The controversial president whose time in office was defined by the September 11 attacks and the war on terror
George W. Bush stirred powerful feelings on both sides of the aisle. Republicans viewed him as a resolute leader who guided America through the September 11 attacks and retaliated in Afghanistan and Iraq, while Democrats saw him as an overmatched president who led America into two inconclusive wars that sapped the nation's resources and diminished its stature. When Bush left office amid a growing financial crisis, both parties were eager to move on.
In this assessment of the nation's forty-third president, James Mann sheds light on why George W. Bush made the decisions that shaped his presidency, what went wrong, and how the internal debates and fissures within his administration played out in such a charged atmosphere. He shows how and why Bush became such a polarizing figure in both domestic and foreign affairs, and he examines the origins and enduring impact of Bush's most consequential actions-including Iraq, the tax cuts, and the war on terror. In this way, Mann points the way to a more complete understanding of George W. Bush and his times.
About the Author
James Mann is the author of six books on American politics and national security issues, including Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet and The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power. A longtime correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, he is currently a fellow in residence at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Read an Excerpt
During the 2000 presidential campaign, it was frequently said of George W. Bush that he had almost never set foot outside the United States. News articles repeatedly specified that, other than Mexico, he had made only three trips outside the United States in his life: one to China; one to Rome, Israel, and Egypt; and one to Gambia to represent his father’s administration. Commentators often rehashed this reporting, taking this skimpy list as evidence of his seeming provinciality and lack of curiosity.
Thus, I was quite startled when, in writing a previous book about George W. Bush’s foreign-policy team, I ran across a casual remark Bush made in 2003 on the eve of a presidential trip to Britain. The interviewer David Frost asked if this was Bush’s first visit to London. "I’ve been there a couple of times," Bush answered. "I remember Laura and I went to see ‘Cats’ in London. Gosh, I remember going to some nice pubs in London." Some further checking turned up the information that Bush had, in fact, made several trips to Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, stopping in London, Scotland, Paris, Spain, and Portugal, among other places, mostly as part of a business group, the Young Presidents’ Organization. He and his advisers did not bother to correct the news stories in the 2000 campaign; if the impression formed that he was unsophisticated, that was of little concern (and could even help with some voters).
That episode provides a fitting introduction to the life of George W. Bush. With Bush, appearances were frequently deceiving. He styled himself as a common man and tough-talking Texan, yet he came from a world of wealth, private schooling, and privilege. He was among the most unpopular of U.S. presidents, reviled by millions of Americans, yet those who met him in person usually found him to be likable and charming. He was caricatured as stupid, an impression furthered by his many malapropisms, yet those who worked with or for him often reported him to be surprisingly canny. Politically, too, impressions of Bush were often misleading: he held himself out as a strong conservative yet, in the end, he angered the political right with big-government programs such as Medicare prescription drug benefits and the TARP program during the financial crisis.
He was only the second president in American history whose father had previously held the job, following the path of John Quincy Adams in the early nineteenth century. His relationship with his father, George H. W. Bush, had often been a preoccupying factor in his life. When he was a boy, he was sometimes known as Little George. When he first became involved in politics, helping out in his father’s political campaigns, he was called Junior, a name he disliked. Eventually, the nickname that stuck for years was the middle initial that distinguished him from his father: he was "W" (or, in Texas, "Dub-ya").
Once, while his father was vice president, he heard someone speak casually about the difficulties of being a "PK," a preacher’s kid. "You think that’s tough?" asked Bush, who was then nearly forty years old. "Try being a VPK [a vice president’s kid]." Soon after his father became president, George W. Bush ordered a campaign adviser to prepare a written report for him on what happened to the children of American presidents. The survey found that while a few went on to successful careers, many others were ne’er-do-wells, damaged by the burden of their powerful, successful fathers.
The fact that he was a president’s son hovered in the background throughout George W. Bush’s presidency. It sometimes colored how his policies were perceived and portrayed. When he first came to the White House, his presidency was said to be a "retread" of his father’s administration. Later on, after he carried out policies very different from those of his father, the commentary changed: it was said that he must somehow harbor some sort of oedipal resentment.
Bush himself showed signs of sensitivity on this subject. "The one somewhat touchy area between us—never openly discussed—was my close relationship to the president’s father," wrote Robert M. Gates, Bush’s second defense secretary, who had previously held senior positions in the George H. W. Bush administration. When Gates was first approached about the Pentagon job in late 2006 and was asked to talk with the president, he first consulted quietly with Bush’s father. Soon he proceeded to an interview with George W. Bush, who told Gates, wrongly, that his father didn’t know the job offer was in the works.
Nevertheless, George H. W. Bush turned out to be largely irrelevant to George W. Bush’s presidency. The younger Bush confronted a series of problems his father never faced, ranging from the September 11 attacks to Hurricane Katrina to the global financial crisis. And by the time the president left office, his father was an afterthought. George W. Bush became undeniably his own man, launching initiatives and making mistakes that were all his own, arousing passions both positive and negative of the sort that his father never attracted.
George W. Bush was president at a critical juncture in American history. The attacks of September 11 marked the only time since Pearl Harbor or the War of 1812 that there was a direct foreign attack on American soil. That day brought to an end the sense of calm, security, and triumphalism that had prevailed in the United States following the end of the cold war.
America had entered the new millennium at the peak of its power. At home, the U.S. economy had grown rapidly through the 1990s; one of the reigning economic questions at the time Bush took office was what to do about the large surpluses the federal budget was running. On the world stage, America faced no serious rival as a global power.
Eight years later, at the end of Bush’s term, the United States was struggling to regain its stature abroad and its prosperity at home. The actions Bush took were often (though not always) a contributing factor in the country’s reversal of fortune. The question of what might have happened if someone else were president is the sort of counterfactual that can be debated endlessly. There can be no doubt, however, that Bush’s presidency marked a troubled entry into the twenty-first century for the United States and a turning point in its self-confident approach to the world. It was, by any standard, one of the most consequential presidencies in American history.
Copyright © 2015 by James Mann
Table of Contents
Editor's Note XV
1. "A Good-Time Guy" 5
2. The Rising Politician 20
3. The New President and His Tax Cuts 42
4. September 11 53
5. Iraq 72
6. Reelection and Its Unhappy Aftermath 88
7. Second-Term Changes 107
8. "I'm Going to Be Roosevelt, Not Hoover" 124
Selected Bibliography 169