George W. Bush’s Decision Points, arriving November 9, purports to be a “groundbreaking new brand of memoir.” But Bush already has a White House memoir. In the turbulent final hours of his presidency, he published, to almost no acclaim, a book that was many months and many thousands of taxpayer dollars in the making. The title of this lost memoir is A Charge Kept. It measures 128 pages, and you can order it on Amazon.com. Here you can see the Bush administration sweating to salvage its legacy, and perhaps see a preview of the Bush era as it will be reconstructed in Decision Points.
A Charge Kept—the title is an answer to Bush’s 1999 campaign biography, A Charge to Keep—was written under duress. By 2008, it was clear Bush wouldn’t be taking the legacy-polishing victory lap typically afforded two-term presidents. The economy was tanking, and John McCain’s campaign said it did not want Bush defending his record, even as that record was being filleted. Feeling they’d someday be vindicated by history, the Bushies turned to literature. They would write a book—a chronicle of “what we inherited, what we did about it, and what we left behind,” says Marc Thiessen, the former Bush chief speechwriter who oversaw the book’s writing.
“While they were taking pictures down off the walls, we were still getting comments and edits from senior officials,” Thiessen says.
Presidents like Reagan and Clinton had put out yawn-inducing legacy memos before. But A Charge Kept, Thiessen says, was supposed to be readable. If it wasn’t Teddy White, at least it wouldn’t “lose somebody’s interest after the second paragraph.”
“Partly it was done to clarify the historical record,” says Matt Latimer, another former Bush speechwriter who—unlike Thiessen—is critical of his old boss. “Partly it was done so that some people would be persuaded when they saw the whole thing. And partly it was done to make some people feel better.”
They didn’t have much time. Thiessen didn’t start working on A Charge Kept until September 2008, and the book had a non-negotiable deadline of January 20, 2009. Factoring in time for edits, that gave him only three months. Thiessen hired conservative author Peter Schweizer on a contract. The two waded through thousands of pages of legacy memos—another Bush initiative—on everything from the Iraq War to the protection of the striped bass.
Bush himself was intimately involved in how the book took shape, taking meetings in the Oval Office to review the memos. As he later told his senior staff, “Someday there will be a sober assessment of what we did here. People will realize what we did and say, ‘I didn’t know that.’”
• Peter Beinart: The GOP’s Revolt Against BushSo what does A Charge Kept tell us about Bush? Well, Dick Cheney might have been considered Bush’s co-president, but after his introduction on Page 1, Cheney is only mentioned once in the whole book, in reference to a national-energy strategy. Laura Bush and her portfolio, by contrast, get five full pages. The first chunk of A Charge Kept—some 60 pages—is mostly about foreign policy, war, homeland security, and international relations. Harriet Miers is in the book; Scooter Libby, Michael Brown, and Ahmed Chalabi are not.
One thing that’s clear is that Bush thinks he was dealt a pretty lousy hand on January 20, 2001. Bush, we learn, “inherited a recession and an economy struggling under a high tax burden.” Fat budget surpluses were “disappearing.” Also: “drug use among high-school-age teens was at near all-time highs.” And this is to say nothing of the “considerable signs of strain” in Latin American democracy; wars “raging” across Africa; the Mideast peace process “descending rapidly into a second intifada”; and children “trapped in schools without challenging academic standards.”
Into this stormy world moves the Decider. “The president chose to act,” the book says more than once. It is a tenet of A Charge Kept that Bush always acted. Congress often “failed to act.” (In the book’s calculus, Bush vetoing legislation counts as acting, while Congress nixing Bush’s plans counts as inaction.) If history had unraveled differently, Bush still would have acted: “[E]ven if the 9/11 attacks had never happened, President Bush would have been a steadfast champion of freedom’s cause across the globe.”
The administration’s self-proclaimed high points—its 2001 tax cut, the Iraq Surge—are trumpeted in familiar terms. So it’s tempting to skip ahead to the chapters titled “Economy and Budget,” “Immigration and Social Security,” and “Disaster Response” to see how Bush regards his low moments.
It won’t surprise you to learn that Bush’s list of Katrina accomplishments begins well after the disaster. Or that Osama bin Laden is portrayed as weakened and in hiding. But in other cases Bush takes an interesting tack. The book says that even in failure, he “laid the groundwork” for future presidents. So if Bush himself could not say “mission accomplished” on Social Security reform, a future POTUS would surely fly the banner. Bush is said to have “laid the foundation for America’s ultimate victory” in the War on Terror, which, given the situation in Afghanistan these days, would be news to the Obama administration.
The tone, Thiessen says, is “factual but not self-congratulatory.” Indeed, compared with Bush’s “dead or alive” rhetoric and Thiessen’s own pugnacious Washington Post column, A Charge Kept almost feels chastened. “Even those who disagree with the difficult decisions he made,” the book concludes, “would agree that he was willing to make the difficult decisions.” The book does not read like a snarling reaction to 20 percent approval ratings. It reads like a dissent to an otherwise unanimous decision.
Thiessen turned in the book in December 2008. Then the White House editing machinery went to work. “While they were taking pictures down off the walls, we were still getting comments and edits from senior officials,” Thiessen says. As Bush’s move-out date neared, it became clear that the administration would not release A Charge Kept as a proper book. But officials figured it would interest historians spelunking in the Bush archive, or serve as a briefing book for former officials going on Fox News to defend the presidency.
So in the administration’s final days, the Bushies plopped the thing, all 128 pages, onto WhiteHouse.gov as a downloadable PDF file. Then they left town. “There was no time for a book party,” Thiessen says.
At first, almost no one seemed to have noticed the book. A Nexis search for “A Charge Kept” turns up only one hit—on a religion blog. The book might have vanished forever had David Hancock, a Virginia publishing executive and Bush fan, not been cruising WhiteHouse.gov. Hancock is the founder of Morgan James Publishing, which typically publishes books it pays no advance for, like Ewen Chia’s How I Made My First Million on the Internet and How You Can Too! But Hancock also loves scooping up and publishing government memoranda—“gems of the public domain,” as he calls them. Morgan James can publish them without paying an advance or splitting the profit with an author.
With this new manuscript, Hancock did no editing. He placed Thiessen’s text wholesale into paperback binding, adding a boldly neutral Bush quote (“We have served America through one of the most consequential periods of our history…”) to the back cover. He priced the book at $12.95. It came out last April, by which time the political class had stopped worrying about Bush’s failings and started worrying about Obama’s. The book had no ad buys, no radio spots, and—of course—no author tour.
Then something truly strange happened: Slowly but surely, A Charge Kept began to sell. Hancock says he has moved a respectable 2,000 copies. “When a book with no author promoting it sells 2,000 copies,” he says, “that’s an accomplishment.” He predicts a spike when Bush’s other memoir arrives in November.
Apprised of the commercial success of his lost literary work, Thiessen laughs. For the Bushie who survived 2008, Obama’s falling poll numbers make it feel like the Bush vindication project is proceeding apace. “The Bush resurgence,” Thiessen says, “is happening sooner than any of us would have imagined.”
Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. He was a columnist at Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, and has written for GQ, Outside, and New York. Write him at bryan.curtis at thedailybeast.com.