Ballot Box

Campaign Book Report: George W. Bush

A Charge To Keep
By George W. Bush
William Morrow and Co., 243 pages, $23
(Click here to buy the book.)

There was a bit of fuss a few months back about who was going to write this book. Mickey Herskowitz, a sports columnist for the Houston Chronicle originally hired for the job, was fired in July following a dispute about what the book should contain. At that point, Karen Hughes, the Bush campaign’s communications director, stepped in as pinch-ghostwriter, reportedly working up the text in less than a month. There hasn’t been any pretense, as there often is with these kinds of books, that the nominal author actually wielded the pen. But let’s be realistic. With George W. Bush, the question isn’t whether he writes his own book. It’s whether he reads it.

Though there is probably not much danger that Bush will claim, as Charles Barkley did, to have been misquoted in his autobiography, he might convincingly do so. Hughes is supposedly as close to Bush as any of his advisers, yet the book reads as if it were written by someone who barely knows him. Much of it is boilerplate that could appear under the byline of any of the candidates in the presidential race–or any person walking down the street for that matter. Here are some passages I found especially insightful:

I always want to know about people’s backgrounds and families. I like people and I am interested in learning more about them, plus I believe people’s values and priorities are rooted in their upbringing.I enjoy meeting people and shaking their hands and listening to their stories about their lives.Politics, like life, is a strange endeavor. Things are sometimes not what they seem. I try to get facts and weigh both sides. And I remain confident that most people, most of the time, can see beyond the sound bites to appreciate leaders who try to do the right things for the right reasons.We are a close family. I love my brothers and sister and count them among the most important people in my life.No discussion of our family would be complete without mentioning our pets.

If Bush wrote any of this, it must have been as part of his application to Andover. Mom’s dog Millie came across as a more complex character–and a better prose stylist.

I suppose it’s an accomplishment, in a way, to have achieved a tone so utterly insipid. Hughes has accomplished this in part by the unusual technique of double ghosting. She quotes long, mattress-stuffing extracts from Bush speeches ghostwritten by others. In other places, she describes events by reprinting reports from Texas newspapers. In the biographical sections, which occur at random, she repeats the familiar stories, though in a highly sanitized form. Here, for instance, is “Bush” on his college career:

I took my classes seriously and worked hard. … And I made friends and played hard. The students at Yale came from all different backgrounds and all parts of the country. Within months, I knew many of them.

Bush himself couldn’t utter these words with a straight face. It is well known that he hated Yale, which he thought was full of intellectual snobs, and also that he did poorly there in academic terms. But rather than explore any of this interesting territory, Hughes opts for the Soviet encyclopedia approach, removing any possible blemish from the face of the leader.

In the very few places where the book goes into any detail about anything, the political purpose is transparent. In describing his time in the Texas Air National Guard, Bush says he wanted to go to Vietnam to relieve active-duty pilots, but hadn’t logged enough flying time to qualify for the program. Bush spends a full chapter attempting to defuse a potential Democratic issue by explaining why he vetoed an HMO reform bill in Texas. He tries to disarm the accusation that he was callous about executing Karla Fay Tucker by portraying his decision as an anguished crisis of conscience. But by quoting Tucker’s eloquent letter to him, he actually makes himself seem even more heartless. Bush believed that Tucker was sincerely penitent and that she wanted to escape execution in order to help set other prisoners straight. Then he killed her anyway.

Autobiography can’t help revealing something about a person, and even this worthless placeholder of a book is telling in its way. What it indicates is that Dubya is not only the lightest of intellectual lightweights, but a fundamentally cavalier and unserious person. He has no policy views, only vague aspirations for a better country. He believes that reading is important, but fails to mention anything he has ever read other than the Bible. Personal quirks? “I’m a stickler for being on time,” he writes, because “late is rude.” His faith is sincere but shallow. Bush describes his surrender to forces greater than himself as something that makes it possible for him to do his job as governor.

Compare this with the books written by the three other serious contenders for the presidency: John McCain’s book, the best of the bunch, is not only personally revealing and insightful, but an affecting story, superbly told. Bradley’s and Gore’s books are dull but commendable efforts to explain themselves and their views. It’s clear that McCain, Gore, and Bradley all put huge amounts of personal effort into their respective books, being the type of people who could not really do otherwise. They are politicians who take themselves seriously. They have respect for people who might take the trouble to read what they write. Bush, by contrast, sees a book as a campaign poster with words. His tells you a lot about him, even as it tells you nothing at all.