H.W. Brands is a presidential historian and the author of Traitor To His Class, a biography of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant are generally considered the finest by any former president. There are two secrets to Grant's enduring success. First, the book deals almost exclusively with the period prior to Grant's presidency, thus providing insight into the man who became president, rather than the president himself. Second, Grant in the memoir displays a capacity for sobering reflection, admitting where his mistakes during the Civil War sent thousands of soldiers needlessly to their deaths.
Former President George W. Bush cites Grant's memoir as inspiration for his own. But it differs in both crucial regards. Bush devotes one chapter and parts of a few others to his pre-presidential career, but the great majority of the book concerns his eight years in the White House. This serves his literary and political purpose, which is to make the case for his policies as president, but it does little to reveal the inner man. And the absence of broad reflection leaves some large historical questions unanswered.
As a justification for his actions, Bush's memoir succeeds admirably. The former president revisits nearly all the controversial decisions of his tenure, and defends them with vigor. The war in Afghanistan was necessary to root out al-Qaida and the Taliban, and help create a "free society" in Central Asia, he says. The war in Iraq turned out to be based on faulty intelligence, but the consequence of the American occupation was a chance for democracy to take root on the Persian Gulf. When CIA chief George Tenet asked Bush if he approved waterboarding against terrorist suspects, the president said, "Damn right"; and he still thinks he was right. Bush's tax cuts were required to counteract the recessionary effects of Sept. 11, he says. The rescue of Wall Street in 2008 was distasteful but necessary. As Bush told an adviser at the time: "If we're really looking at another Great Depression, you can be damn sure I'm going to be Roosevelt, not Hoover."
Bush acknowledges some tactical errors: He should have moved faster to deploy federal troops to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, he says. He should have pushed for immigration reform before Social Security reform after his re-election in 2004. He still gets a "sickening feeling" when he thinks of the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
But he admits to no major blunders, and he avoids the larger issues his time in office raise. Chronologically, Bush's was the first presidency of the 21st century, but historians may well view it as the last presidency of the 20th century — of the era when America's economic power invited, almost compelled, an ambitious foreign policy.
That era has ended — not least because of what happened during George W. Bush's presidency. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan strained the federal budget; the Bush tax cuts, the financial crisis and the ensuing recession have nearly broken it. There will be no more elective wars like Iraq, not for a long time. Before Bush, Americans could have guns and butter both; after Bush, we'll be lucky simply to have butter.
Bush closes by saying he's comfortable with the fact that history's verdict on his presidency won't come until after he's gone. That's just as well, since history isn't likely to be as easy on him as he is on himself.