Robert Draper, author of Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush, scored an amazing coup in gaining six hours of interview time with the president shortly after the 2004 presidential election. It’s not Draper’s fault that the President declined to say anything very interesting in those six hours. Professional politicians acquire considerable skill in saying nothing at considerable length. You’ve probably read excerpts from the book’s opening scene in which Draper cattily describes Bush shoving a hot dog into his mouth, dribbling crumbs onto his lower lip. Mean! But from a literary point of view, very understandable: after all, what Bush is actually saying in this scene is simply a demotic version of his second inaugural address. And we’ve heard that before. Boring!
The book’s one big revelation, highlighted in a first burst of media reports, concerns the dissolution of the Iraqi army. Bush tells Draper that in his preparations for war, he had ordered that the army not be dissolved. Paul Bremer proceeded to dissolve it anyway. Draper asks: How did that happen? Bush shruggingly dismisses the question.
As reported, the exchange made Bush sound utterly disengaged from the most important decisions of his own administration. As read, however, the revelation feels less sensational: It feels more as if Bush is utterly disengaged from the interview, and is evading any question that cannot be answered with setpieces he has delivered a dozen times before. Draper is getting one-on-one the same prefabricated responses the president has been articulating these past two years to the groups of friendly bloggers, sympathetic journalists, etc., that the White House communications department has been marching through his office. If he has anything more to say, it will have to wait for later. But my guess is that he has nothing to say. What Ulysses S. Grant said of himself is true of George W. Bush: He is a verb. He is able to do, to be, and to suffer. He cannot analyze or explain. His actions must be judged by results; any mysteries in the record will be clarified, to the extent they ever are, by the memoirs of his subordinates and the opening of the administration archives after the fact.
This does not mean that Draper’s book lacks interest. On the contrary, it is very interesting, and especially interesting on the president’s early life and his governorship. I didn’t know that Bush delighted in polyester sansabelt pants in the 1970s! Draper offers the best and most vivid account we have of Bush’s aimless years up through 1994, and he has perceptive things to say about the governorship and the presidency. Dan Bartlett, White House communications director, seems to have spoken at length to Draper about his 12-year association with Bush. The thoughts of this intelligent but till now close-mouthed aide are very much worth hearing. Draper captures some of the darker sides of the president’s personality: his occasional petulance, his sometimes disdainful treatment of those who work for him, his sometimes excessive emphasis on his exercise program to the exclusion of other responsibilities. The better side of the president’s nature is shown too, although more in the early chapters than the later. This may reflect Draper’s sourcing – or very possibly a genuine alteration in Bush under the strain of office.
Altogether, if the book is not indispensable as the early promotion suggested, it is certainly stimulating and worthwhile. I personally could have done without the over-torqued magazine writer’s style, but tastes differ.