The Bush Tragedy
By Jacob Weisberg
269 pages, $26
With the presidency of George W. Bush wrapping up as an historic disaster, authors are lining up to dissect how the president managed to pull so many blunders, including the war in Iraq, the wreck of Americas reputation around the world, and the disaster of New Orleans, to name a few.
Author Jacob Weisberg offers insights in The Bush Tragedy, a biography that explores the psychological issues that influenced George W. Bush. The book also examines the motives of Bushs misguided advisors, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, who led the inexperienced president into a series of poor decisions.
Weisberg compares Bush to Shakespeares Prince Hal, a ner-do-well youth who became the warlike and religious King Henry V of England. Like Prince Hal in Shakespeares plays Henry IV and Henry V, George W. stands in the shadow of a famous father: hes desperate to live up to his fathers legend, and also to outdo his father to make his own mark as a man.
The editor of Slate.com, and a former writer for The New Republic, Weisberg notes that both George W. Bush and Prince Hal also play out roles drawn from even older stories: that of the prodigal son in the Bible and the father-destroying legend of Oedipus.
Both myths unfold in W.s life in a family drama that is by now familiar to those whove followed the Bush dynasty. As a young man, Bush carried on like a drunken playboy, but got religion at the age of 40 and swore off alcohol, eager to regain the respect in his political-minded family. Yet the Bush family put its hopes on W.s younger brother Jeb, who was considered to be more capable and intelligent.
During his 40s, prodigal son George W. struggled to regain his familys confidence and live up to the example of his famous father, George Herbert Walker Bush -- a war hero, athlete and successful businessman in addition to serving as president. When his father was humiliated for not invading Iraq during the Gulf War of 1991-92. George W. became obsessed with not only redeeming his fathers name, but also with surpassing him by dismissing H.W.s policies and ignoring his advisors. He plunged into Iraq, refusing to take his fathers advice that it was a bad idea.
Ironically, George W. made such poor decisions as president that he succeeded in redeeming the reputation of George H.W. Bush as a paragon of wisdom by contrast. The father, once dismissed as insignificant and weak, now stood as a perfect contrast to his reckless, swaggering son, Weisberg writes.
This is the personal side of the Bush Tragedy -- the downfall of a dynasty as well as the failure of a president, Weisberg writes. A son who tried to vindicate his family by repudiating his fathers policies ended up doing the opposite of what he intended. He showed the world his fathers wisdom and brought shame to his name.
But George W. had plenty of help engineering this tragedy, and Weisberg tells the story of the men who set him down a trail full of booby-traps.
The political mastermind Karl Rove had an attraction to George W. on par with Brokeback Mountain in its gay overtones. Yet Rove ruined Bushs presidency by injecting a poisonous spirit of partisanship that tried to establish a Republican majority in America for all time. As one example, Rove pushed the idea that Democrats were unpatriotic in the wake of the 9/11 attacks at a time when it would have been wiser to lock arms.
Bush came to the White House hoping to be a unifier, reaching across the aisle to the Democrats, but Rove led him off course and prevented him from recognizing it until his presidency was too broken to fix.
An even greater disaster for Bush, however, was Vice President Dick Cheney, a neoconservative who engineered the war in Iraq in the belief that democracy would break out across the Mideast.
Bush couldnt resist Cheneys arguments for war, particularly since he wanted to repair his fathers reputation which was damaged by not invading Iraq in 1992. Cheney also damaged Bushs presidency by trying to expand the power of the executive branch of government, a quest he pursued with arrogant actions that led to the downfall of Lewis Scooter Libby and Karl Rove.
Bush also failed in the court of world opinion, because on one hand he preached the value of democracy around the world while trashing human rights and civil liberties.
The dissonance between Bushs message and his cavalier attitude toward civil liberties discredited him as a moral messenger, Weisberg writes. While pressing for divinely ordained liberty in the Middle East, Bush was still taking Dick Cheneys advice on keeping Guantanamo open, allowing torture, and unconstitutionally listening in on phone conversations by American citizens.
Theres much else of interest in The Bush Tragedy, particularly W.s rise to power courtesy of the evangelical movement. Bush is adept at Jesus talk and lining up church supporters on the right, but seems to have few ideas on faith. Privately, he and Rove think of the religious right as being wackos, but still go ahead with loading up government posts with incompetent religious fundamentalists as a payoff for getting elected.
Ultimately, Weisbergs use of Shakespeares Henry tragedies is a gimmick -- a lens through which to view George W. Bush and his family. But the book does offer a good capsule history of the president, the Bush family and the main players who are featured in his drama and downfall.