Every president becomes a caricature. The press, partisans, late-night shows, and other arbiters of our culture these days boil down complicated and multi-faceted personalities into one-dimensional punchlines. As President Bush writes in his new memoir, Decision Points, they "questioned 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."
I'm glad President Bush has published Decision Points—not so much because I think it will help rehabilitate his image or improve his place in history, though I think it will help on those counts. I'm glad because I believe readers will get a sense of the George W. Bush who I've known for 15 years—a man who is very different than the distorted public image many have come to accept as accurate. Contrary to conventional wisdom, President Bush is very smart, quietly reflective, often contrite, and deeply humble. He is also a strong leader who, while relying on the strong counsel of many around him, makes his own decisions. He was secure enough to hire a vice president like Dick Cheney, and strong enough that it was never in doubt who was the boss. Just ask Scooter Libby, who Cheney said Bush was going to "leave a soldier on the battle field" by refusing to pardon him.
President Bush, in my view, wisely decided not to make his book a chronology of his administration. By writing about the most important decisions in his life, we get a view of those events that truly shaped his life and his presidency. And we come to gain a greater appreciation of just how complex and difficult the decisions a president must make truly are. As he says, the easy decisions don't get to the president's desk.
And there are interesting, surprising, and moving anecdotes aplenty. Imagine tough guy Don Rumsfeld breaking down in tears in the Oval Office, grieving over the drug addiction of his son.
I have great respect and sympathy for anyone who serves as president today. Given the nature of the challenges we face and the complexity of the world in which we live, compounded by the evolution of technology and proliferation of new media, I doubt we will ever see a president again who remains popular beyond their initial honeymoon phase. I disagree with much of President Obama's politics, but I can only shake my head as I listen to all the wizards who think he can fundamentally change the arc of his presidency, if only he would "connect more with the American people.”
• Where Are Bush Officials Now?The book does highlight, however, a fundamental difference between George Bush and Barack Obama. Bush never complains. He never blames others. He takes full responsibility for his campaigns, his administration, his life. He accepts the cards he's dealt. That's the George Bush I know.
When we were up to our knees in the snows of New Hampshire and got whipped by John McCain by 19 points, my advertising colleague Stuart Stevens started packing his bags. I asked what he was doing. "We're going to be fired," he said speaking from the experience of someone who had been in previous presidential campaigns when things went south. But Bush called us all into his room, looked us all in the eye, and said, "When we walk out of here and the defeat we've just been dealt, I want all your heads high. This is not your fault. It’s mine alone. I let you down, and I apologize." And then he went out and gave a speech that Reagan's speechwriter Peggy Noonan told me looked like a victory speech if you turned the sound off. In contrast, when I saw John Kerry after the 2004 campaign (ironically in Paris), he said to me, "You guys did a really good job, and my team really $%&#$ it up." Amazing he would think that. Incredible he would say it. Astonishing he would say it to me.
Readers will be surprised by the number of examples in the book where President Bush takes responsibility for failures and talks about mistakes made—particularly in Iraq, Afghanistan, and New Orleans.
I was disappointed that President Bush wasn't able to govern in a bipartisan fashion as he did in Texas with Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. Bush campaigned on the idea of changing the tone in Washington. But, then again, so did Barack Obama. They both discovered just how difficult, if not impossible, it is. And the recount poisoned the well for President Bush from the get-go, as many Democrats refused to even acknowledge him as a legitimate president. He writes, “The death spiral of decency during my time in office, exacerbated by the advent of 24-hour cable news and hyper-partisan political blogs was deeply disappointing.”
Bush is very loyal. Perhaps loyal to a fault—in the sense that he kept around people like Donald Rumsfeld around longer than he should have. And he was loyal to the Republican House and Senate, which perhaps led him to sign legislation with huge spending implications he might otherwise have vetoed, like agriculture bills with huge farm subsidies, and other omnibus bills.
But if loyalty is a flaw, I'm glad he's got it. I’ve been the recipient of his loyalty many times over the years. He kept me around both as an employee and a friend when others would have cut me loose, and kept me on as ad director for the 2004 campaign despite an effort to replace me. His was the first call I got when my wife was diagnosed with cancer. And during an FBI criminal investigation into an employee who worked in my office, he never wavered in his support for me.
I didn't always agree with President Bush's decisions or policies, but I never doubted his heart. And I've never regretted for a moment the day I crossed the political bridge to help reelect him as governor of Texas in 1998. It was an honor then. It's an honor today.
At the end of Decision Points, Bush writes about how at the completion of his presidency, things were not ending as he had planned: "I reflected on everything we were facing. Over the past few weeks we had seen the failure of America's two largest mortgage entities, the bankruptcy of a major investment bank, the sale of another, the nationalization of the world's largest insurance company, and now the most drastic intervention in the free market since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. At the same time, Russia had invaded and occupied Georgia, Hurricane Ike had hit Texas, and America was fighting a two-front war in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was one ugly way to end the presidency.
"I didn't feel sorry for myself, I knew there would be tough days. Self-pity is a pathetic quality in a leader. It sends demoralizing signals to the team and the country. As well, I was comforted by my conviction that the good Lord wouldn't give a believer a burden he couldn't handle."
I didn’t always agree with President Bush’s decisions or policies, but I never doubted his heart.
Finally, President Bush relays what it's like coming to earth after being in the Oval Office when he takes Barney on his first walk around a civilian neighborhood. After Barney does his business, Bush relates how humbling it was to grab a plastic bag to pick up what everyone had been throwing at him the last eight years.
That's the Bush I know.
As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.