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All great men are pestered by mental midgets. As Fred Barnes tells it in his new book on the Bush presidency, the tiniest of George W. Bush’s tormentors ride in the press bus, wildly misunderstanding him and the country he represents. As an example of the press’s abject cluelessness and Bush’s vision, Barnes cites a West Point speech in June 2002 in which the president outlined his policy of taking “pre-emptive action when necessary” to thwart terrorists before they attacked. “Few reporters understood the message,” writes Barnes, “or as a Bush aide said, ‘broke the code.’ “
It would have been extraordinary if the press had missed Bush’s message about pre-emptive action in that speech. Fortunately, it didn’t. The networks covered Bush’s new strike-first strategy that night, and the Washington Post and New York Times buried it on the front page the next day. A search for the words “preemptive” and “Bush” on Nexis in the week following the speech brings up 250 citations. At the time, the White House blamed reporters for jumping to the conclusion that Bush was talking about Iraq, which it turns out he was.
The White House press corps has flaws: a herd mentality, a fixation on who’s ahead politically, and difficulty engaging deeply with policy issues. I know, I was one of them. But Barnes has his boot on the scale, inflating the foolishness of the press to make Bush look better. Perhaps with so many books offering cartoon images of Bush as dumb and evil, the shelves need to be balanced out by one that errs in the opposite direction. But Rebel-in-Chief is such a love note that it fails to counteract the negative myths.
The case Barnes makes is maddeningly superficial. He repeatedly tells us that Bush is in charge. “It is a world-changing policy crafted mostly by Bush himself, not his advisers,” he writes, referring to Bush’s foreign-policy approach. “Bush took a different tack. And he devised the strategy, not his aides.” … “Within hours of the attacks, Bush was already fashioning a new policy. It was Bush policy, not the work of his advisers.” … “Success in at least laying the foundation for representative government in Iraq had many authors … but one in particular stands out. That’s Bush.”
It’s telling that in the fifth year of Bush’s presidency, his defenders are still trying to persuade us that he’s not disengaged or controlled by his advisers. But Barnes tries to redress the balance without providing meaningful support for his assertions … And anyone who isn’t already on Team Bush is going to think the lack of evidence here proves there isn’t any.
Barnes makes a big deal out of Bush declaring after the attacks on 9/11 that America was “at war” when others didn’t. This is hardly news; Ari Flesicher was telling the world that soon after. What would be more interesting at this point are questions Barnes doesn’t pursue: What did that decision mean for the White House staff and administration officials? How did Bush focus their minds? How did Bush’s resolve affect the prosecution of his ambitious campaign? The book doesn’t answer these questions. Instead, we get sub-Woodward drama and are supposed to accept the rest on faith: “Bush instantly saw the high stakes,” Barnes writes in a typical surface-skimming sentence, “and subsequent events have confirmed that he reacted correctly.” Scott McClellan couldn’t have said it more plainly.
During one discussion about troop levels, Barnes writes that Bush interjected “stop the hand wringing.” We get it: He’s bold. But we’ve known that for a while. It would make the case stronger if we knew what the troop-level debate was about and how the president’s interjection changed the conversation or represented a larger point about his administration.
Any intellectually honest book that spent so much time on Bush’s boldness would be obligated to consider the isolation and stubbornness that are the flip sides of that personality trait. But Barnes doesn’t. There’s simply no discussion of problems with postwar planning or prewar intelligence at all. Barnes is just the person to take on the various criticisms, made in some cases by former Bush officials, that the president is addicted to action for its own sake, that his aversion to the establishment has cut him off from criticism, or that his decisions are directed more by precooked ideology and politics. He doesn’t.
When Barnes does try to show us Bush’s thinking, he stretches too far and at least in one case gets facts wrong. Barnes suggests that as the president was formulating the “Bush doctrine” of pre-emption in early 2002 he read John Lewis Gaddis’ book Surprise, Security, and the American Experience. “Bush, as it happened, had read Gaddis’ book, liked it, and invited Gaddis to the White House for a chat,” Barnes writes. True, except that all happened in 2004, two years after Barnes suggests it did and after the theory of pre-emption had already been through real-world testing. Maybe Barnes got his facts mixed up, but it feels like he’s massaging the evidence to make Bush look smarter.
Barnes also undermines himself when he bashes the Washington establishment without assessing the Republican establishment that rules on Capitol Hill and K Street. He talks about the press as a liberal monolith, leaving out Fox, where he works. Bush’s opponents in the book are all cartoon characters. The French arrive now and again to make horrible suggestions. Sometimes the bad ideas come from dictator-preferring State Department weenies. The press is portrayed in a uniformly negative light. There’s little intelligent perspective on any of these, or rather only the perspective of Bush himself, on an especially surly day.
The book gets slightly better halfway through. As Barnes explains Bush’s religious views and just how fixated he is on spreading democracy throughout the world, he starts to present more evidence and insight—which reminds you what’s lacking from the first half. But to expect Barnes to square Bush’s push for democracy with his torture policy and aggressive use of executive powers is asking too much. That would involve taking the president’s critics seriously—something no self-respecting member of the conservative establishment would be caught dead doing.