There can be no mystery where the distinguished biographer Jean Edward Smith stands on the 43rd president, the subject of his latest work. “Rarely in the history of the United States,’’ he writes in the first sentence of his preface, “has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush.’’
The more than 800 pages that follow are devoted to showing why, though that first page provides evidence enough. The budget went from surplus to deficit; the country went from peace to war; military spending went from 3 percent of GDP to seven times that much. The man in charge was, Smith says, “[u]nprepared for the complexities of governing, with little executive experience and a glaring deficit in his attention span, untutored, untraveled, and unversed in the ways of the world.’’ And he left behind a country, Smith argues, “impoverished by debt, besieged by doubt, struggling with the aftereffects of the worst recession since the Great Depression, and deeply engaged in military conflicts of our own choosing.’’
Is this decisive a critique a fair analysis?
Smith uses one Republican presidency (Dwight Eisenhower) and one Democratic one (Franklin Roosevelt) as control groups against which to evaluate Bush. By comparison, he finds Bush arbitrary, unilateral, unrealistic. He does, however, credit him with sympathy toward immigrants, a commitment to battle AIDS, support for a prescription-drug program for seniors, innovation in education. But overall Bush does not get a passing grade from this stern academic — one who, it must be added, gave Eisenhower a glowing evaluation in a 2012 volume, “Eisenhower in War and Peace,” that stands as one of the great presidential biographies written in the 21st century.
Most of the book focuses on Bush as president, but Smith gives us enough insight into the boy to serve as context for the man. In his youth, Bush was wayward, spirited but spoiled, so lacking in promise that he left Harvard Business School without a job offer after more than four dozen interviews with Fortune 500 firms. He dabbled in oil, then in baseball, finally in politics, eventually growing in confidence and competence and then getting elected to the governor’s chair in Austin. “To most Texans,’’ Smith reports, accurately, “he came across as moderate, caring, and pragmatic.’’
The man who told Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the veteran Saudi ambassador to Washington, that “I don’t have the foggiest idea about what I think about foreign policy’’ cruised to the GOP nomination in 2000, but the most significant political decision he may have made was to select Dick Cheney as his vice president. “He could never have been elected president,’’ Smith says of the former Wyoming congressman, “yet because of Bush’s grant of authority it would be the vice president and his people who would set the course for the administration.’’
Despite Bush’s famous declaration to the contrary, in Smith’s telling the president emerges as more a delegator than a “decider,’’ more a conservative than a conciliator. And in moments of crisis — Sept. 11, 2001, for example, when he threatened not only terrorists but also those who harbored them — Bush escalated tensions. Indeed, Bush — “[b]elieving he was the agent of God’s will, and acting with divine guidance’’ — saw 9/11 as an opportunity to take on the terrorist threat in Syria, Iran, and Iraq as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Here the critique gains momentum in some of the harshest language of any biography prepared by a respected scholar: “Bush’s arrogance, ignorance and certitude set the tone for an administration dedicated to the projection of American hegemony,’’ Smith writes. And Cheney’s increased role was, Smith says, “not a power grab but a reflection of the president’s unfamiliarity with the issues.’’
Smith portrays Bush as carrying the nation “beyond the bounds of legally acceptable behavior’’ by employing “rapid and seemingly boundless expansion of presidential power.’’ The verdict is stark: “George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq will likely go down in history as the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.’’
There are a few less fevered moments. Smith credits Bush with a winning personality, an openness to constituency groups and issues not customary for Republicans in the period, and includes several examples of personal sensitivity. He also argues that Bush deserved credit for rescuing Wall Street and the domestic auto industry, and avoiding a full-blown depression in 2008.
But the preponderance is negative, and the pace of that negativity is relentless. Much is on the mark; Smith is particularly good on the nuances of Bush’s character. But the overall tone is so critical that it clouds an otherwise carefully researched portrait. In the penultimate page Smith comments that Bush “may not have been America’s worst president.’’ Tucked at the end of hundreds of pages of criticism, it is a grudging concession.
By Jean Edward Smith
Simon and Schuster, 808 pp., illustrated, $35
David M. Shribman, a former Globe Washington bureau chief, is the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.