Bush Critics You Should Trust

A guide to the conservatives and Republicans who have turned on the president.

Economist Bruce Bartlett

It’s hard to keep up with all the anti-George Bush books. Next to the fiction and nonfiction book tables at Barnes & Noble, they will soon have to add one labeled: “Ugh, Bush.”

But how to choose among the Bush-haters? Many of the books were pasted together from the clip files of partisan hacks. (These generally read like Mad Libs: “George Bush [adverb] lied every time he opened his mouth about [noun] and asserted a link between [noun] and 9/11.”)

So, it’s more interesting to consider the anti-Bush writings by Republicans, conservatives, and erstwhile Bush allies and employees. These folks have to have a certain amount of courage—heresy is always harder than joining—and they usually try to be intellectually honest, since the Bush presidency has forced them to grapple with their own belief systems.

With that in mind, here’s a brief guide to the Bush critics with pro-Bush backgrounds. What can they teach the public—and perhaps the administration—about the president that the lefty hacks can’t. Here are three major themes in their work: 

1. George Bush is no conservative. One new book worth a look is Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, by Bruce Bartlett. Bartlett, no relation to White House Counselor Dan Bartlett, is a conservative true believer. He served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and is a respected conservative economist and policy analyst. (He was ultimately fired from the conservative think tank where he worked for his Bush criticism.) The central critique of Bartlett’s book is that George Bush has betrayed Reagan conservatism. Government spending has exploded during his presidency and Bush is unbothered. Instead of shrinking entitlements, Bush pushed through a bloated and inefficient Medicare prescription drug program. At times Imposter feels slapdash—Bartlett lets Republicans in Congress off easy and overpraises Reagan—but the book highlights the consensus conservative critique of the moment: By expanding government and using it to reform society and feed middle-class self-interest, Bush has watered down the conservative movement beyond all recognition. The debate is no longer about what kind of government we’ll have but which brand we’ll choose: Republican big government vs. Democratic big government.

2. He’s a bad CEO. It is compelling to hear George Bush talk about his theory of management: Set big goals, pick the right people, empower them, and then make clear decisions based on their work. To make sure you’re on the right track, measure results and hold your team accountable. This all seemed possible from an MBA president whose vice president, commerce secretary, treasury secretary, and defense secretary were all successful veterans of the business world. It sounded good, but it hasn’t worked in practice. Bush’s penchant for loyalty, political victory, and ideology got in the way of his appealing management theories.

Ex-Bush officials from counterrorism adviser Richard Clarke to John DiIulio, the first head of Bush’s faith-based initiative, have made this case, but former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill did the most compelling job in Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty. As the former CEO and chairman of Alcoa, the world’s largest aluminum manufacturer, O’Neill can’t be dismissed as a mere academic. He claimed that Bush’s White House operation ignored the rigors of the business world it purported to emulate. As he wrote to Vice President Cheney when he was still treasury secretary, there was no appetite for “analytical rigor, sound information-gathering techniques and real, cost-benefit analysis.”    

Even those who admire O’Neill say he is cranky, and so persnickety at times that it makes you want to brain him. But CEOs are that way sometimes. When Suskind’s book came out in 2004, Bush officials said they never listened to O’Neill when he was in the administration, so why should they listen to his critique now. In dismissing him so cavalierly, they made O’Neill’s point for him.

3. He was hellbent on war. Paul Pillar, the 28-year CIA veteran who most recently coordinated U.S. intelligence on the Middle East, argues in Foreign Affairs that the president and his aides were so anxious to spread democracy in the Middle East they ignored intelligence that argued against an invasion or predicted a messy aftermath. Building on earlier criticisms by former Bush officials Richard Clarke and Rand Beers of the National Security Council and Larry Wilkerson of the State Department, Pillar—acknowledging that Iraq intelligence was flawed—argues “[that] official intelligence was not relied on in making even the most significant national security decision, that intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made, that damaging ill will developed between [Bush] policymakers and intelligence officers, and that the intelligence community’s own work was politicized.” As for the postwar difficulties that many officials now argue could never have been predicted, Pillar writes that the intelligence community did assessments before the invasion that indicated a postwar Iraq “would not provide fertile ground for democracy” but would rather erupt into a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites.

The pro-Bush books have mostly been unsatisfying since their authors heap on the praise in the same sloppy way Bush haters dish out the venom. Perhaps one of the last remaining niches in the blizzard of Bush books is the defense of Bush written by someone, anyone on the left. Book stores preparing for those volumes should find a very small table.