The Big Idea

The Enigma in Chief

We still don’t know how or why Bush made the key decisions of his administration.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the end of Bush’s presidency.

As George W. Bush once noted, “You never know what your history is going to be like until long after you’re gone.” What I think he was trying to say is that, over time, historians may evolve toward a more positive view of his presidency than the one held by most of his contemporaries.

At the moment, this seems a vain hope. Bush’s three most obvious legacies are his decision to invade Iraq, his framing of a global war on terror after Sept. 11, and the massive financial crisis. Each of these constitutes a separate epic in presidential misjudgment and mismanagement. It remains a brainteaser to come up with ways, however minor, in which Bush changed government, politics, or the world for the better. Among presidential historians, it is hardly an eccentric view that 43 ranks as America’s worst president ever. On the other hand, he has nowhere to go but up.

In a different sense, however, Bush’s comment has some validity to it. We do not know how people will one day view this presidency because we, Bush’s contemporaries, don’t yet understand it ourselves. The Bush administration has had startling success in one area—namely keeping its inner workings secret. Intensely loyal, contemptuous of the press, and overwhelmingly hostile to any form of public disclosure, the Bushies did a remarkable job at keeping their doings hidden for eight years.

Probably the biggest question Bush leaves behind is about the most consequential choice of his presidency: his decision to invade Iraq. When did the president make up his mind to go to war against Saddam Hussein? What were his real reasons? What roles did various figures around him—Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice—play in the actual decision? Was the selling of the war on the basis of WMD evidence a matter of conscious deception or of self-deception on their part?

Bob Woodward, Ron Suskind, and I recently debated in Slate the issue of how much we really know about Bush’s biggest decision. Woodward, the author of four inside accounts of the Bush administration, believes that we do know the most important facts. He argues that Bush decided to invade Iraq in January 2003, that the reason was 9/11, and that Bush himself was the real decision-maker. Suskind and I argued that we don’t know really how, when, or why the decision was made—though we suspect it was much earlier. By the summer of 2002, administration officials and foreign diplomats were hearing that Bush’s course was already set.

The disputed dates and details go to the most interesting larger issues about what went wrong during the Bush years. Did Bush’s own innocence and incompetence drive his missteps? Or was it the people around him, most importantly his vice president, who manipulated him into his major bad choices? On so many issues—the framing of the war on terrorism, the use of torture, the expansion of executive power—it was Cheney’s views that prevailed. Yet at some point, perhaps around the 2006 election, Bush seems to have lost confidence in his vice president and stopped taking his advice.

To reckon with the Bush years, we need to understand what went on between these two men behind closed doors. Yet despite some superb spadework by journalist Barton Gellman and others, we know very little about Cheney’s true role. We have seen few of the pertinent documents and heard little relevant testimony. Congressional investigations and litigation have shed only the faintest light on Cheney’s role in Bush’s biggest blunders.

The same is generally true of Bush’s most important political relationship, with Karl Rove, and his most important personal one, with his father. Only with greater insight into these connections are we likely to be able to answer some of the other pressing historical questions. To what extent was Bush himself really the driver of his central decisions? How engaged or disengaged was he? Why, after governing as a successful moderate in Texas, did he adopt such an ideological and polarizing style as president? Why did he politicize the fight against terrorism? Why did he choose to permit the torture of American detainees? Why did he wait so long to revise a failing strategy in Iraq?

It seems unlikely that the memoirs in the works from Rove and Rumsfeld will challenge Bush’s repeated assertions that he was not only in charge but in control. As for the president himself, we’re unlikely to get much: Bush has a poor memory and is too unreflective to have kept the kind of diary that would elucidate matters. In time, however, other accounts are sure to emerge. Congressional investigations will shed new light. Declassified documents and e-mails may paint a clearer picture.

Once the country is rid of Bush, perhaps we can start developing a more nuanced understanding of how his presidency went astray. His was no ordinary failure, and he leaves not just an unholy mess but also some genuine mysteries.