Decision Points — George W. Bush

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History is complicated. It is a discipline that requires input from multiple perspectives, sources, and time periods in order to be engaged in responsibly. It is confounding on its face, then, that one book written by one person, whose perspective is inarguably affected by personal experience, made me think so much about history. Yet that is what happened all throughout Decision Points.

Obviously, from a historical perspective, we cannot completely rely on George W. Bush’s book to build our historical framework for the same reason we cannot rely on Julius Caesar to give us an unbiased perspective on the Gallic Wars. However, Julius Caesar is the best source we have on the Gallic Wars. We can’t simply throw it out. We have to deal with it and work it into a larger historical perspective. The same is true of Decision Points. Bush at the same time the best possible source and the worst possible source for a history of the events of his presidency. If he is a trustworthy historian (which I believe he is, and he is inarguably more trustworthy than Caesar), he will give us terrific insights that no one else can.

George W. Bush has been much maligned since his re-election in 2004, and even I, as a conservative Christian, began to think just as badly of him as a lot of his critics. It floored me, then, when at some point during the Obama presidency my dad referred to President Bush as “one of my heroes”. Since I have a tremendous respect for my dad and his political opinions (even the ones I don’t agree with), I wrestled with this for a while. What was I missing? How did I inherit such a negative view of a POTUS whose administration overlapped with my formative years (roughly ages 11–19 of my life), but my dad the exact opposite view?

I began to look for answers to that question, and my evaluation of President Bush and his eight years leading the country slowly began to change. The largest growth spurt in that transformation was the 2016 election. Bush captured and even directed my sentiments at many points in the process, and by this summer I admired him as a person more than ever before. But the problem of dealing with his presidency still remained. With so many mistakes plaguing the country’s historical view of his presidency, was there an argument for the positive view my dad espoused? I asked my dad to let me borrow Decision Points so that I could read it (albeit skeptically) and see a side of the story of those eight years that had previously been shielded from my view.

The most obvious characteristic of Decision Points to me is honesty. It would take a very hardheaded critic of President Bush to not admit that he is giving an honest assessment of his decisions. He makes sure to detail his decision-making process, the factors at play, and the people involved. He has an acute grasp of history and the possible effects of many different contingencies in any situation, and that is clear throughout the book. He admits to mistakes that he did make, especially in the case of Katrina, but he does not backpedal. Because of that, it becomes clear that the decisions that he supports (which is most of them) are the ones he truly believes were the right decisions based on the situation that presented itself. He even explores other possible paths (the chapter on Iraq stands out in that regard) and whether the possible consequences were worth risking even knowing what we now know by hindsight.

Decision Points is a strong argument in favor of the Bush 43 presidency, and it gave me a lot of insight both into the events of the time period (most of which I wasn’t paying enough attention to as a teenager) and the behind-the-scenes elements of a presidency. The format (each chapter being a “decision point” instead of simply a chronological story of his presidency) was fresh and a helpful tool in analyzing his choices. This adds to the trustworthiness of Bush’s account, because he has every reason to obfuscate but instead chooses even in the format of his memoir to give the reader a direct line into his process. In my experience, these sorts of books always drag on, but his was more relatable than most and that made even the draggy parts easier to bear. The not-fully-chronological format both helps and hurts here, because at once I felt myself ready for a change of subject after 30 pages and hopeful because I knew there was always a new topic waiting in the next chapter.

My conclusion from Decision Points is that we have made a mistake when evaluating the Bush presidency. We have opted for the worst possible historical perspective that is at the same time too distant and not distant enough. We have not taken into our perspective the information President Bush was confronted with at the time (i.e. everyone thought Iraq had WMDs, and he argues that it was the only conclusion that made any sense), yet we have not seen enough time pass to have sufficient perspective on how his decisions have affected the long-term future of the United States.

Bush also makes a strong argument that a problem of history is not being able to see how different contingencies would have played out. Monday morning quarterbacking won’t ever get us to the answers we crave, such as why the mistakes were made in the first place. Bush admits to some mistakes in his decisions, and I would argue against some of the decisions that he defends, but too often he evaluate presidents based on the results rather than the process that led them there. Hindsight can sometimes be more biased than a president writing his own history.

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A book review blog specializing in non-fiction. Information is meaningless without education.

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Jason Park

Jason Park

Book-reviewer, AP World History and AP Psychology Teacher. MAT Secondary Social Studies, University of Arkansas. Arlington, TX.

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