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The Bush Tragedyby Jacob Weisberg
Synopses & Reviews
This is the book that cracks the code of the Bush presidency. Unstintingly yet compassionately, and with no political ax to grind, Slate editor in chief Jacob Weisberg methodically and objectively examines the family and circle of advisers who played crucial parts in George W. Bush's historic downfall.
In this revealing and defining portrait, Weisberg uncovers the "black box" from the crash of the Bush presidency. Using in-depth research, revealing analysis, and keen psychological acuity, Weisberg explores the whole Bush story. Distilling all that has been previously written about Bush into a defining portrait, he illuminates the fateful choices and key decisions that led George W., and thereby the country, into its current predicament. Weisberg gives the tragedy a historical and literary frame, comparing Bush not just to previous American leaders, but also to Shakespeare's Prince Hal, who rises from ne'er-do-well youth to become the warrior king Henry V.
Here is the bitter and fascinating truth of the early years of the Bush dynasty, with never-before-revealed information about the conflict between the two patriarchs on George W.'s father's side of the family — the one an upright pillar of the community, the other a rowdy playboy — and how that schism would later shape and twist the younger George Bush; his father, a hero of war, business, and Republican politics whose accomplishments George W. would attempt to copy and whose absences he would resent; his mother, Barbara, who suffered from insecurity, depression, and deep dissatisfaction with her role as housewife; and his younger brother Jeb, seen by his parents as steadier, stronger, and the son most likely to succeed.
Weisberg also anatomizes the replacement family Bush surrounded himself with in Washington, a group he thought could help him correct the mistakes he felt had destroyed his father's presidency: Karl Rove, who led Bush astray by pursuing his own historical ambitions and transforming the president into a deeply polarizing figure; Dick Cheney, whose obsessive quest to restore presidential power and protect the country after 9/11 caused Bush and America to lose the world's respect; and, finally, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, who encouraged Bush's foreign policy illusions and abetted his flight from reality.
Delving as no other biography has into Bush's religious beliefs — which are presented as at once opportunistic and sincere — The Bush Tragedy is an essential work that is sure to become a standard reference for any future assessment. It is the most balanced and compelling account of a sitting president ever written.
"Well before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, some experienced people raised their voices against it. One was Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to George H.W. Bush, the 41st president. Scowcroft made his point in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece on Aug. 15, 2002, headlined 'Don't Attack Saddam.' Because Scowcroft was so close to Bush 41, the piece was widely viewed,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) as Jacob Weisberg puts it in 'The Bush Tragedy,' as 'a worried father's only way of communicating with his bellicose son.' But that son, the 43rd president, reacted to Scowcroft 'not as a concerned uncle but as an irksome surrogate for his dad.' Scowcroft, the younger Bush was quoted as saying, 'has become a pain in the ass in his old age.' After five years of war in Iraq, it remains remarkable how little we know about exactly how, why, when and in whose presence one of the most important — and maybe one of the worst — decisions in recent American history was made. Nor can we be sure what, if anything, the complex relationship of two presidents, father and son, both of whom have gone to war against Saddam Hussein, had to do with it. Indeed, we may never know to what extent George W. Bush, who famously labeled himself 'the decider,' consciously sees himself as the 'anti-Poppy' — the opposite of his cautious, deliberative, internationalist father. But 'The Bush Tragedy' is a serious, thought-provoking effort to penetrate what instinct tells us must be an extraordinary family drama. This is not a book of extensive original reporting. Rather, it is one of analysis built upon much that has already been reported, and much that is observable but not so often reported. Pulling together Bush's personal history and his relationship to his family, to his faith and to his surrogate family in the White House, Weisberg concludes that the decision to invade Iraq grew out of a predisposition 'to vindicate his family and outdo his father' by 'completing a job his dad left unfinished' when the senior Bush allowed Saddam Hussein to remain in power at the conclusion of the first Gulf War. Well, maybe. It is certainly plausible that the father-son dynamic played a central role in the decision. But many people who are not part of the Bush family also supported an invasion because, based on what they had been told, they saw Saddam Hussein as a threat. Indeed, Weisberg himself was one of those so-called 'liberal hawks,' an early supporter of the war who acknowledges that 'the logic behind the invasion of Iraq was coherent.' At its core, 'The Bush Tragedy' is a portrait of a deeply flawed president and presidency based upon a very big dose of psychoanalysis. Weisberg — editor-in-chief of the online daily magazine Slate, which is owned by The Washington Post Company — is a talented writer and political analyst. But he is not a psychoanalyst, and the president's defenders will undoubtedly accuse him of psychobabble. His many flat assertions about what really makes Bush tick ('illegal weapons had never been his real reason for going to war') may make this book easy for some to brush off. Yet Weisberg also provides a broad, dark, nuanced way of thinking about why we went to war — a value that far outweighs his amateur shrink and converted believer status. 'Act One of the Bush Tragedy,' he writes, was 'the son's struggle to be like his dad until the age of forty.' Act Two was 'his growing success over the next fifteen years as he learned to be different.' And the 'conclusive third act' has been a 'botched search for a doctrine to clarify world affairs' and a 'progressive descent into messianism.' The 'final irony' of Bush's disastrous venture into Iraq, Weisberg argues, is that 'it vindicated his father's choices,' particularly the elder Bush's decisions in 1990-91 to force Saddam Hussein to withdraw his troops from neighboring Kuwait but not to topple the Iraqi dictator, for fear of setting off a violent power struggle among Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites. Because exactly such a struggle has occurred since the U.S. invasion in 2003, Weisberg writes, what once looked like Bush 41's failure to finish the job 'now looked like an act of wisdom. ... Appreciating the value of stability now sounded like maturity. Avoiding needlessly bellicose rhetoric seemed like common sense.' And so a son who wanted a parental 'acknowledgement that he, not (brother) Jeb, was the outstanding son' and 'who tried to vindicate his family by repudiating his father's policies ended up doing the opposite of what he intended.' What also strikes one reading this book in January 2008 is that incumbent presidents and ongoing wars are moving targets, and that things can change after the writing is finished. Weisberg leaves himself some wiggle room, saying 'it would be foolish to answer Bush's untethered confidence with a correspondingly definitive judgment of failure. Time and competent successors,' he says, could turn Iraq into 'less of a catastrophe.' From a military standpoint, at least, things do seem to be getting better in Iraq, and that improvement could grow into something more positive than most critics could have imagined just a few months ago. On the other hand, no matter how Iraq turns out, it doesn't alter the manner in which this country was taken to war under what turned out to be false premises based on false intelligence stated with false certainty. Nor will it change the incompetence with which that war has been managed, or its huge cost in lives, treasure and reputation. 'The Bush Tragedy' is a relentless indictment not just of the president but of his surrogate family members as well — Vice President Dick Cheney and top political adviser Karl Rove, in particular. Weisberg does not depict the president as Cheney's puppet, even on Iraq — though he does contend that the vice president recognizes Bush's need 'to make himself his father's antithesis.' He sees Cheney's cardinal sin as pushing Bush toward open-ended claims of executive authority and privilege. As for Rove, Weisberg argues that he 'put an indelible political stamp on the War on Terror' by seizing on the 9/11 attacks as an opportunity to generate a political realignment that would keep the Republican Party in power for many years. Reinforcing Bush's worst instinct by politicizing the war was Rove's greatest disservice, ensuring that Bush would lose the ability to pull the country together and, instead, become a polarizing figure, Weisberg says. 'The Bush Tragedy' does not maintain that the father-son relationship was the only factor in Bush's decisions on Iraq. The book mentions the intellectual influence of Middle East scholars Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami; the conspiracy theories of author Laurie Mylroie linking 9/11 and Saddam; and the internal assessments of presidential speech writer Michael Gerson, now an op-ed columnist at The Post, who 'more than anyone else, promoted the idea that a providential mantle had descended upon the president.' It also reminds us of the still unsolved anthrax attacks just a month after 9/11 and their extraordinary effect inside an administration that feared they were the precursor to massive bio-terrorism. Weisberg even says, 'Without the anthrax attacks, Bush probably would not have invaded Iraq.' That may be a conjecture too far — and it would seem to contradict the thrust of this book. One of my favorite books about the war, George Packer's widely acclaimed 'The Assassins' Gate,' also addresses the question of just why the United States invaded Iraq. Packer describes a telling exchange with Richard Haass, the State Department's director of policy planning at the time, who said he expects to go to his grave not knowing the reason. In the end, Packer writes, Haass seemed to believe it was just something some people wanted to do. Michael Getler, a former ombudsman for The Post, is the ombudsman for the Public Broadcasting Service." Reviewed by Michael Getler, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A] provocative and plausible account of the evolution of his political beliefs while doing a far more persuasive job of marshaling evidence to make a Freudian case for the younger Mr. Bush's missteps than other recent efforts." Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
One of Americas most acclaimed journalists delivers a groundbreaking, revelatory, and defining portrait of George W. Bush--both a character study and a look at his place in the American political tradition.
About the Author
Jacob Weisberg is the editor in chief of Slate. He previously worked for The New Republic and was a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and a columnist for the Financial Times. Weisberg is the inventor of the "Bushisms" series. He is also the author, with Robert Rubin, of In an Uncertain World. Weisberg's first book, In Defense of Government, was published in 1996.
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