By George W. Bush
New York: Crown Publishers, November 2010
Most of George W. Bush’s recently released memoir, Decision Points, is naturally concerned with the momentous events that dominated his two terms as president—9/11, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Hurricane Katrina and the financial crisis. But it also includes clues about how Bush evolved from a failed congressional candidate to a twice-elected governor and victor in the hard-fought 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns—as well as glimpses of the advisors who helped him win.
The only campaign Bush ever lost was also the only one that “political mad scientist” Karl Rove didn’t work on: a 1978 run for Congress in West Texas’s 19th District, in which Bush was outmatched by a Democratic opponent who successfully tarred him as an outsider. Bush’s takeaway: Never let your opponent define you.
In 1994, Bush took on incumbent Texas Governor Ann Richards, who was so popular that Bush’s own mother flatly pronounced, “George, you can’t win.” But Bush and Rove sensed that Richards was vulnerable, and after defying expectations that he would crack under the pressure of the campaign, Bush won in an upset. Four years later he was reelected in a landslide. In the 2000 Republican primaries, Bush lost big in New Hampshire to Senator John McCain, who had successfully defined himself as an outsider and Bush as an insider. In the next primary, South Carolina, Bush trumpeted his credentials as a reformer and fought back when a McCain ad equated Bush’s character with that of President Clinton.
Bush recalls the 2000 general election campaign as a “blur of handshaking, fundraising, and jousting for the morning headlines.” The race ended with the famously drawn-out battle for Florida, and Bush rode out the legal wrangling at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. He learned that the Supreme Court had ruled in his favor while lying in bed watching television.
In his 2004 reelection campaign, Bush hoped to run against former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who he had pegged as “loud, shrill, and undisciplined.” Instead, he faced a more formidable opponent in Senator John Kerry. But Bush struck gold when Kerry claimed that he had voted for an $87 billion troop-funding bill “before [he] voted against it.”
“There’s our opening,” Bush told Rove. The Bush campaign hammered Kerry as a “flip flopper,” raising doubts about the Democrat for many voters, and Bush went on to win comfortably. Two and a half decades after losing his first race in West Texas, Bush and his team had clearly learned how to define his opponent rather than allowing his opponent to define him. Among the advisors who helped make Bush such a fearsome candidate, Rove gets by far the most face time in the book—frequently as a number cruncher. He estimates that an old DUI revealed in the waning days of the 2000 campaign cost Bush two million votes. On Election Day that year and again in 2004, he looks up from his calculator to declare, correctly, that the exit polls have underestimated Bush’s performance.
Communications specialist Karen Hughes reminds everyone to smile when the going gets tough—and tells Bush that the cameras caught him scowling at John Kerry during a debate. Longtime aide Dan Bartlett does yeoman’s duty digging through records of Bush’s National Guard service and finds evidence that Bush received a dental exam at an Alabama base when some charged he had been absent. Meanwhile, Ken Mehlman, Bush’s 2004 campaign manager, rates just a single mention, in which Bush salutes Mehlman’s organization of an “historic effort to turn out the vote.”
Written with speechwriter Chris Michel, Decision Points reads smoothly, though it is above all a dutiful book. Bush dutifully defends his administration’s major initiatives while dutifully acknowledging some errors—the intelligence failures that led to the Iraq War, the tragically slow response to Hurricane Katrina, the failed nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. Political junkies are unlikely to be surprised by much in the book, though if you’re feeling dutiful yourself and want to rehash the first eight years of our young century, Bush the memoirist is affable enough company.
Daniel Weiss is Managing Editor of Campaigns & Elections