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The Bush Tragedy Paperback – 20 Oct 2008
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'The Bush Tragedy is political drama, family history and psychological insight in dazzling combination. If you read one book about George W. Bush and his presidency, this should be it' Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink 'Precisely because he does not think George W. Bush is a joke, Jacob Weisberg has been able to write a very witty and deeply penetrating profile of him' Christopher Hitchens 'The epic failure of the Bush Administration is a story for the ages and Jacob Weisberg - with a clever assist from William Shakespeare - has written a scorching, powerful and entirely plausible account of this perverse family saga. Not only that - it's a beautifully written and erudite book, hilarious at times, a joy to read' Joe Klein, author of Primary Colors
"The Bush Tragedy" opens up the black box of the plane-crash presidency of George W. Bush to examine the political wreckage. How did a man of such evident flaws and limited abilities find himself in the position of the most powerful man in the world? How and why did half of America fall for Bush before falling out with him? Weisberg analyses Bush through familial, personal, political and historical relationships, and examines how his idolisation of Reagan and his devout Christianity led to widely condemned policy decisions that have fundamentally changed the role and position of the US. "The Bush Tragedy" is a razor-sharp character study of one of the most controversial presidents in American history.See all Product description
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'Tragedy' in the title is used in two senses, one the diminished modern sense of 'disaster' the other the traditional use to denote a type of drama. At the head of each chapter and periodically in between Weisberg quotes from Shakespeare's Henry IV and V. His citations are neat and apposite, but I'm not inclined to labour them or treat them as more than a literary device. The real burden of Weisberg's argument starts with his delving into Bush's family history and tracing character traits that he thinks reappear in the person of his tragic hero. This is a very tricky area, and once again I'm not disposed to tread too hard on it but rather see how I react to the personality as depicted (from what I can make out of it from this distance), whatever its alleged genetic origins.
Broadly, the narrative here makes sense to me. To understand Bush, we have to have some picture of the other actors. Some are fairly two-dimensional. Rumsfeld comes across as a bullying know-all, Rice as a toadying hero-worshipper. Much more interesting are the depictions of Rove and, particularly, Cheney. Weisberg is at pains to stress that while Bush was probably manipulated by both, the only way to manipulate him was to flatter his sense of his own significance and give him ownership of the ideas being suggested to him. Rove was put in his place when he showed signs of getting uppity, and Cheney comes across as a grey eminence, ambitious not for himself but for his political agenda. In fact Weisberg has made me revise my notions of Cheney entirely. His alarming concepts of a presidency that can do more or less what it likes are not, it seems, any consequence of 9/11 but reflect a siege mentality that Cheney has held, or that has gripped Cheney, throughout his political life. In particular, the story of the anthrax letters and the Cheney-led panic they induced in the White House was a revelation to me because, in Rumsfeld's phrase, policy since 2001 has 'been seen through the prism of 9/11'. Looking at anything through a prism tends to give a distorted view, but where have the anthrax letters gone from the prism? Cheney's congenital paranoia leapt to certainty that Saddam must have sent them as a prelude to a mass onslaught, but we have heard little of them since. Presumptions and prisms.
For Weisberg, Bush is driven by a craving to be distinctive and historic, measured against his father or Churchill or Reagan or the cosmos or whatever, but handicapped in this ambition by having no understanding of history. Weisberg finds 'narcissism' in Bush's attempts to put Churchill's head on his own shoulders, and his brazen proclamations that the people of Iraq are pursuing his agenda and fightin' for freedom, let alone that they ought to be grateful to America, are what fill me with disgust at the man. As far as Churchill is concerned, Weisberg has a phrase 'historical cliché' that fits the bill. In the unlikely event that Mr Bush reads this notice, let me inform him that over the longer view Churchill's career was marked by inconsistency, changes of political party, quirkiness and self-doubt. Churchill's greatness lay in his colossal energy and his power of persuasion. He was the man for the hour, but not for many other hours, and he was a consensus politician - Mr Bush please note. He was a patriot given a job to do when his country was under dire threat, and he was the right man. It was not his doing that Britain was actually a little better prepared, and Germany a little less well, than believed in 1940, and it is caricature to allege that he stood by some overarching political 'principles' come what might. In passing, the only obvious error I spotted in the book was the statement that the British 'fleet' was trapped at Dunkirk. It was the British expeditionary army. If my figures are right from memory, Admiral Canaris and others had a job persuading Hitler that his invasion of Britain was not on because the slow-moving barges carrying the troops would need an escort of destroyers, of which Germany had 10 and the British home fleet 90-100.
It's an interesting question how well a non-American can understand America post-9/11, but as I have visited America frequently since 1962 I must have as much insight into that as I shall ever have, so I'll have a go in the light of this illuminating book. Bush got where he did by appealing to something in the national culture. In a brilliant recent piece the columnist Gary Kamiya identifies this as 'national etiquette' which assesses truth and probability on an index of nationalistic fervour rather than on what might be expected normally. To oppose some policy is not to be supportive of it - a proposition that Kant would call 'analytic' (i.e. self-defining), but gaining force from the emotional connotations of 'non-supportive'.
That has kept Bush going, wearing his lapel-flag - keep it analytic in that sense but strictly in no other. I don't know what's left of his tumbledown tabernacle of make-believe, nor who except himself believes any of it, but today's news (3/28/08) suggests not much and not many other than Mr J McCain. I have known the romantic self-admiring form of American patriotism since 1962, and what Kamiya says was doubtless ne'er so well express'd, but I know that it was oft thought among more rational Americans. People may or may not empathise with the Peerers through the Prism after 9/11. The point is more - they have less sympathy than Americans expect, and will continue to have less until Americans stop romanticising themselves.
Back to tragedy. Weisberg opened the bidding with Shakespeare, I'll reply with Aeschylus. Of the condition of mankind before Prometheus Aeschylus tells us, and I find it replicated in the Bush presidency and its intellectual sympathisers, 'ephyron eike panta' - 'they were muddling everything together indiscriminately'.
The book seems very well documented and insists on proving the importance of family genes, Oedipus complex, money and social status in the making of George W Bush and on demonstrating the vacuity of his persona.
The arguments are in part repetitive and despite a lot of data, the book doesn’t bring new facts or points of view (other than psychoanalytical). Important periods from his presidency are not dealt with. Long chapters on Karl Rowe and Dick Cheney are used only to emphasize he was a straw man.
It is more of a long argument than an objective analysis of the man and his time.
Weisberg has Lynne Cheney graduating from University of Colorado; in fact, she (like her two daughters after her) graduated from Colorado College, a private college in Colorado Springs.
Weisberg also writes about Bush reading a biography about John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, the only other father/son set of presidents. He refers to John Adams as being a "two-term President", which is wrong. Adams pere served from 1797 to 1801, one term.
These are facts that Weisberg's fact-checker should have picked up on. I can only wonder what other facts presented are wrong.
This concern is trivial, I know, but it colors my review of what I otherwise consider a very good book. As others above me have noted, Weisberg is for the most part non-judgemental (even though he's a writer for Slate). Weisberg is spot-on in his analysis of George Bush and the ruin his two terms in office have caused our once-great country. He notes the influences, both inside his family, and from outsiders like Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, have had on Bush, with devastating consequences for our country and the world.
Weisberg's also a very smooth writer.
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