Sunday, December 18, 2011

Decision Points

Theodore Roosevelt created the modern presidential autobiography. He stressed his accomplishments, minimized his setbacks, and offered insight to his decisions. In the years after 1913 it might have seemed Roosevelt's reflection on his life and presidency was a product of his own prolific authorial nature and not a new trend for former chief executives. William Howard Taft did not want to relive his unhappy four years in office, nor did he have a history of writing. Stricken with a stroke Woodrow Wilson could not write an autobiography. What a shame! His sense of history, writing ability, and professorial bent, could have produced a standout among presidential memoirs, even if it would have been burdened by his self-righteousness. Warren Harding died in office, but one wonders if he would have written one had he lived. Calvin Coolidge revived the memoir,

although it was not very informative. I remember reading Allen Nevins once wondered aloud why on earth Coolidge even bothered to write it. Herbert Hoover left a much more detailed, informative, and lengthy contribution. In this highly defensive work, Hoover sought to vindicate his reputation and offer his version of history. He divided the depression down to a number of smaller segments that he dealt with. Throughout he stuck to the narrative that he thoroughly understood what was going on and acted appropriately. Obviously, it all went to hell with the New Deal Democrats. Thereafter, all presidents who survived their terms wrote autobiographies or memoirs, mostly with the help of ghost writers. Each one has its own character and offers an insight to the presidents who wrote them. For example, Harry Truman's is homey, Dwight Eisenhower's is professional if bland, Nixon's is defensive and consumed by Watergate, and Clinton's is verbose.

Like his predecessors George W. Bush seeks to minimize his defeats and accent his Triumphs in his Decision Points. Skipping detailed discussion of individual policy, I will only offer a couple of general comments on the structure of the book.

1. I sensed that there were two myths Bush consciously sought to confront without mentinoing. First, Dick Cheney's name appears sporadically in the policy discussions. In other words, the Vice President does not appear to exert the same level of influence in Bush's account of his years in office as the media depicted. Second, it was largely reported during his administration that the president avoided internal discussion and debate. In his memoir, Bush recounts many debates within the administration and with allies on important policy matters. Of course, the gate swings both ways. If the president consulted many advisors then they must also take some of the blame for failed policies.

2. The organization of the book works well. It is thematic, not chronological. Nevertheless, I was disappointed that there was no discussion on environmental policies. No one is going to rank Bush as a great environmental president, but that still doesn't mean that Clear Skies, the protected zone in the Pacific, emissions standards, Global Warming, etc., were not worth more mention.

3. I liked the sense of humor. There are many serious topics and having a little humor (largely absent in most other presidential autobiographies) helps to cut some of Bush's defensiveness.

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