When I first heard that acclaimed historian and presidential biographer Jean Edward Smith was writing a biography of former President George W. Bush, I recall telling a fellow historian that I was cautiously optimistic it would be a well-crafted, insightful book and that I looked forward to its publication. I had read some of Smith’s earlier works, including biographies of former presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and found the books to be elegantly written, carefully researched, and deeply insightful. But my optimism was tempered by the fact that the materials and perspectives of history are not yet available to Smith, or to any other would-be biographer of Bush.
How wrong I was to be optimistic at all.
Readers should be forewarned that this essay is longer than the customary book review. I beg their indulgence, because Smith’s biography, Bush, is so replete with factual errors and specious judgments that an extended set of corrections and remonstrances seems warranted for the sake of the historical record. All the more so because I am not aware of any other reviews to date that have identified the many flaws in the book. If anything, it has received some surprisingly positive assessments from the generally credible Peter Baker and Morton Kondracke in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, respectively. As I hope to demonstrate, such favorable reviews are wholly unwarranted.
Informed readers will know that the primary tools that we historians bring to our craft are original research — most often in archives, and sometimes through interviews in the case of more recent history — and the passage of time, which cools partisan passions and lends perspective and insight. Smith avails himself of neither of these tools. Other than a couple of cursory interviews with Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, and his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, the book relies almost entirely on secondary sources and previously published books. Even a gratuitously sympathetic reviewer like Jason Zwengerle in the New York Times, concedes: “Smith’s biography of Bush unearths little new information on its subject. Most of Bush relies on previous books by journalists like Peter Baker, Robert Draper and Bob Woodward or the memoirs of key figures including Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and Bush himself.”
The book’s opening broadside puts Smith’s vendetta on full display: “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush.” A strong charge, to be sure, and yet over page after page, instead of building a scholarly case for this scathing historical indictment, Smith instead produces a profoundly distorted caricature of Bush based on unreliable accounts, factual errors, and wildly implausible judgments. He also on occasion indulges in a viciousness that is unbecoming in a scholar of his stature.
In disclosure, I write this review from two perspectives: as a historian, and as a former Bush administration staff member who served five years at the State Department and the National Security Council. So, while I (like Smith) am hardly unbiased, I can claim familiarity with both the craft of history, the workings of the Bush administration, and the character and intellect of Bush.
As a historian who admires Smith’s previous works, I found the ineptitude of the research perhaps the most surprising and disappointing aspect of the book. Take one of the most egregious examples: an anecdote, which Smith relates with great relish, and upon which he bases much of his depiction of Bush as a warmongering religious zealot. According to Smith, in a January 2003 phone call between Bush and Frech President Jacques Chirac, during which Bush urged the French president to support a United Nations Security Council resolution on Iraq, Bush allegedly told his counterpart, “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East. Biblical prophecies are being fulfilled. This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase His people’s enemies before a new age begins” (339). Smith then goes on at some length describing the obscure Old and New Testament prophecies concerning Gog and Magog (complex passages about which biblical scholars differ upon the meanings) and asserts, “biblical writings were determining Bush’s decision about war in the Middle East.” Moreover, in Smith’s account, this alleged presidential application of biblical prophecies to Iraq had a tremendous consequence in that it caused Chirac to decide to oppose the war: “Bush’s religious certitude and his invocation of Gog and Magog scuttled the possibility of French support for military action” (339).
The conversation is utterly and completely false. Bush never said these words to Chirac or anything of the sort to any other world leader. I have checked with multiple senior people with firsthand knowledge of the call Bush had with Chirac, and all confirmed that Bush never said anything remotely resembling those words.
No wonder Smith’s footnote for this passage only references an unreliable book by a partisan journalist, and that book in turn relates the Chirac anecdote without any sourcing whatsoever. The Chirac story has reverberated in the media for years, but Smith seems to be among the first serious (or credulous?) scholar to repeat it in print and treat it as fact. Peddling internet fabrications as facts and basing a significant thesis (Bush as war-crazed religious zealot) on those fabrications is scholarly malpractice.
That Smith never did the research necessary to verify this scurrilous story bespeaks a larger interpretive failure on his part. Anyone who knows Bush, or even knows anything about him, on hearing the Gog and Magog story would immediately think, “That just doesn’t sound at all like Bush.” Yes, he is a man who speaks openly about his faith, but that is hardly unusual for an American president – Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Eisenhower, and many other presidents did so as well. But Bush never focused on or even spoke about obscure and contested biblical prophecies, or try to relate them to current events, let alone use them as a basis for momentous national security decisions. Here is the deeper tragedy of Smith’s book. Having spent many hours reading secondary sources on Bush, Smith never developed enough of a familiarity with the man to intuit that the Chirac story did not ring true. Rather, it seems that Smith’s partisan contempt for Bush so distorted his perceptions that he became willing to believe even the most outlandish fabrications about Bush — as long as they were negative and conformed to Smith’s biases.
Consider another example, on which Smith bases an entire chapter purportedly exploring the intellectual framework of the Bush administration, titled “March of the Hegelians.” He frames the chapter with a remark by former White House Senior Advisor Karl Rove, wherein he allegedly dismissed the “reality-based community” which operates on the basis of empirical evidence, and instead pronounced, “that’s not the way the world works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality…we are history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Smith then argues that “the grandiose view that Rove expounded lies at the root of the international debacle engineered by the Bush administration” (page 175). A strong charge, and damning if true. But again, it is a categorical falsehood. I contacted Rove and he confirmed for the record that he never said this or anything resembling it (a “damned lie” were his exact words). And anyone who knows Rove — his fans and informed critics alike — would immediately suspect that quote to be a fabrication, since Rove neither talks or thinks that way at all. Yet Smith, all too willing to believe the most hysterical caricatures of the Bush administration, not only gleefully repeats this fiction but bases a substantial portion of his argument on it.
When not treating fabricated quotes as revealing facts, Smith makes other errors that further distort his analysis. A favorite rhetorical device he employs is the sweeping historical assertion, along the lines of “never before in American history…” or “not since the presidency of [insert long-ago American president]…” followed by a ritual condemnation of the Bush administration for some sort of egregious deviation from the mainstream of American history. Some of Smith’s assertions are matters of opinion and interpretation that historians can debate, but at times his oracular pronouncements are factually wrong.
For example, describing an early meeting between Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Smith observes how Bush and Putin agreed to each designate one senior trusted official to handle sensitive matters that might arise in the U.S.-Russia relationship. Putin designated Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, and Bush designated National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. The choice of Rice for this role stirs Smith’s umbrage. In his words, “The asymmetry is striking. Bush chose a member of his White House staff who had no ministerial responsibility. Not since F.D.R. and Harry Hopkins had executive power been so personalized.” Smith repeatedly returns to this allegation, that Bush elevated the position of national security advisor to unprecedented authority, at the expense of cabinet secretaries.
As a matter of the historical record, this is simply incorrect. Smith attempts to depict the position of national security advisor as a mere mid-level administrative functionary. Yet that has not been the case since the Eisenhower administration. From John F. Kennedy’s elevation of the position under McGeorge Bundy, every president since has treated the national security advisor as co-equal with, and in many cases even superior to, cabinet secretaries. Thus, in addition to Bundy, the likes of Henry Kissinger under Richard Nixon, Zbigniew Brzezinski under Carter, Brent Scowcroft under George H. W. Bush, and Sandy Berger under Bill Clinton, all enjoyed authority similar to cabinet officials, functioned as principals in conducting negotiations with foreign leaders, and held considerable sway in forging American national security policy.
The purported “personalization of foreign policy,” unprecedented since the F.D.R. administration, of which Smith accuses Bush, turns out instead merely to be the customary practice of virtually every president since F.D.R. Even setting aside the fact that Rice was one of the world’s foremost experts on Russia, Bush’s choice of her to take the lead in the U.S.-Russia relationship was entirely appropriate and consistent with historical precedent. Putin and Ivanov no doubt realized this, even if Smith does not.
These are some of Smith’s large errors, but he makes many smaller ones as well. I eventually stopped counting and am almost sure I missed some, but a partial list includes the following: Elliott Abrams did not work in the George H.W. Bush Administration (xviii); President Bush spoke at the Yale graduation ceremony in 2001, not 2004 (1, 14); Logan Walters has not worked for Bush since 2002 and could not have been the staff member that Smith claims turned down his interview request (xxi-xxii); Bush was not the first Texas governor to win two consecutive terms, as his gubernatorial predecessors including Coke Stevenson, Price Daniel, Allen Shivers, John Connally, and Dolph Briscoe (among others) had all done before him (95); Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas is not in the Texas Hill Country (93, 97); Bush was not the only candidate in the 2000 Republican primary to identify as a “born-again Christian” — others included Elizabeth Dole and Gary Bauer (104); Andy Card served as secretary of transportation, not secretary of commerce, in the Bush 41 administration (153); Richard Armitage was deputy secretary of state, not under secretary (481); Bill Burck served in the White House counsel’s office, not as a speechwriter (504); and so on. Individually, each of these errors may be trivial, but collectively they display a sloppiness that undermines confidence in the integrity of the research and the reliability of the conclusions. (While Smith is ultimately responsible for the content of his book, this litany of errors and dubious anecdotes also does not reflect well on the fact-checking and editorial oversight at publisher Simon and Schuster.)
Smith’s judgments form some of the most problematic aspects of the book. Given the biography’s almost complete lack of original research and the previously cited errors, it should not be too surprising that Smith renders some suspect verdicts. Yet reading them is still jarring. For example, he repeatedly disparages the decision to invade Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks as a “disastrous war of aggression,” a “war of choice,” a “costly and futile war,” and so forth. These are strong charges, yet they also violate an important principle of historical evaluations: Historical actors should be judged by the options reasonably available to them at the time, rather than some sort of retrospective ideal. Here it bears recalling that after September 11, virtually every national security policy expert, every senior military officer, every leader of allied nations, every member of Congress (save one, Rep. Barbara Lee of California), and overwhelming majorities of the American public all favored the United States attacking the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Yes, in the years since there have been important and legitimate debates about issues such as the American strategy, resourcing, and conduct of the Afghanistan war; misalignment of political and military goals; whether we should still maintain a troop presence; and so forth. But virtually no credible voice then or even now would say that the United States was unjustified in launching the attacks in the first place. However, that is Smith’s position, and he disparages the war with epithets such as a “war of choice” and “war of aggression.” Tellingly, he suggests no viable alternatives that the Bush administration could have followed instead of launching military operations against Afghanistan. The closest he comes is an oblique hint that Bush should have merely pursued a diplomatic agreement whereby the Taliban relinquished its alliance with al Qaeda. Of course, Bush did offer such an entente to the Taliban, which summarily rejected that option and reaffirmed its alliance with al Qaeda. As such, Bush’s consequent decision to pursue military action against the Taliban-al Qaeda regime was entirely justified on strategic, legal, and moral grounds, endorsed by the United Nations Security Council, affirmed by NATO, authorized by overwhelming bipartisan votes in Congress, and supported by virtually the entire body politic of the American people.
It appears that Smith bases his judgments in part on a disturbing trivialization of the catastrophic harm America suffered on that day. “The events of 9/11 were tragic, but scarcely catastrophic,” he writes, and “rather than reassuring the country that everyone was safe, Bush blustered about war.” For a historian, this is a particularly inapt assessment. Nowhere does Smith acknowledge that 9/11 was the bloodiest and costliest attack on the United States in our entire history. It was singularly unprecedented in the scale of casualties, the successful targeting of buildings at the epicenter of American economic and military power, and the trauma it inflicted on our nation’s collective psyche. et all of this seems to escape Smith in his quest to minimize the scale and severity of the attacks. The strongest language he can muster is that 9/11 “violated the universal norms of civilized society” — as if Osama bin Laden were guilty of bad manners rather than the most barbaric and bloody war crimes committed against America in our nation’s history.
After September 11, the United States was not safe, and the last thing we needed was a president spouting platitudes that we were. Smith seems to arrive at this bizarre assessment because he fails to address in even a cursory manner the nature and depravity of al Qaeda and its intentions towards the United States. He neglects to mention that al Qaeda had declared war on the United States several years earlier, repeatedly stating its intention to destroy the United States, repeatedly attacked American civilian and military targets, and deliberately employed tactics designed to inflict the largest possible numbers of civilian deaths — tactics which virtually all legal scholars defined as “acts of war.” Instead, Smith sanctimoniously disparages Bush’s decision to frame the conflict with al Qaeda as a “war,” which “betrayed Bush’s utter ignorance of history and the real world.” Rather, Bush “was structuring another Crusade against the evildoers of the Muslim world.”
Not content to merely score Bush for taking unwarranted aggressive actions after 9/11, Smith smugly and brazenly makes the opposite argument as well, that Bush’s assertive counterterrorism policies after 9/11 did not keep America safe. Smith writes, “to argue that by taking the actions that he did, the president kept America safe is meretricious.” He may take this for granted in hindsight, but as any intelligence official or national security policymaker can attest, the terrorist plots against the United States in the seven and a half years of Bush’s presidency after 9/11 were pervasive, serious, and deadly. Bush made the strategic decisions to shift to a war paradigm, develop a new counterterrorism legal architecture, intelligence structure, and military capabilities, and incur considerable domestic and international criticism for the assertive measures he employed against terrorism. Contrary to Smith’s haughty dismissal, it is the denial that Bush kept America safe that merits the term “meretricious.”
Smith also fails to mention that the Barack Obama administration has largely adopted the Bush administration’s counterterrorism strategic framework and instruments. As a historian, Smith should appreciate that some of the most important historical judgments on particular presidents are rendered by their successors, especially successors of opposite parties who still embrace their predecessor’s main strategic architecture. Such was also the case with Eisenhower, who largely adopting President Harry S. Truman’s containment framework for the Cold War. If anything, if Smith opposes these counterterrorism policies and tools as strenuously as he claims, he should be even more vicious in his criticism of the Obama administration for largely adopting the Bush framework once in office — especially after the Obama team had severely criticized the Bush approach on the campaign trail in 2008, only to reverse and adopt most of those policies after inauguration.
After denying Bush any credit for protecting the nation against further attacks, Smith goes further and blames Bush for any terrorist threats that the nation does face. As he puts it, “the threat of terrorism that confronts the United States is in many respects a direct result of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003.” But Smith just states this as an article of faith, and offers no evidence for such an overwrought assertion. In fact, as every serious counterterrorism expert knows, the jihadist threat existed well before the Iraq invasion, and has continued and metastasized through to today in many ways that have nothing to do with the Iraq war. Instead of Smith’s reckless calumny, a more scrupulous and nuanced assessment of the Iraq War’s effect on jihadism would find a complex relationship wherein the American troop presence and chaos in Iraq certainly inspired and attracted a large number of new jihadists, but also had a “flypaper” effect, which, when combined with lethal advances in American intelligence and counterterrorism operations, led to the near decimation of al Qaeda in Iraq by 2009. Meanwhile, other al Qaeda franchises and other jihadist groups have proliferated over the last 15 years in places like Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Algeria, and Nigeria, and their growth in numbers and in hostility to the United States has had almost nothing to do with the Iraq War.
In his ideological zeal to caricature Bush as a “crusader” against the Muslim world, Smith also overlooks inconvenient facts that do not serve his polemic. Bush deliberately engaged in outreach to American Muslims immediately following 9/11, including visiting the Washington Islamic Center just days after the attacks, publicly describing Islam as a “religion of peace,” appointing American Muslims such as Zalmay Khalilzad and Farah Pandith to senior foreign policy positions, and holding annual iftar dinners at the White House. In taking these and other actions that made clear that the United States was not at war with Islam and that the vast majority of Muslims were America’s allies in the fight, Bush drew on his appreciation for history, particularly his determination to avoid the sordid mistake F.D.R. had made of interning Japanese-Americans during World War II. Why does Smith fail to even mention these facts about Bush’s historically and morally informed outreach to Muslims, all while repeatedly disparaging Bush for one offhand (and quickly retracted) comment that mentioned the word “crusade”? I do not know, but suspect it is because these facts conflict with the caricature of Bush that Smith desperately wants to draw.
Everybody probibly remembers all the nasty things said about Nancy Reagan by Bad Kitty Kelley and how brain-dead liberals lapped it all up
His’Story, yep, when you’re writing it, you can make it come out anyway you want to. I’ve read so many versions of the Kennedy assassination, it just depends on what you want to believe. The separate incidents you mention in the story are so far fetched, that someone that wants to believe it would have to decide ahead of time that they were not interested in the truth.
Dimocrats basically will have no problem believing much of the book, Republicans will have no problem believing it is only the Dimocrat version of history.
Will Inboden was Senior Director for Strategic Planning and Institutional Reform at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. An “informed reader” might question how objective Inboden’s own views might be. Secondary sources are often more objective than primary sources. By definition, primary sources tend to have subjective views of themselves and what they’ve done.
I haven’t read Smith’s book. My opinion concerns Inboden’s logic, not the book’s accuracy or inaccuracy.