‘Damn right,’ I said

Eliot Weinberger

  • Decision Points by George W. Bush
    Virgin, 497 pp, £25.00, November 2010, ISBN 978 0 7535 3966 8

In the late 1960s, George Bush Jr was at Yale, branding the asses of pledges to the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity with a hot coathanger. Michel Foucault was at the Societé française de philosophie, considering the question, ‘What is an author?’

The two, needless to say, never met. Foucault may have visited Texas on one of his lecture tours, but Junior, as far as it is known, never took his S&M revelry beyond the Ivy League – novelists will have to invent a chance encounter in a basement club in Austin. Moreover, Junior’s general ignorance of all things, except for professional sports, naturally extended to the nation known as France. On his first trip to Paris in 2002, Junior, now president of the United States, stood beside Jacques Chirac at a press conference and said: ‘He’s always saying that the food here is fantastic and I’m going to give him a chance to show me tonight.’

Foucault found his theories embodied, sometimes unconvincingly, in writers such as Proust or Flaubert. He died in 1984, while Junior was still an ageing frat boy, and didn’t live to see this far more applicable text. For the questions that he, even then, declared hopelessly obsolete are the very ones that should not be asked about Decision Points ‘by’ George W. Bush (or by ‘George W. Bush’): ‘Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest self did he express in his discourse?’

Decision Points holds the same relation to George W. Bush as a line of fashion accessories or a perfume does to the movie star that bears its name; he no doubt served in some advisory capacity. The words themselves have been assembled by Chris Michel (the young speechwriter and devoted acolyte who went to Yale with Bush’s daughter Barbara); a freelance editor, Sean Desmond; the staff at Crown Publishing (who reportedly paid $7 million for the book); a team of a dozen researchers; and scores of ‘trusted friends’. Foucault: ‘What difference does it make who is speaking?’ ‘The mark of the writer is … nothing more than the singularity of his absence.’

As a postmodern text, many passages in the book are pastiches of moments from other books, including scenes that Bush himself did not witness. These are taken from the memoirs of members of the Bush administration and journalistic accounts such as Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack and Bush at War. To complete the cycle of postmodernity, there are bits of dialogue lifted from Woodward, who is notorious for inventing dialogue.

Occasionally, someone on Team DP will insert a lyrical phrase – the tears on the begrimed faces of the 9/11 relief workers ‘cutting a path through the soot like rivulets through a desert’ – but most of the prose sounds like this:

I told Margaret and Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Bolten that I considered this a far-reaching decision. I laid out a process for making it. I would clarify my guiding principles, listen to experts on all sides of the debate, reach a tentative conclusion, and run it past knowledgeable people. After finalising a decision, I would explain it to the American people. Finally, I would set up a process to ensure that my policy was implemented.

There are nearly 500 pages of this, reminiscent of the current po-mo poster boys, Tao Lin, with his anaesthetised declarative sentences, and Kenneth Goldsmith with his ‘uncreative writing’, such as a transcription of a year’s worth of daily radio weather reports. Foucault notes: ‘Today’s writing has freed itself from the theme of expression.’

Even the title of the book unchains the signifier from the signified. ‘Decision points’ is business-speak for a list of factors, usually marked by a bullet in PowerPoint presentations, that should be considered before making a decision. There are no decision points in Decision Points. Despite what is claimed above, Bush never stops to consider. He is the Decider who acts impulsively and ‘crisply’, drawing on his ‘moral clarity’. In the scariest line in the book, he has been allowed to let slip that his motive for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq was simple revenge, surely the least desirable emotional quality one would want in a world leader with access to nuclear weapons. About 9/11 the text says: ‘My blood was boiling. We were going to find out who did this, and kick their ass.’

Team DP has indeed created ‘a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears’; one learns almost nothing about George W. Bush from this book. The names of hundreds of other people are mentioned, almost always in praise – it is, in its way, the world’s longest prize acceptance speech – but none of them, outside of the Bush family, has any life as a character. Each new person is introduced with a single sentence, noting one or more of the following: 1) Texan origins; 2) college athletic achievements; 3) military service; 4) deep religious faith. The sentence ends with three personal characteristics: ‘honest, ethical and forthright’; ‘a brilliant mind, disarming modesty and a buoyant spirit’; ‘a statesman, a savvy lawyer and a magnet for talented people’; ‘smart, thoughtful, energetic’ (that’s Condi); ‘knowledgeable, articulate and confident’ (that’s Rummy); ‘a wise, principled, humane man’ (Clarence Thomas); and so on. Then the person does whatever Bush tells him to do.

Bush is the lone hero of every page of Decision Points. Very few spoken words are assigned to him, outside of the public records of speeches and press conferences, and in nearly all of them he is forceful, in command, and peeved at the inadequacies of his subordinates:

‘What the hell is happening?’ I asked during an NSC meeting in late April. ‘Why isn’t anybody stopping these looters?’

‘By the time Colin gets to the White House for the meeting, this had better be fixed.’

‘We need to find out what he knows,’ I directed the team. ‘What are our options?’

‘Damn right,’ I said.

‘Where the hell is Ashcroft?’ I asked.

‘Go,’ I said. ‘This is the right thing to do.’

‘We’re going to stay confident and patient, cool and steady,’ I said.

‘Damn it, we can do more than one thing at a time,’ I told the national security team.

As I told my advisers, ‘I didn’t take this job to play small ball.’

‘This is a good start, but it’s not enough,’ I told him. ‘Go back to the drawing board and think even bigger.’

‘We don’t have 24 hours,’ I snapped. ‘We’ve waited too long already.’

‘What the hell is going on?’ I asked Hank. ‘I thought we were going to get a deal.’

‘That’s it?’ I snapped.

As Foucault says, ‘The author’s name serves to characterise a certain mode of being of discourse.’

This is a chronicle of the Bush Era with no colour-coded Terror Alerts; no Freedom Fries; no Halliburton; no Healthy Forests Initiative (which opened up wilderness areas to logging); no Clear Skies Act (which reduced air pollution standards); no New Freedom Initiative (which proposed testing all Americans, beginning with schoolchildren, for mental illness); no pamphlets sold by the National Parks Service explaining that the Grand Canyon was created by the Flood; no research by the National Institutes of Health on whether prayer can cure cancer (‘imperative’, because poor people have limited access to healthcare); no cover-up of the death of football star Pat Tillman by ‘friendly fire’ in Afghanistan; no ‘Total Information Awareness’ from the Information Awareness Office; no Project for the New American Century; no invented heroic rescue of Private Jessica Lynch; no Fox News; no hundreds of millions spent on ‘abstinence education’. It does not deal with the Cheney theory of the ‘unitary executive’ – essentially that neither the Congress nor the courts can tell the president what to do – or Bush’s frequent use of ‘signing statements’ to indicate that he would completely ignore a bill that the Congress had just passed.

It is astonishing how many major players from Bush World are here Missing in Action. Entirely absent, or mentioned only in passing, are Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, John Yoo, Elliott Abrams, Ahmed Chalabi, Ayad Allawi, Rick Santorum, Trent Lott, Tom DeLay, Richard Armitage, Katherine Harris, Ken Mehlman, Paul O’Neill, Rush Limbaugh. Barely appearing at all are John Ashcroft, Samuel Alito, Ari Fleischer, Alberto Gonzales, Denny Hastert, John Negroponte and Tom Ridge. Condi and Colin Powell are given small parts, but Rummy is largely a passing shadow. No one is allowed to steal a scene from the star.

The enormous black hole in the book is the Grand Puppetmaster himself, Dick Cheney, the man who was prime minister to Bush’s figurehead president. In Decision Points, as in the Bush years, he is nearly always hiding in an undisclosed location. When he does show up on scattered pages, he is merely another member of the Bush team. The implicit message is that Washington was too small a town for two Deciders.

Only twice in this fat book does one get a sense of Cheney’s presence. He complains about Bush’s refusal to grant a pardon to Scooter Libby: ‘I can’t believe you’re going to leave a soldier on the battlefield.’ (But the scene is taken from a news article, where the line is not attributed to Cheney but to an anonymous staffer, and spoken about Bush, not directly to him.) And there is one glimpse at how adept Cheney was at pushing Bush’s macho buttons:

Dick Cheney was concerned about the slow diplomatic process. He warned that Saddam Hussein could be using the time to produce weapons, hide weapons, or plot an attack. At one of our weekly lunches that winter, Dick asked me directly: ‘Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?’ That was his way of saying he thought we had given diplomacy enough time. I appreciated Dick’s blunt advice. I told him I wasn’t ready to move yet. ‘Okay, Mr President, it’s your call,’ he said. Then he deployed one of his favourite lines. ‘That’s why they pay you the big bucks,’ he said with a gentle smile.

If Cheney has been left on the cutting room floor, the surprise supporting actor is Dad. We all know too much about the Bush Family Drama: Dad the Phi Beta Kappa student and star collegiate athlete, Junior at the same schools a mediocre goofball who would never make the team and was reduced to being a cheerleader; Dad the World War Two fighter pilot hero (actually considered a coward outside of Kennebunkport, but that’s another story), Junior mainly AWOL from the dinky Texas Air National Guard; Dad the successful oil man, Junior losing fortunes on dry wells, continually bailed out by Dad’s friends. When the black sheep loser – and not his reliable brother Jeb, who was groomed for the task – bizarrely became president, Junior made a point of selecting two unilateral Pax Americana hotheads, Cheney and Rumsfeld, whom diplomatic Dad couldn’t stand. His obsession with taking out Saddam – which, contrary to Decision Points, was evident on Day One of the administration – was widely seen as a reaction to Dad’s ‘failure’ (according to the Project for the New American Century crowd) to invade Baghdad during the Gulf War. Even Dad’s best friend, Brent Scowcroft, came out publicly against the imminent war. During the presidency, Junior was touchy on the subject, and famously replied, when asked if he sought his father’s advice: ‘I appeal to a higher father.’

Unexpectedly, Dad is everywhere in the book, with father and son continually declaring their mutual pride and undying love. Team DP even feels the need to quote in their entirety Dad’s words when Junior is elected president for the second (well, actually the first) time: ‘Congratulations, son.’ The configuration of piety, patriotism, filial justification and self-aggrandisement is in this, perhaps the most typical dramatic passage in the book:

I was standing next to Mother and Dad at a Christmas Eve carolling session when the Navy chaplain walked over. He said: ‘Sir, I’ve just returned from Wilford Hall in San Antonio, where the wounded troops lie. I told the boys that if they had a message for the president, I’d be seeing you tonight.’

He continued. ‘They said: “Please tell the president we’re proud to serve a great country, and we’re proud to serve a great man like George Bush.”’ Dad’s eyes filled with tears.

(It may well be that Navy chaplains employ such locutions as ‘where the wounded troops lie’, but in any event, there are quite a few scenes of grown men weeping in Decision Points, most of them in uniform, listening to Bush speak. The book, perhaps deliberately playing to its intended audience, is very much like country and western music: one minute they’re raising hell and the next they’re jerking tears.)

Mother – she’s never Mom – pops up frequently with a withering remark. As middle-aged Junior runs a marathon, Mother and Dad are, of course, coming out of church. Standing on the steps, Dad cheers ‘That’s my boy!’ and Mother shouts ‘Keep moving, George! There are some fat people ahead of you!’ When Junior decides to run for governor, Mother’s reaction is simply: ‘George, you can’t win.’ Not cited is Mother’s indelible comment on the Iraq War: ‘Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? Why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?’ But the single newsworthy item in this entire book is the get-this-boy-to-therapy scene where Mother has a miscarriage at home, asks teenaged Junior to drive her to the hospital, and shows him the foetus of his sibling, which for some reason she has put in a jar.

Bush claims this was the moment when he became ‘pro-life’, unalterably opposed to abortion and, later, embryonic stem-cell research. (The thought would not have occurred to Mother. At the time, patrician Republicans like the Bushes were birth-control advocates; like Margaret Sanger, they didn’t want the unwashed masses wildly reproducing. Dad was even on the board of the Texas branch of Planned Parenthood. )

Decision Points flaunts its postmodernity by blurring the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. That is to say, the parts that are not outright lies – particularly the accounts of Hurricane Katrina and the lead-up to the Iraq War – are the sunnier halves of half-truths. The legions of amateur investigative journalists on the internet – as usual, doing the job the major media no longer perform – are busily compiling lists of those lies. Gerhard Schroeder has already stated that the passage in which he appears is completely false. And even Mother has weighed in. Interviewed recently on television, she said she never showed Junior that jar, but maybe ‘Paula’ did. (It was assumed we would know that Paula was the maid.)

More generally, the DP Bush bears little relation to the George W. Bush of memory. The DPB is always poring over reports; GWB insisted on one-paragraph summaries, usually delivered orally. (Rumsfeld, who knew his man, presented his daily reports with shiny colour covers that had a stirring combat photo accompanied by an inspirational line from the Bible.) The DPB continually mentions his favourite books and maintains that he read two a week while president; GWB was rumoured to be dyslexic, and read no book other than the Book (much like his counterpart, that other wealthy bad boy, Osama bin Laden). GWB famously never asked anything at meetings, but the DPB claims:

I learn best by asking questions. In some cases, I probe to understand a complex issue. Other times, I deploy questions as a way to test my briefers’ knowledge. If they cannot answer concisely and in plain English, it raises a red flag that they may not fully grasp the subject.

The DPB works tirelessly to keep the free world free; GWB spent long hours in the White House gym and took more vacations than any other president. The 29-year-old DPB goes to Beijing to visit Dad, then ambassador, thinks about the French and Russian Revolutions, and learns important lessons about liberty and justice; the real GWB said at the time that he went to ‘date Chinese women’.

In the book, as in his life, Bush the postmodernist is a simulacrum: a Connecticut blueblood who pretended to be a Texas cowboy, though he couldn’t ride a horse and lived on a ‘ranch’ with no cattle. He was, and is, happiest when surrounded by professionals in the three areas in which he was a notable failure: athletics, the military and business. He is like a sports fan who dresses up in the team jersey to watch the game. References to his ‘military service’ recur frequently throughout the book, as though it were actually more than a few months spent avoiding it. He was the only modern American president to appear in public in a military uniform – even Eisenhower never wore his while president – like a ribboned despot from a banana republic. He has said that one of his proudest moments was throwing out the ceremonial first pitch in a World Series game. The frontispiece to the book is the photo of Bush in his other proud moment, standing in the ruins of the Twin Towers with his cheerleader bullhorn, just one of the relief worker guys.

A pup in a valley of alpha males, inadequate compared to Dad, humiliated by Mother, he classically became a bully to compensate: an ass-brander, noted for what he calls verbal ‘needling’; a boss who cussed out his subordinates and invented demeaning nicknames for everyone around him; a president who taunted terrorists, most of them imaginary, and challenged them to ‘bring it on’.

He was notoriously oblivious to suffering, including the torture of alleged terrorists, which he openly and unequivocally approved. Who can forget his mocking, while governor, of Karla Faye Tucker, whom even the pope tried to save from the electric chair? Or his humorous ‘who’s hiding the WMDs?’ performance at the White House Correspondents dinner? Or that Bush, the military man, cut benefits for veterans and did nothing about appalling conditions in veterans’ hospitals? Or that he decimated the agencies that protect public health and safety?

The book states that, for him, the worst moment of his presidency was, not 9/11, or the hundreds of thousands he killed or maimed, or the millions he made homeless in Iraq and jobless in the United States, but when the rapper Kanye West said, in a fundraiser for Katrina victims, that Bush didn’t care about black people.

West was only half right. Bush is not particularly racist. He never portrayed Hispanics as hordes of scary invaders; Condi was his workout buddy and virtually his second wife; he was in awe of Colin Powell; and he was most comfortable in the two most integrated sectors of American society, the military and professional sports. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about black people. Outside of his family, he didn’t care about people, and Billy Graham taught him that ‘we cannot earn God’s love through good deeds’ – only through His grace, which Bush knew he had already received.

As of this writing, Decision Points has sold almost a million and a half copies. Conservative groups buy these things in bulk, and it was the perfect Christmas gift for one’s Republican uncle. Moreover, in the mere two years since he left Washington, Bush is beginning to seem like a reasonable man compared to the Republicans who have now been elected to higher office. Unlike them, he was not a ‘family values’ Christian who liked to have prostitutes dress him in diapers; he did not have to pay a fine of $1.7 billion (yes, billion) for defrauding the government; he does not advocate burning the Quran; he does not believe that Obama is a Kenyan Muslim allied with terrorists who is building internment camps for dissidents; he does not believe that people of Hispanic origin should be randomly stopped and asked to prove their immigration status; he does not support a military invasion of Mexico or a constitutional amendment stating that the United States cannot be subject to Sharia law or an electric fence along the entire Canadian border or the death penalty for doctors who provide abortions; he does not believe that bicycle lanes in major cities are part of a plot by the United Nations to impose a single world government. The Palinites and Tea Partiers are getting the publicity, but the old-fashioned neocons still hold the power, and they may well run the ever patient Jeb Bush – practically the only Republican left with both dull conservative respectability and national name recognition – for president in 2012.

Despite the sales, it’s unlikely that many will ever read Decision Points, and even fewer will finish it. Those who do will find three revelations, besides the foetus in the jar. Junior killed his sister Doro’s goldfish by pouring vodka in the fishbowl. He was convinced he should run for president after hearing a sermon about Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. And, as a man who likes to go to bed early, at 10 p.m. on the night of 11 September 2001, President George W. Bush was complaining that he needed to get to sleep.

He believes that this book will ‘prove useful as you make choices in your own life’.