Bush breaks silence with memoir

2010-11-09 11:32

Washington - George W Bush knows that history will shape his legacy more than anything he can say. But that is not going to stop a guy from trying.

After two years of near silence, Bush is back.

With his new memoir, Decision Points, and a promotion tour, the former president who in cockier times could not think of a single mistake he had made, lists many. He counts the years without a post-9/11 attack as his transcendent achievement. He says the economic calamity he handed off to Barack Obama was "one ugly way to end a presidency".

While he has been absent from the national scene, Bush's team has been busy. Some of the most polarising figures from his 2001-2009 presidency have found second lives in the political world.

Karl Rove, the operative who might as well have put "mastermind" on his business card, became a master money-raiser for the midterm elections in plenty of time to make Democrats apoplectic again. Dick Cheney, the Bush vice-president whose influence rivalled if not surpassed Rove's, has tormented the Obama administration at many turns.

Not Bush.

Enter the tea party movement

He has given the occasional innocuous speech, has tended his presidential centre, has helped with Haiti earthquake relief and has offered glimpses of a life that has him walking Barney the dog in his Dallas, Texas, neighbourhood with a poop bag, "picking up that which I had been dodging for the past eight years".

Decision Points puts Bush back in the public eye. He will be all over American television this week and beyond, from news and opinion shows to Oprah Winfrey's afternoon celebrity programme and Jay Leno's late-night yuk-yuk show.

Still, times have changed.

Hard-driving adherents of the tea parties, a post-Bush conservative movement, helped power a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives and gains in the Senate in the recent elections, seemingly light years from the "compassionate conservatism" that Bush said he hoped to bring from Texas to the White House a decade ago.

For all the sour struggles of his time in Washington and the divisiveness over war policy, Bush pushed Congress to spend billions more on education and ushered in prescription drug coverage for seniors in a major expansion of health care, now overshadowed by Obama's overhaul. Those measures, too, are out of step with the Republican majority coming in.

He also is not out to trash Obama in his new book. The Democrat, in his 2008 presidential campaign, spared no effort to criticise Bush for taking the US to war in Iraq, for letting the effort in Afghanistan flag and for presiding over an economy sinking into the Great Recession.

Still unpopular

Bush turns the other cheek, merely praising Obama's decision to add troops in Afghanistan.

Instead he details difficult times with Cheney, still his friend, delivering some of the buzz-generating palace intrigue that is expected of any political memoir. Expect still more with memoirs coming out in January by Bush's first defence secretary, Donald H Rumsfeld, and by Cheney himself in the spring.

Bush was unpopular when he left office and he still is, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll in September. In the survey, 55% looked at him unfavourably and 51% blamed him for the economic crisis that began on his watch.

He says he will not be around to hear history's ultimate verdict, and he is fine with that. But he offers this to the jury: "Commentators who once denounced President (Ronald) Reagan as a dunce and a warmonger talk about how the Great Communicator had won the Cold War."

Bush's mistakes? In his view now, they range from a badly named piece of legislation (the Patriot Act, implying those who opposed it were unpatriotic) to the momentously consequential claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (a justification for war) when none was found.

He writes that he cut troop levels in Iraq too quickly. He says he misjudged the severity of the economic downturn in his final months as president, believing the United States still might avoid a recession even as "the house of cards was about to come tumbling down".

Catching shoes

"The decider", as he called himself in the White House, says the fallout over the government's response to Hurricane Katrina "cast a cloud" over his second term.

"The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions," he argues. "It was that I took too long to decide." He says he should have acted sooner to order an evacuation and send troops, and did not show adequate empathy for victims.

His regrets, in a lighter vein, extend to a scene in Baghdad in December 2008 when an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at the president and called him a dog.

"The guy had a pretty live arm," Bush says. "I wish I had caught the damn thing."