Bush Country: How Dubya Became a Great President While Driving Liberals Insane, by John Podhoretz (St. Martin’s, 288 pp., $24.95)
Assessing the historical significance of a presidency barely into its fourth year is a tricky business. At this point in his administration, Wilson was promising to keep us out of European war; Nixon, dazzling the world with his China expedition, was on the path to landslide reelection; Reagan, facing a still-monolithic USSR, was moderating his anti-Soviet rhetoric and calling for “a constructive and realistic working relationship” between the superpowers. Which makes John Podhoretz’s achievement in this new book all the more impressive: His portrait of George W. Bush’s character and his conduct of the presidency is utterly convincing. It draws the breathtaking arc from December 2000, through September 11, 2001, Afghanistan, and Iraq, to the present day — showing how this particular combination of man and moment changed the course of history. And they will have done so, regardless of the outcome of the 2004 election and whatever setbacks occur in succeeding years.
To begin at the beginning: Podhoretz makes it clear that Bush 43 is both his father’s son and an emotionally secure adult. (W.’s self-description: “I’m a free guy.”) Seeing his father succeed in the day-to-day work of politics and government demystified the process for W.; watching his father fail as president left him with a searing lesson in Mistakes to Avoid. On the latter point, Podhoretz is severe but accurate: “[Bush 41] is one of the finest human beings ever to serve in the White House — a man of infinite personal grace and dignity, loved and admired . . . But he was a disaster as a president and a party leader [because] he was consumed with process. . . . He did not seek to advance his ideas, or any ideas, for that matter.”
And ideas are crucial to politics, because they answer the key questions about collective purpose: Why does the common life — as opposed to various individuals’ lives — matter at all? And if it does matter, is my conception of it more true and noble than yours? As Podhoretz points out, the results of the 2000 election — a 930-vote margin for the GOP nominee in one state, a three-million-vote (Gore plus Nader) margin against him nationally — left W. “without a clear-cut mandate.” Indeed, “Gore, running a more frankly liberal campaign than the centrist Clinton did in 1992 or 1996, got almost 3 million more votes in 2000 than Clinton had in 1996.”
In short, there was no national consensus about the ideas that should form the backbone of the new administration, and what movement there was seemed actually to be away from the new president’s party. “So there was George W. Bush on the cold morning of January 20, 2001 — damaged goods, inexperienced, with a country that seemed on an ideological journey away from him.” This was the political reality, Podhoretz observes, “and yet it transpired that he was not fatally compromised, or injured, or wounded. How did he pull it off? . . . By doing exactly what an unimaginative political adviser would have told him not to do: He set up camp on the Right.”
In the absence of consensus, Bush decided, why not be bold — and just do what you think is right? Why not . . . lead? And that, as Podhoretz demonstrates, is exactly what Bush did — notably, in the case of the tax cuts. Bush asked for a lot more than was politically imaginable, and got, well, a little more than was politically imaginable; for which the economy is now thanking him.
Bush’s boldness served the cause of our recovery from a short-term recession; it was to serve a much greater cause in the days after 9/11 — when foreign and defense policy became homeland issues. In the 2000 campaign, Bush had criticized the Clinton administration and spoken of a “humble” foreign policy — the word “humble” being, as Podhoretz points out, “code” for the message that Bush “was not interested in pursuing an adventurous foreign policy”:
Bush probably owes Gore and Clinton an apology for his criticism. All of Clinton’s foreign-policy successes came when he pursued the more robust, Reagan-style effort to exert American power on behalf of democracy and freedom — in Haiti and Bosnia and Kosovo. Indeed, the country would have been better off if Clinton and Gore had been far less humble and far more sweeping in their assertion of American power — if they had seen [the 1993 World Trade Center attack and other bombings as] the initial shots in the war on terror . . . Clinton and Gore had refused to recognize the change in the status quo those nascent acts of mass terror represented. Bush had no choice but to recognize it.
In fact, though, Bush did have a choice. As Podhoretz acknowledges, “a cynical political consultant would have looked at September 11 and offered this advice: Bomb al-Qaeda, declare victory, and go on about your business.” It is the measure of Bush’s character, and his boldness, that he grasped 9/11 not just as a problem — to be solved through short-term retribution and narrow defensive measures — but as an opportunity to make the world a much safer place. Osama and his gang are the tip of a global iceberg of forces that reject freedom, modernity, and the dignity of the human individual. Why not pull these forces out at their very root?
And that, as Podhoretz details in some of the most moving passages of his book, is exactly what Bush has sought to do — with, so far, remarkable success. He has succeeded not primarily because of our military might, but because he has united the nation emotionally behind these moral goals. A Democrat may win this November, or in 2008 or 2012 — but not by appealing to isolationism. Americans now know that it does matter to us that the Talibans of the world are oppressing people. They hate us because we aren’t oppressing anybody, and they want to hurt us because we offer an alternative.
By stressing this vision — of remaking the Mideast and the world — with great eloquence, Bush has changed the political consensus for the foreseeable future. Podhoretz makes a frank admission: “It pains me, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, to say this, but I believe Bush is the best presidential speaker since [FDR]. It pains me even more to acknowledge that I was once one of those all-too-clever journalists who believed Candidate Bush was lighter than a feather, the least-prepared person to occupy the Oval Office in the modern era. He proved me wrong. George W. Bush . . . [has] constructed one of the most consequential presidencies in the nation’s history.”
It should be some consolation to Podhoretz that he is far from alone. I myself look back at Candidate Bush of 2000, seeking hints of the intelligent resolve that would be the hallmark of his presidency; but — I admit — in vain.
Podhoretz’s book alternates between chapters analyzing Bush’s record and chapters debunking the frenzied rhetoric of his detractors; the former chapters are incisive, the latter scathing. The result is an accurate, well-written, and inspiring account of a few years in which disaster struck a great nation, and a statesman led that nation in a bold reassertion of its highest ideals.