Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2007, 12:00am

Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush

by Rob Draper

Free Press, HK$208

Until recently, some bookshops in New York divided their political books into two sections: blue for those sympathetic to Democrats, and red for those sympathetic to Republicans. That's an indication of how partisan American politics has become. But this biography of George W Bush, by journalist Robert Draper, would have to be placed somewhere in the middle. It's a work of reportage that, through first-hand interviews, documents the years of the Bush administration in a relatively impartial manner.

Dead Certain is a messy, sprawling book that reads like it was completed in a hurry. Draper's frequent mangling of the language cries out for a good editor. The racy prose is more suited to a page-turner than a political document. But there's still much to interest students of the Bush presidency.

Draper's research, which included six interviews with Bush and meetings with acolytes such as Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, has resulted in a detailed work of reportage. It's heavy on day-by-day facts and events, and low on critique and analysis. That's useful, because most political books published in the US are the opposite.

That's not to say that it contains new insights about Bush. He's not the total idiot that he's often made out to be - although his knowledge of world geography really is bad - but he's certainly an anti-intellectual. Bush's election tactic was to cast himself as a no-nonsense everyman who could rise above the complex world of realpolitik by referring to vague moral principles. The book does nothing to change this image.

Early on, Bush describes the necessity of breaking everything down into simple notions of right or wrong, good or evil. Those distinctions, he says, are what he was elected to make. He thinks it's his job to be dead certain about everything.

This refusal to countenance the complexities of realpolitik is, the evidence in Dead Certain shows, why his administration has failed so badly. Unlike Bill Clinton or his father, Bush doesn't take the time to assess the facts. He does a quick study of a situation and then lets his intuition guide him. The huge gap between the complex real world and the Manichean way that Bush perceives it arises again and again.

For Bush, the invasion of Iraq was a simple moral choice. It was about democracy, which is good, versus tyranny, which is bad. The thought of ethnic factionalism never entered his head. He's oblivious to the nuances of politics.

If politics means running the country, from the evidence in Dead Certain, the administration never has been that interested in doing it. Its only aim has been to keep on winning elections, to keep holding on to power.

It's become almost trite to say the Bush administration is all about spin. But the information here bolsters this idea on almost every page. Speeches are written with reference to polls rather than policy. More time is spent on selling the administration's plans - to the public, to Congress, to foreign politicians - than formulating them. More thought went into, to use former chief of staff Andrew Card's misjudged term, 'marketing' the war than planning for its aftermath.

Other books have delved deeper into the Bush presidency. Bob Woodward's State of Denial is a meticulously researched analysis of the forces in play behind the war in Iraq. It provides a much clearer picture of the battles within the administration - between Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell, and so on - and the bungling that went on.

Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy describes in depth the strong influence of big oil, the religious right, and big business on the administration. Dead Certain doesn't venture into these areas.

It simply tries to report who said what to whom. As such, it best serves as a complement to these more analytical works.

The Bush years are drawing to a close. The Democrats have control of the House and Senate, and Republicans are distancing themselves from an unpopular president. With the election next year, there will be few domestic policy initiatives from the White House. Bush is now said to be worrying about how history will perceive him.

Draper's book mentions the surge of additional troops in Iraq. This is generally thought to be

an attempt by Bush to leave a positive legacy.

On the evidence contained in Dead Certain, the absolute best he can hope for is to be remembered as an inept bungler.