Given that President Bush sat for six one-hour interviews in a five-month span with author Robert Draper, somebody apparently thought "Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush" might be a "legacy" book. Such books include Arthur M. Schlesinger's "1000 Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House" and "Robert Kennedy and His Times," and Edmund Morris's "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" and "Theodore Rex." Judging from the final product, either Mr. Bush left Mr. Draper without interesting material to use or the author committed a grave historical disservice by failing to translate his enviable access into genuine insight.
An epilogue tacked on to the book provides a clue as to which might be the case. Only here, after some 400 pages, do we learn that, in the interviews, Mr. Bush "defied all his stereotypes." And yet nowhere in the body of the book does Mr. Draper apply a critical eye to those stereotypes, nor does he offer a compelling alternative account of the president's personality and character. Instead, "Dead Certain" is a largely anecdotal survey pieced together from mostly well-known episodes in Mr. Bush's life.
The author informs us that the president who once reveled in his status as a mediocre student at Yale has listened "with growing interest, to the voices of the past conjured up in history books." These books include, the author reports, not just the exploits of embattled wartime leaders such as Churchill and Truman "but the voices of the women and children slaughtered in the aftermath of the Algerian revolution, or the innocents massacred on the killing fields of Cambodia." It fell to Henry Kissinger, of all people, to suggest that Mr. Bush pick up a book on the Algerian revolution. A reader might be interested to learn what our president gleaned from reading about the aftermath of France's experiences in North Africa or to see what the president has to say about the Iraq war in the long view of history. Mr. Draper fails to deliver in either case.
The book commences with three superfluous chapters recounting Mr. Bush's less than stellar years at Yale and Harvard Business School, his fortunate series of career steps culminating in a multimillion-dollar windfall as a front-man for the Texas Rangers baseball team, his successes as the governor of Texas, and the triumphant 2000 presidential campaign. It's now long understood that, unlike the young Jack Kennedy, for instance, who marshaled his father's contacts and status as ambassador to Britain, Mr. Bush didn't use his father's position as an emissary to the People's Republic of China as an opportunity to fact-find about East Asia.
We also get a crucial scene describing an examination of Mr. Bush's closet by a sartorial expert on the brink of his gubernatorial campaign: "They stood in his walk-in closet and appraised his current wardrobe. It was a horror show." How illuminating. Mr. Draper does do a far better job in chronicling three defining moments of Mr. Bush's presidential administration, one favorable to the president, and two negative. His description of Mr. Bush's visit to ground zero only days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, though familiar, is stirring, demonstrating the best of the president's political instincts. Equally compelling are his assessments of Mr. Bush's aloof flyover of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and of the infamous "Mission Accomplished" photo-op on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. The banner, Mr. Draper reports, was for the troops and sailors on board, not a message to the public at large. In an interview with Mr. Draper published in the July issue of GQ, Dan Bartlett, Mr. Bush's former director of communications, also blamed the banner on the ship's crew, saying "it literally was their mission motto, ‘Mission Accomplished.' They'd been on the longest-ever deployment of an aircraft carrier. We put up a banner, and that's what it said." In repeating rather than questioning these statements, Mr. Draper is likely being generous to his sources.
Such expressions of protest were absent from even contemporary accounts lauding the construction of the event in question, such as a May 15, 2003, New York Times story, "Keepers of Bush Image Lift Stagecraft to New Heights."
As far as the administration's failures in messaging and execution around Katrina and other woes, Mr. Draper repeatedly depicts a president whose aides were largely afraid to trouble him with bad news. Their fear has consequences: Aides refuse to convey advice from a debate coach telling Mr. Bush to watch his body language prior to a debate with Senator Kerry, and Mr. Bush's smirk spoils the debate; staff members insulate Mr. Bush from the chaos in New Orleans in the immediate wake of the storm, and Mr. Bush's poll numbers take a dive. Here blame points not to Mr. Bush himself, but to the former White House chief of staff, Andrew Card, whose clear failures in managing the hurricane offer an ignoble career coda for a man whose profile grew in the administration of Mr. Bush's father because of his able handling of Hurricane Andrew.
The inability of bad news to get quickly enough to the president is an indictment of both the chief executive and his staff. It is not merely the job but the obligation of political staffers to make their best efforts to promote the interests of their boss, even if he bristles at being managed. Insulating Mr. Bush in the manner chronicled by Mr. Draper may have helped preserve the jobs of some, but it did a great disservice to the nation as a whole.