- The Washington Times - Friday, November 19, 2010


By George W. Bush
Crown, $35, 497 pages

“When I woke up on September 12 [2001],” writes George W. Bush in this crisp and fast-moving account of the key moments in his presidency, “America was a different place. Commercial aircraft were grounded. Armed vehicles patrolled the streets of Washington. A wing of the Pentagon had been reduced to rubble. The New York Stock Exchange was closed. New York’s Twin Towers were gone. The focus of my presidency, which I had expected to be domestic policy, was now war.”

Indeed it was, and that’s how it remained, until when, near the end of his second term, he was also blindsided by the worldwide financial crisis, which, like Sept. 11, would require a massive and unprecedented response. In both cases, the critics were loud and unforgiving, their reflexive political and ideological opposition often exacerbated by their distaste for the president’s personal idiosyncrasies.

But the Bush economic measures seemed to take hold, and much to the dismay of his critics, the policies of his successor are largely continuations of and elaborations on the Bush policies. President Obama’s initiatives in dealing with the financial crisis differ little from the Bush approach and have for the most part been implemented by many of the same people.

In Iraq, the surge - led by Gen. David H. Petraeus and ordered by President Bush in the face of strong opposition and ridicule from politicians including then-Sen. Barack Obama, who predicted, flatly, that it would fail - proved highly effective, so effective, in fact, that Mr. Obama has initiated his own Bush-like surge in Afghanistan and chosen Gen. Petraeus to lead it.

Interestingly, the much-aired promise to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan by the summer of 2011 is quietly becoming inoperative, and the talk now is of 2014. Had Mr. Obama chosen in 2009 to end our involvement immediately, as his most committed supporters hoped, the Bush policies might have been considered failures.

But the moment has passed, and now Mr. Obama is committed to executing those policies. If he holds the Bush-led victory in Iraq and replicates it in Afghanistan, he will, of course, claim credit. But, oddly enough, by so doing, he also will validate and solidify Mr. Bush’s historical credentials as a successful war president.

Not all the matters discussed in the book center on war and peace. There is a discussion of Mr. Bush’s decision to stop drinking; the subsequent embrace of a strong and personal Christian faith; the decisions he made in selecting his vice president and Cabinet; his much-misrepresented and close relationship with his father; his love for his mother and daughters; and the central and necessary role in his life of Laura Bush, a model first lady and wife in every respect.

He’s proud of his legislative achievements, including tax cuts, and the reform of education and Medicare. Among the disappointments are his inadequate response to Katrina and the false, unfair and often politically motivated charges of racism. But perhaps the biggest disappointment of his eight years was the failure to bring Osama bin Laden to justice.

In the end, it all comes back to Sept. 11 and the response of his administration: “From the beginning, I knew the public reaction to my decisions would be colored by whether there was another attack. If none happened, whatever I did would … look like overreaction. If we were attacked again, people would demand to know why I hadn’t done more.”

That, he writes, “is the nature of the presidency. Perceptions are shaped by the clarity of hindsight. In the moment of decision, you don’t have that advantage. On 9/11, I vowed that I would do what it took to protect America, within the Constitution and the laws of our nation.

“History can debate the decisions I made, the policies I chose … . But there can be no debate about one fact: After the nightmare of September 11, America went seven-and-a-half years without another successful terrorist attack on our soil. If I had to summarize my most meaningful accomplishment as president in one sentence, that would be it.”

And that, in anyone’s book - no matter what the personal or ideological bias - is no small achievement.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).

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