Sunday, July 10, 2011

Read Love Reviews: Decision Points

Decision Points by George W. Bush

Pub. Date: November 2010
Publisher: Crown Publishers
Format: Hardback, 497pp
Age Range:Adult
ISBN-13: 9780307590619

My Review:

In March 2004, President George W. Bush’s daughter Jenna, in her final year at college, sent him a heartfelt letter asking that he consider allowing her to help him campaign for re-election.  She wrote:
"I hate hearing lies about you.  I hate when people criticize you. I hate that everybody can’t see the person I love and respect, the person that I hope I someday will be like."
I feel that Decision Points accomplishes what Jenna hoped to do in the campaign.  The book does a good job of showing us the man behind the presidential desk.  The man who was faced with tough decisions and did his best to make and stand behind them, stick with them as needed, or change course if necessary.  It’s easy to be on the outside looking in and criticize someone.  In the case of a president, many are so much more tempted to look for faults and mistakes. This book allows the reader a glimpse into the Office of the Presidency.  Arranging the book into chapters focused on the most pivotal decision points he faced as president, George Bush allows us to gain insight into both the decisions he made and also the thought, counsel, and information that led to his choices.  At times, we also get a peek at the emotions the president felt as a result of those decisions. While only other presidents can fully understand the privileges and burdens of the job, President Bush gives the reader the closest experience to walking a mile in his presidential shoes.

The justifications he gives for his decisions do not read like an attempt to defend himself or persuade the reader.  Instead, President Bush outlines the chronology of events surrounding each decision  and presents the facts (which were often unknown to the public at the time), leaving readers free to make their own judgments.  Absent in his memoir is any hint of resentment.  He also steers clear of political name-calling or finger-pointing, and at times even admits fault or takes the responsibility himself.

George W. Bush was perhaps more maligned than any other American president.  And the attacks were not limited to his policies or politics, they were personal.  One world leader compared him to Adolf Hitler.  A grieving mother of a serviceman told him, "You are as big a terrorist as Osama bin Laden."  President Bush speaks thusly of the woman’s harsh words: “If expressing her anger helped ease her pain, that was fine with me.”  Just as he stood quietly and took that angry verbal lashing, he endured all kinds of personal assaults on top of an already burdensome and taxing eight years in office.  He did not have the option of walking away, withholding judgment, or passing the buck.  A president’s job never ends, and as Bush’s time in the White House drew to a close, adversity never lessened. His final months were just as tough as his first year in office.  So, if in writing his book he were to show bitterness or ask for a little pity, one certainly couldn’t fault him.  However, he never did so while in office, and he did not do so in his book.  As he says, “I didn’t feel sorry for myself. . . Self-pity is a pathetic quality in a leader.” Although his family, especially his daughters, couldn’t help but take the harsh criticisms against him and his character to heart, Bush never personalized the attacks, nor did he allow public opinion or political posturing to steer his decision-making or exert undue force on his actions.

Decision Points is not a strict biography.  Though in the early pages he talks about his family and his career leading up to the presidency, its main focus is on Bush’s eight years in the White House.  Because of its conversational tone, the book is very readable and accessible. Several things stood out for me:    
  • Bush’s love for his family – his parents, brothers and sister, Laura, and the twins.
Bush is at his most candid when speaking about family.  He freely shares letters from his father and daughter, as well as private moments like the death of his sister Robin and driving his mother to the hospital after a miscarriage.
  • Moments of humor:  
In 1993, while  running the Houston Marathon, Bush passed his parents’ church just as the service let out.  As their son went by, his father cried encouragingly, “That’s my boy!”  His mother, on the other hand, shouted, “Keep moving, George! There are some fat people ahead of you!”
When visiting the Queen of England, President Bush asked about her dogs.  The corgis, who were soon brought out, were polite and well-behaved.  He immediately worried about the potential reciprocal meeting in America and the requisite canine introduction there.  He silently hoped that Barney would be just as well-mannered and "would not bark for Scottish independence."
  • The humanity of George Bush: 
The chapter titled Lazarus Effect was one of the easiest and most rewarding in the book.  Here, Bush chronicles and explains his decisions that increased America’s contributions in the global fight against AIDS from the previous administration’s $500 million a year to eventually $15 billion over the period from 2003 to 2008. The fight was carried to fourteen of the world’s poorest and sickest nations, twelve of which were in Africa.  In 2007, Bush called on Congress to reaffirm the expiring initiative and actually doubled commitment to $30 billion over the next five years.  We read about trips that George and Laura took to Africa, and learn how these experiences and humanitarian efforts shaped the futures of daughters Jenna and Barbara as well.
When President Bush made personnel changes, rather than just remove people from their duties, like generals in Iraq whose strategies were not working, he would reward their service by finding promotion for them elsewhere.  Changes in staff, such as the decision not to re-nominate General Pete Pace as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, sometimes pained him.  Though he sought to save his friend public criticism and humiliation, he still expressed remorse for letting him go:  “I ached for Pete and his family.  When I presented him with a well-deserved Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008, it only partly assuaged my regret.”
  • The emotional burden of U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan:
After he ordered the troops to Iraq, he took a private walk around the South Lawn, in silent prayer and reflection.  He felt the decision was the right thing to do, but that didn’t mean it was easy.  He is an emotional, compassionate man.  Each morning, he would read the newspapers and the overnight reports he received from the Situation room.  He refers to these reports as the “blue sheets.”  One section of the blue sheet listed the number, cause, and location of American casualties in each conflict.  President Bush writes about reading the reports: “When I received a blue sheet, I would circle the casualty figure with my pen, pause, and reflect on each individual loss.”  This was clearly hard on him.  One way he showed his gratitude for the service of these brave individuals was to write a letter to the family of each fallen soldier.  He wrote a total of over 5,000. He also met personally with about 550 families of the fallen, made numerous visits to hospitals to visit the wounded, and took a risky secret flight to Iraq in 2003, before the capture of Saddam Hussein, to spend Thanksgiving with the troops.
What the reader sees in Decision Points is a glimpse of the man his daughter Jenna loves,  respects, and admires.  George W. Bush believes in serving a cause greater than himself.  He is a man who did his best, facing the problems and issues dealt him, and, given the knowledge he had at hand, he acted thoughtfully and decisively in order to make what he considered to be the choices that were in the best interest of the country and/or the safety of the American people. For me, these words he spoke during the financial crisis define his guiding philosophy for decision-making during his terms as president: “We don’t have time to worry about politics. Let’s figure out the right thing to do and do it.”


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