You can sense the relief welling up in George W. Bush these days like a long-awaited gusher. He may as well be a sixth-grader in class on a 70-degree afternoon in May with the windows open. You could see it as the president tap-danced, waiting for his hopeful successor, Sen. John McCain, to come over for a hot dog on March 5. His tribulation is almost over; baseball games and mountain biking are beckoning.
Watching that scene, I was dumbstruck once again, as I have been for the past eight years. I’ve never been able to fathom who the man in that suit might be and what makes him do the things he does — from wiping his glasses on Late Show producer Maria Pope to invading Iraq. Obviously, recalling moments like Bush’s father breaking down over the end of his brother Jeb Bush‘s political road, there must be some strong undercurrents below that family’s surface. However, I’ve never seen them clearly charted.
So I was intrigued, to say the least, when I stumbled across Jacob Weisberg‘s new book The Bush Tragedy at Amazon.com. The description there touts Mr. Weisberg as the author who “uncovers the ‘black box’ from the crash of the Bush presidency” with a biography that “cracks the code.”
Weisberg, editor in chief of Slate magazine, is the author of the series of mocking Bushisms books. The Bush Tragedy, however, is serious-minded and surprisingly fair. It is an insightful and detailed sketch of the man and his motivations, and it produces, in me at least, a level of empathy I had not expected.
We are first presented with George W. Bush’s family history, including an emphasis on the rarely-considered Walker side of the family which provided the president’s middle name. Weisberg describes George Herbert “Bert” Walker and his family as a bold and ostentatious counterbalance to mild-mannered, cautious restraint that Prescott Bush passed down to his son Poppy. A case is made that some of the headstrong Walker traits resurfaced in W — especially in his attempts to disprove his inferiority.
We are also given glimpses of inter- and intra-family frictions and wounds — things ranging from father-son competition to the Walkers gradually being pushed out of their family retreat (Walker’s Point) near Kennebunkport, Maine, to the profound isolation and depression of Barbara Bush, which turned her hair white before age thirty and forced young George W. into the role of “junior husband”:
One poignant story has the teenage son driving his mother to the hospital after a miscarriage while his father was away on business. As Barbara later remembered, her son picked her up the next day at the hospital. “He talked to me in the car and he said, ‘Don’t you think we ought to talk about this before you have more children?'”
Bush’s sobriety and religious transformation are examined, including how it was at an arranged meeting at a Midland, Texas restaurant that “psychedelic evangelist” Arthur Blessit actually brought Bush to Jesus — not Billy Graham during a walk on the nonexistent beach on Walker’s Point, which became the official story for campaign purposes.
Bush’s life as a businessman, after recreating his father’s mythic drive from the Ivy League to Midland (but in a blue Cutlass instead of a red Studebaker), is well-known from the famous 1999 American Spectator story. Weisberg recaps it succinctly, underlining his point that the proudly self-made Bush men afford little credit to the privilege and the financing that made their climbs possible.
Briefer still is the story of Bush’s courtship of Laura Welch after being fixed up by his friends at a cookout. We are given the impression that she is a suitable political prop. They marry in just six weeks, and spend their honeymoon campaigning to send him to Congress.
Rove’s unrequited worship of Bush, possibly rooted in his own deep family tragedies, is particularly poignant. Weisberg notes the Brokeback Mountain vibe that Rove gives off when recalling the sheer charisma emanating from even the tobacco tin in the back pocket of George W.’s jeans. (Personally, I have always imagined Bush and Rove as Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute from The Office, and this book only reinforces that impression.)
Dick Cheney, meanwhile, is seen as a shrewd and somewhat selfless crusader for the concept of presidential power or “executive authority,” especially as expressed in The Federalist No. 70. That one belief — not profiteering, not a dark and unspeakable evil — emerges as the motivating force behind most of his shark-like machinations. It’s really astonishing to think that a single constitutional theory could drive a man to the exclusion of everything else, but that’s the case that’s made here. Weisberg maintains that Cheney’s dogged mission is based on deeply-held principle, not partisanship, and he shows how Bush allowed Cheney to steer his presidency straight into the weeds over this single notion.
Bush’s war in Iraq is traced through an ever-shifting series of “Bush Doctrines” from its genesis in the “collective delusion” of Saddam’s WMDs to the present day muddle. Panicked by the still-unsolved anthrax attacks that followed September 11, and especially by the notion that smallpox could be next, Cheney and Lewis “Scooter” Libby seriously wanted to vaccinate the entire U.S. population, despite the potentially horrific side effects such action could entail. They believed the threat was real, and their urgency was amplified by a feedback loop in the administration and the American Enterprise Institute think tank, then distilled though a twisted confusion of motives including the claims of Ahmed Chalabi and the “military transformation” theories of Donald Rumsfeld. When WMDs were not found, and the war’s aftermath was so horribly mismanaged, a petulant Bush entrenched himself in pure stubbornness and waits there still to be proven right.
The final — and most fascinating — section of The Bush Tragedy focuses on George W. Bush as a reader and a mind. Many will be surprised to learn that Bush tackled at least 87 books in 2006, including some 500-, 700-, and 800-page historical tomes. That’s a staggering load. Weisberg notes that Bush doesn’t go out in Washington, and rarely hosts friends for dinner. According to this book, Bush also projects these histories he reads onto himself, and sees himself as Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, but most of all as a modern day Winston Churchill. Among the contrasts that Weisberg draws is a deeply moving story about Churchill’s father.
Meanwhile, in the heading quotes of each chapter and in numerous places throughout the book, we are somewhat heavy-handedly shown how George W. Bush is also Shakespeare’s Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, complete with his father’s disdain, a midlife transformation, and a vanquished rival (Jeb Bush as Hotspur). I don’t know these plays, but it sure feels Shakespearean when George W. wins his election for Texas governor the same day Jeb loses in Florida to Lawton Chiles. “Why do you feel bad about Jeb?” George is overheard asking his father on the phone. “Why don’t you feel good about me?”
The shadow drama of a family’s turmoil has played out upon the world stage. As it draws to a close, The Bush Tragedy provides a useful key to understanding what we have all been witnessing — a kind of edifying denouement while we wait for him to shuffle off to Buffalo.