Rebel-in-Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush, by Fred Barnes (Crown Forum, 224 pp., $23.95)
For over a quarter-century, the engaging Fred Barnes has provided essential political analysis, in print and on TV, that cuts through the Washington cant. It should therefore surprise nobody that even in a work that is not his best effort, Barnes provides exceptionally wise insights on current politics.
Rebel-in-Chief, in its analysis of George W. Bush’s presidency, reads too often like a pure paean — and a slightly disorganized one at that. In Barnes’s telling, Bush “is a president who leads,” “a visionary,” a “moralist and an idealist” — a “president of consequence” who “achieved big things” and “delivered five or six of the most important and eloquent presidential addresses of the last half-century.” Barnes even excuses, explicitly and repeatedly, the president’s “fondness for federal spending” and his disdain for “small-government conservatives.” In short, a reader might just get the impression that Barnes admires the man.
But Barnes being Barnes, he has still managed to produce a book so well worth reading that wise historians will long consult it for clues about what made Bush tick, and what made his presidency far more significant than not. To his great credit, Barnes understands what most Washington cognoscenti don’t: In the ways that matter most, George W. Bush already has been a successful president.
When Bush took office, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinians, and Libya all were causing major trouble, “and terrorism was growing in southeast Asia” as well. But now, Barnes writes, the landscape is dramatically different: “Afghanistan and Iraq are pro-American democracies. Both Pakistan and its rival, India, are allies of the United States. Saudi Arabia is of less help to al-Qaeda, which has been weakened. Libya has disarmed. Israel and the Palestinians are closer to a peace settlement than at any time in decades. . . . Popular pressure for democracy has broken out in the Middle East. . . . Free elections followed in Lebanon and democratic stirrings were detected in Syria.”
That list of positive developments catalyzed by Bush doesn’t even include democratic reforms in Ukraine and Georgia, or the strengthening of ties to Great Britain, Australia, Poland, and Italy, or the electoral defeat of Germany’s noxious Gerhard Schroeder. Nor does it include Bush’s capital-gains tax cut that contributed to today’s extraordinary economic boom.
Barnes carefully explains just how and why Bush — not Vice President Dick Cheney, not other advisers, but Bush himself — developed the strategies that brought about these successes. In doing so, he explodes the myth that Bush is an intellectual lightweight. The man fleshed out in Rebel-in-Chief is a voracious reader, and a creative thinker capable of rare insights that others miss.
One reason Bush sees what others don’t — e.g., that anti-terrorism policy requires warfare rather than mere law enforcement; that freedom can take root even in long-repressive societies; that domestic policy should emphasize “ownership” and “choice” and thus wean Americans from bureaucracy — is that he remains admirably aloof from Washington’s elites. “He’s an alien in the realm of the governing class,” Barnes writes. “Bush loves to smash conventional wisdom and destroy myths.”
Rebel-in-Chief lands some strong punches on the Washington establishment. They said Bush couldn’t win elections primarily by energizing his base — but he did. They said he couldn’t win a campaign in which he discussed Social Security reform — but he did. They said he couldn’t help his party gain seats in a midterm election, that his reelection campaign would fail if the turnout were large, that he had to name a woman or minority nominee to replace Justice O’Connor, and that the U.S. could not walk away from the anti-ballistic-missile treaty without prompting a new arms race with the Russians.
On all these fronts, Bush flummoxed the elite. But Barnes is most devastating in his dissection of political Washington’s cluelessness on matters of faith. The chapter titled “Faith-Based” is the book’s strongest, and it demonstrates that Bush is remarkably in touch with mainstream America.
It’s not that Bush is unusually prone to proselytizing. In fact, Barnes quotes definitive studies showing that Bush mentions his faith less often than past presidents, including Bill Clinton. And he has set strict rules limiting the situations in which religious references are appropriate for presidential speeches. What sets Bush apart is that he almost certainly takes his faith more seriously, or more personally and deeply, than other presidents did.
It is this seriousness that the elites detest. Barnes describes how reporters frequently misunderstand faith-based references that are common to the vast majority of Americans — and thus miss the point of what Bush is saying. In one priceless example, New York Times reporter Frank Bruni proved completely unfamiliar with Bush’s reference to specks in a neighbor’s eye and logs in one’s own. Reporters often fear that such references are some sort of dangerous theocratic code — but as Bush adviser Michael Gerson explains, “They’re not code words. They’re our culture.”
Barnes and Bush both credit that mainstream American culture with more wisdom than the elites possess. That’s why it’s disappointing that both of them seem to think the broader culture doesn’t care much about fiscal responsibility. I believe they are wrong. Barnes dismisses “small-government conservatism” as a “theology” and its goals as a “fantasy.” But John McCain, who for better or worse is no slouch at discerning the zeitgeist, has become ever louder in calling for spending restraint, and the fiscally conservative Republican Study Committee is for good reason becoming increasingly powerful on Capitol Hill. The realization is growing that plenty of red-state Americans still believe that the phrase “small-government conservatism” is a redundancy, and “big-government conservatism” not just an oxymoron but an affront.
On the whole, though, Barnes strikes the right notes, with his usual verve. The greatest virtue of Rebel-in-Chief is that it explains not just the what of the Bush policy choices, but also the why. The elite media may treat the Bush worldview as something from outer space, but Barnes shows just how deep and admirable are its intellectual, cultural, and historical roots — and how Bush has branched out from those roots in new, apparently rebellious directions, but in a way that nourishes those roots instead of abandoning them.
Barnes may be premature in declaring that “thanks to Bush, a Republican era is now at hand.” But he gives a persuasive explanation of why Bush is succeeding in his struggle, not just against monolithic thought in the nation’s capital, but against tyrants around the globe.
— Mr. Hillyer is an editorial writer and columnist for the Mobile Register.