LONDON – George W. Bush has started work on his memoirs. Count to ten before you respond. The autobiographies of political leaders are not a very elevated literary form.
First, few leaders write well, though there are exceptions, like Nehru, Churchill, and de Gaulle. No wonder that most of them employ a “ghost,” like the one in Robert Harris’s excellent thriller of the same name, which is really a devastating critique of Britain’s former premier, Tony Blair.
Second, these memoirs are usually little more than slabs of self-justification interspersed with lists of famous people met in the course of life at the top. To take one example, while Bill Clinton speaks with warmth, wit, and great eloquence in the flesh, his autobiography is not worth reading.
Third, these books are usually written largely for a big paycheck. But it beats me how publishers ever recover the huge multi-million dollar advances they hand out. When the great General George C. Marshall – whose memoirs of World War II and of his tenure as America’s Secretary of State would have been worth every penny – was offered $1 million by a publisher in the1950’s for his autobiography, the old man replied, “Why would I want $1 million?” What a different world we now inhabit.
The good news about the Bush project, so far title-free, is that it is apparently going to be different from the usual reputation polishing. Instead of starting at the beginning of his presidency, with all those dodgy Florida voting machines, and plodding on to the bitterly unpopular end, he intends to concentrate on the 20 most consequential decisions he made in the White House. He will also focus on key moments in his life, such as his decision to give up alcohol and to choose Dick Cheney as his Vice President.
Shaking off his addiction to booze speaks extremely well of Bush, his strength of character and the support of his wife and family. To turn your back on an addiction is never easy. Those who do it, helped in Bush’s case by a growing religious faith, deserve sympathy and approval.
It was never Bush’s determination that was in doubt, nor his geniality – despite that slightly annoying rich-boy joshing. Nor did I ever believe that the former president was stupid: a criticism leveled at him by many of his European peers who were themselves hardly philosopher kings.
The problem with Bush was not lack of intelligence but a complete absence of intellectual curiosity. He was content to camp on his own shallow prejudices, and the rest of the world had to be fitted into this narrow terrain.
This is where Cheney came in. It was certainly a key moment when Bush chose him. Imagine, for example, how different the world and the opinions of Bush’s presidency might have been if he had chosen Colin Powell or John McCain as his running mate?
What Cheney did was to feed and nourish the Bush prejudices, and to move ruthlessly and energetically to occupy the policymaking ground left vacant by the President’s indolence and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s lack of political clout.
What did Cheney believe? He thought that Ronald Reagan had shown that fiscal deficits don’t matter. He believed in capitalism – or at least in supporting big companies and the rich – though whether he understood how free markets should work under the rule of law is more doubtful. The law was never Cheney’s strong point.
He was an apologist for American power, even though during the Vietnam years he had wriggled and dodged to avoid being at the sharp, conscripted end of it.
He thought that the American president should operate beyond the checks and balances applied by the US Constitution, just as his country should not be constrained by any international rules. Rules were for others, and at the very end of his term in office his one public disagreement with Bush concerned the President’s refusal to pardon Cheney’s former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, who had been convicted of perjury.
Cheney’s influence resulted in the bloody disaster of Iraq, the moral humiliation of Guantanamo, water-boarding and “extraordinary rendition,” the despair of friends and the contempt of critics, a full-dress parade of double standards around the globe.
Mean-spirited and partisan, Dick Cheney was one of America’s most powerful vice presidents. I cannot think of one who did so much damage to America at home and to its reputation abroad.
No wonder Bush regards the choice of Cheney as such a key decision. Ideas matter in politics and having only a few simplistic ones of his own, Bush found his agenda shaped and dominated by his clever surrogate and deputy. That is what eventually did him in.
Bush’s presidency was discredited and sunk by the man whom he fatally selected to work for him. The bigger tragedy was that so many others paid a much higher price for this than Bush did. “The Cost of Dick Cheney” – perhaps that should be the title of Bush’s memoirs.
Chris Patten is a former EU Commissioner for External Relations, Chairman of the British Conservative Party, and was the last British Governor of Hong Kong. He is currently Chancellor of Oxford University and a member of the British House of Lords.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.