Former president George W. Bush’s book Decision Points is out today. There’s a certain peace about it — even in his interview with Matt Lauer last night, he projected a sense of peace. You get the sense — or at least I do — that he has written the book because he felt a sense of obligation to history to tell the story of big decisions in his eight years as president, as he lived them. There is even a certain amount of humility to his approach.
Decision Points is not a definitive history of the Bush administration, or even of George W. Bush. But it does record a series of big decisions, presenting what he knew when, and why he reacted as he did. He’s confident about the calls he made — including on things that people here disagreed with him on. It’s something different than hubris. He opens a window into a discerning man who’s made it this far by asking questions and trusting his instincts. Some calls were right, some were wrong, some will continue to be debated.
But “as I told Laura, if they’re still assessing George Washington’s legacy more than two centuries after he left office, this George W. doesn’t have to worry about today’s headlines.”
That said, we do read about his reaction to getting Brent Scowcroft’s advice to him on Iraq via the Wall Street Journal instead of over the phone. He doesn’t have a short-term memory about General Betray-Us, though I couldn’t help but notice that he is respectful to the current secretary of state in not quite explicitly pointing out her shameful role in that surge-era spectacle.
Some of the most beautiful passages of the book are about his family — there’s a lot about his mother and how she really is key to understanding him his sense of humor. The story he relays about driving his mother to the hospital after a miscarriage is revealing in myriad ways. There’s a lot about love and gratitude in the book. And even when he’s declaring, “We were going to find out who did this, and kick their ass” on 9/11, he knows better than to let go to anger and vengeance. He writes: “I thought of the lyrics from one of my favorite hymns, ’God of Grace and God of Glory’: Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour.”
I was grateful to read the book and am curious how others react as they read it (and by that I don’t mean Washington Post dismissals of it).
For now, a few highlights. I tried to grab a few lines here that I haven’t yet seen reported on yet — Matt Lauer didn’t even get into AIDS and Africa, barely got into stem cells. But Lauer only had an hour, and the book covers a lot of ground — the former president, of course, writes about (and defends) TARP and Social Security and Medicare and quitting drinking and much more. And so, likewise, these don’t even begin to do the book justice:
When I woke up on September 12, 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. The transformation showed how quickly fate can shift, and how sometimes the most demanding tasks a president faces are unexpected. (139)
I set three goals for the days immediately following the attacks. First, keep the terrorists from striking again. Second, make it clear to the country and the world that we had embarked on a new kind of war. Third, help the affected areas recover and make sure the terrorists did not succeed in shutting down our economy and dividing our society. (140)
I knew in my heart that striking al Qaeda, removing the Taliban, and liberating the suffering people of Afghanistan was necessary and just. (197)
On Cindy Sheehan:
I met Patrick and Cindy Sheehan of Vacaville, California. Their fallen son, Specialist Casey Sheehan, had volunteered for his final mission, a courageous attempt to rescue a team of fellow soldiers pinned down in Sadr City. After the meeting, Cindy shared her impressions of me with a Vacaville newspaper: “I now know he’s sincere about wanting freedom for the Iraqis. . . . I know he’s sorry and feels some pain for our loss. And I know he’s a man of faith.”
By the following summer, Cindy Sheehan had become an antiwar activist. Over time, her rhetoric grew harsher and more extreme. She became the spokesperson for the antiwar organization Code Pink, spoke out against Israel, advocated for anti-American dictator Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and eventually ran for Congress against Speaker Nancy Pelosi. I feel sympathy for Cindy Sheehan. She is a mother who clearly loved her son. The grief caused by his loss was so profound that it consumed her life. My hope is that one day she and all the families of our fallen troops will be comforted to see a free Iraq and a more peaceful world as a fitting memorial to the sacrifice of their loved ones. (358)
On Harry Reid’s declaration that “the war is lost, the surge is not accomplishing anything”:
The majority of leader of the U.S. Senate had just used his platform to tell 145,000 American troops and their families that they were fighting for a lost cause. He had written off the surge as a failure before all of the additional troops had even arrived. It was one of the most irresponsible acts I witnessed in my eight years in Washington. (382)
On his last trip to Iraq:
Having a shoe thrown at me by a journalist ranked as one of my most unusual experiences. But what if someone had said eight years earlier that the president of the United States would be dining in Baghdad with the prime minister of a free Iraq? Nothing — not even flying footwear at a press conference — would have seemed more unlikely than that. (392)
When I saw Barbara and Jenna on the sonogram for the first time, there was no doubt in my mind that they were distinct and alive. The fact that they could not speak for themselves only enhanced society’s duty to defend them.
Many decent and thoughtful people disagreed, including members of my family. I understood their reasons and respected their views. As president, I had no desire to condemn millions as sinners or dump new fuel on raging cultural fires. I did feel a responsibility to voice my pro-life convictions and lead the country toward what Pope John Paul II called a culture of life. I was convinced that most Americans agreed we would be better off with few abortions. (112)
Bob Casey, the late Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, said it best: “When we look at the unborn child, the real issue is not when life begins, but when love begins.”
On Stem Cells:
The more I learned, the more questions I had. . . . In the years to come, our nation will face more dilemmas about bioethics, from cloning to genetic engineering. History will judge the character of our country in large part by the way we answer these challenges to human dignity. I have faith, as I did when I announced my stem-cell decision in 2001, that science and ethics can coexist. With thoughtful policy, we can usher in the new cures that Nancy Reagan hoped for, without moving toward the world foreseen by Aldous Huxley. (125)
Critics would later claim that I started PEPFAR to appease the religious right or divert attention from Iraq. Those charges are preposterous. I proposed the AIDS initiative to save lives. (339)
Ironically, both sides charged that we were imposing our values — religious fundamentalism if you asked one camp, sexual permissiveness if you asked the other. Neither argument made much sense to me, since the ABC strategy had been developed in Africa, implemented in Africa, and successful in Africa. (340)
On BushHitler and such:
The stem-cell debate was an introduction to a phenomenon I witnessed throughout my presidency: highly personal criticism. Partisan opponents and commentators question my legitimacy, my intelligence, and my sincerity. They mocked my appearance, my accent, and my religious beliefs. I was labeled a Nazi, a war criminal, and Satan himself. That last one came from a foreign leader, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. One lawmaker called me both a loser and a liar. He became majority leader of the U.S. Senate. (121)
On the Patriot Act:
My one regret about the PATRIOT Act is its name. When my administration sent the bill to Capitol Hill, it was initially called the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001. Congress got clever and renamed it. As a result, there was an implication that people who opposed the law were unpatriotic. That was not what I intended. I should have pushed Congress to change the name of the bill before I signed it. (162)
On his legacy:
Decades from now, I hope people will view me as a president who recognized the central challenge of our time and kept my vow to keep the country safe; who pursued my convictions without wavering but changed course when necessary; who trusted individuals to make choices in their lives and who used America’s influence to advance freedom. And I hope they will conclude that I upheld the honor and dignity of the office I was so privileged to hold. (475)
National Review in Decision Points
Those on the other side of the debate argued that government support for the destruction of human life would cross a moral line. “Embryonic stem cell research takes us onto a path that would transform our perception of human life into a malleable, marketable natural resource- akin to a cattle herd or copper mine- to be exploited for the benefit of the born and breathing,” bioethics expert Wesley J. Smith wrote in National Review. (111)