to be more for America’s children. One could also look at some of Bush’s domestic policies as good or at least decent in that he tried to peel back the tax burden on the everyday American, but also stuck to lowering amounts that this upper classes paid. The hands-off approach falls in line with fiscal conservatism allowed Americans who were out of work to be able to keep that little bit extra in their pockets while trying to get back on their feet. Smith adds some more fodder to this aspect of Bush’s life in the latter portion of the biography, discussing a focus to fight AIDS in Africa, through PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), which did allocate large sums through Congress to help control the distribution of medicines and preventative measures in those countries hit with AIDS and other diseases that offer a high rate of morbidity. One could argue that it offsets some of the more problematic areas of Bush’s presidency, though this ‘Baid-Aid’ solution does not distract from some issues on which I will expound below. While he did have his shortcomings, Bush’s heart was, at least on some occasions, in the right place.
With the good must also come the bad, and Smith does not hold back when discussing these, peppering examples throughout the biography. Perhaps one of the largest issues that weaves itself throughout is that Bush surrounded himself with advisors who bowed to his will, or tried to muzzle the few who publicly aired their discontent. Smith offers up numerous examples where politically savvy individuals, much more in tune with the pulse of Washington, simply stood mute as Bush led America down the path towards highly problematic outcomes, when there was a clear view of the pitfalls ahead. As shall be discussed below, there were a plethora of bad decisions that mushroomed into something horrendous, more because those who could speak out against him did nothing. Bush’s choice to rule with an iron fist or not to seek the advise of his advisors led to horrible decisions and left the country grasping at straws. One key example would be Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, arriving in the summer of 2005, where POTUS waited until after the devastation came and then tried to wrestle control out of the hands of the governors, making himself look like the saviour (pun intended, see below). Bush’s ignorance to things only to have them blow-up later is surely one of the fundamental issues with his presidency and a serious personality flaw that plagued him until he returned to private life. Another issue that Smith presented repeatedly would be Bush’s reliance on his religion to explain how he handles life. Far be it from me to criticise what someone believes or how they practice their faith, but Smith offers up some key examples of Bush’s self-indoctrination that his ‘finding Christ’ left him to be a vessel for God to use in the battle with evil. I kid you not, the man publicly saw himself as God’s agent to fight evil in its many forms, usually from his Oval Office perch. This mentality, while a personal sentiment on how being born-again shaped his outlook, offers nothing if not a jaded view and perhaps one that substantiates that he wanted power and would justify it in any way he possibly could. One final area, related to the previous example would be that while Bush gave up alcohol and drugs in his late thirties, he spent most of his presidency intoxicated on power and his decisions reflected this complete lack of sober-thinking. While the last of the three sections below will exemplify some more concrete examples, Bush would not hand over the reins of power or let anyone talk him out of his views. “You are either with us or against us” seems to have been part of his slobbering drunk mantra, as he turned from being Leader of the Free World to its only Saviour. Again, Smith shows prime examples of Bush paraphrasing passages in the Book of Revelations to explain how he was battling Gog and Magog, wrestling with Evil as God’s Chosen Soldier ahead of Judgement Day. And this was the elected leader of the United States of America, who used events to his favour to guilt, cajole, and bully others within the democratic machine to drink the Kool-Aid (dare I say, Bush though it was the Blood of Christ?) and follow him down this path of half-truths in an alternate reality. If this were the worst that Smith had to offer, I would laugh it off, but we have yet to tackle some of the worst, which is yet to come. Bush made many bad decisions, which cannot be erased by some good aspects elucidated above.
It takes a special type of man to have an ugly side so deeply entrenched that he is oblivious to its existence. I would venture to say that Bush was so out of touch with the world that he allowed his jaded views and completely eccentric spin on evangelical Christianity to turn him into a world tyrant, though he would hide behind the democratic process to justify his decisions. Events of September 11, 2001 shaped America in a way that could not have been foreseen, at least to the layperson. Smith shows how Bush knew of these threats and chose to do nothing before they boiled over (as he did with Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 Economic Meltdown). Bush’s reaction to the events of early September 2001, both immediate and long-term, cemented his complete buffoonery as a man, a politician, and a leader. One could argue, as Smith does, that this was the beginning of Bush’s binging, which led to a state of complete intoxication until January 20, 2009, when he handed over the reins of power to President Obama. Smith argues brilliantly that Bush not only sought retribution while the Twin Towers were still smouldering, but wanted it to be an act that the world would notice. As he did so, he sought the world’s compassion and sympathy for the atrocious act of terror enacted on its citizens. Those who know me well will know how I feel about September 11th, so I will not reiterate it here, but this knee-jerk reaction was only the tip of the stupidity that Bush began thereafter. While waging a war in a country said to be harbouring bin Laden, Bush demanded that his officials find a tie-in that would bring Iraq into the mix. Somehow Saddam Hussein must have been involved or counselled the terrorists. When that did not work, it was the apparent weapons of mass destruction, all to bring down a second regime. Now then, it was not enough to go in and remove those responsible or seek to remove Hussein through diplomatic channels, but Bush tried to create conflicts to make himself look better. Two wars, countless lives lost, and they are still being fought today, all because the man could not grasp the concept of state sovereignty. Besides that, Bush’s ugliness extended into his disregard of international treaties and laws passed through the democratic process laid out in the US Constitution. Bush skirted these rules and promises at will, enacting torture and ill-treatment of individuals because they did not fit within the narrow interpretation that he saw of things like the Geneva Conventions. Deplorable ideas like this drip from page after page of Smith’s work, while Bush sought to push onwards, refusing to allow anyone to contradict him. And for what? To leave the country in two wars and with black marks on its reputation for decades all because he wanted to look like the hero; the Chosen One that God sent to battle with Evil. Thank God for the judicial branch, who hammered home the unconstitutionality of these plans, but being a reactive body, the damage was done and a tyrant was left to develop into something worse.
I would go so far as to equate some of Bush’s tendencies with those of infamous dictators and not see it as a stretch. Hitler, Stalin, Ceausescu, Amin…. all of these men ruled with an iron fist as much as Bush. However, while they sought to attack their own people, Bush looked outward and sought to use his power to oppress many in foreign lands (and I would venture to say he was worse than many imperialists). He used his own political system to fall into line with his ideas, refusing to accept alternatives and pushing scare-tactics into the minds of his legislators to force them to see a jaded perspective. Why did no one stop him? That is the lingering question. Was the attack on America that Tuesday morning in September 2001 so bad that no one dare speak out against it or him? It would appear so, which only sickens me even more. Smith offers up much more than his political dictatorship as he fleshes out this biography, but its stink pervades every vignette that is offered up, each decision that Bush made. On could go so far as to say that he did place Americans in harm’s way, sending tens of thousands of them off to fight in the wars, spending billions of dollars and these two wars rather than earmarking these funds on domestic programs, and pushing a false sense of stability into the minds of the everyday American, which could have helped precipitate the 2008 Financial Meltdown. The man was out of control, hated by the world, and oblivious to how horrid he was. And yet, through his intoxication on power and bully tactics, he used those around him to push his ideas through Congress or vetoed those he did not like. Smith tries to soften the blow at times, but I was pleased to see that I was not the only one who saw how disgusting this man’s actions were and what it did to my Neighbour to the South.
Some will say that they supported Bush because they could not fathom the Democratic Party while others argue they stood behind a man who tried to defend the honour of their country. Others still will say the man did the best he could with what he had. Smith helps support my belief that this was more than a political game, this was an inherent attempt to use the most powerful military and depths of the war chests to do whatever he saw fit. What does a Canadian, like myself, have spouting off an opinion on the leader of another country? What happens in the United States plays a significant role on how things play out in Canada and around the world (perhaps another reason we are watching the 2016 General Election so closely). Bush took America and the world into places that could not be reversed with the swearing-in of a new administration. ISIS has come to prominence in Iraq because of Bush, though the man is twiddling his thumbs down in Crawford, Texas and earning millions on a speaking tour. Deplorable and one can make a strong case that we have a war criminal in our midst. Smith would likely be able to support those claims, and did so in various points of this biography.
There were countless others sections of the biography that have not been explored in this review, but which offer a well-rounded look at Bush and his time in office. Any reader curious enough to take the time and explore them, I would encourage it and ask that they see just how troublesome things were from 2001-09. Smith did his best, though sometimes, one can only dress up a horrible situation in so many ways.
With his powerful writing style that pulls the reader in and delivers vignettes full of detail, Smith presents the reader with an essential biographical piece. One can only hope the length is not a deterrent, or some of the denser topics, though Smith is able to explain things in a succinct and easy to digest manner. If only the man himself were as simple to understand, rather than being a simpleton through and through.
Kudos, Mr. Smith for this stellar piece. I needed a chance to stand on my soapbox and expound some of the vitriolic comments that have always come to mind about this man, though when dealing with a tyrant, sometimes you cannot stand idly by and wait. I look forward to exploring more of your biographies and hope that you have at least one more in you.