American history, biographies, book reviews, George W Bush, Jean Edward Smith, presidential biographies, US Presidents
Renowned historian and biographer Jean Edward Smith’s “Bush” was published in 2016. Smith is professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. His biographies of Grant, FDR and Eisenhower were my favorites for those presidents. He also wrote “John Marshall: Definer of a Nation” which I’m planning to read as follow-up to my focus on presidential biographies.
Published eight years after his presidency ended, this 660-page biography covers Bush’s life from his birth through the first years of his retirement. Unfortunately, Bush’s pre-presidency receives comparatively limited attention and Smith’s coverage of Bush’s retirement is, by necessity, quite brief.
The core of this book is Bush’s presidency with eighty percent of the biography devoted to his eight years in the White House. But readers expecting balanced coverage of these two terms are in for quite a surprise. From the book’s first sentence to its last, Smith’s disdain for the Bush presidency is exceedingly transparent.
The result is a presidential biography almost unlike any I’ve encountered – one without the pretense of balance or objectivity. Rather than drafting a reflective review of his subject’s life, Smith has penned a scathing indictment of Bush for a variety of alleged miscues, misjudgments and misdeeds – primarily focused on his flawed response to the events of September 11, 2001.
To be sure, one cannot walk away from Smith’s narrative – or have lived through Bush’s presidency – and remain unconvinced the forty-third president made significant mistakes. But even readers who wholly agree with Smith’s underlying premises are likely to find the lack of objectivity occasionally jarring. Adjudicating recent presidencies is just a far trickier business than grading ones long past.
This also feels less like a deeply-researched biography than an interesting and extremely readable synthesis of contemporary news reports, transcripts and tidbits harvested from the memoirs of White House insiders. Though it proves an artful reconstruction of Bush’s presidency, this book is simply not revelatory in the same manner as Smith’s previous presidential biographies.
Also missed here was the opportunity to better introduce several compelling supporting characters such as Karl Rove and Colin Powell. Smith’s treatment of the 2008 economic crisis, which follows several hundred pages devoted to the war on terror, is relatively brief and somewhat simplistic. And in the end it fails to capture the full extent of the crisis or identify all of the causes which precipitated it. Finally, there are a number of (mostly minor) factual errors and typos which I would not expect in a book by this author.
Although “Bush” failed to live up to high expectations it is worth noting that its good aspects do outweigh the disappointments. Smith’s writing style is clear and engaging and consistently easy to follow. Specific high points include Bush’s campaign against Al Gore, the clear (but eventually tedious) review of the Florida re-count process and Bush’s decision-making process when choosing his Cabinet and senior aides and advisers.
Other highlights include an illuminating examination of Dick Cheney’s unprecedented influence over personnel and policy matters, an interesting review of Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign and, in general, penetrating behind-the-scenes access. And Smith does credit Bush for his John Roberts Supreme Court nomination, his response to the 2008 financial crisis and his global efforts against HIV.
But overall, Jean Edward Smith’s “Bush” fails to meet the high bar set by his earlier biographies of Grant, FDR and Eisenhower. As a scathing indictment of Bush’s policy failures it is extremely effective; as a balanced biography of Bush’s life it falls short of expectations. But on its merits alone, this biography will stand as a valuable placeholder until the definitive biography of George W. Bush’s life is written .
Overall rating: 3¼ stars
When I read that book I felt he accidentally let the pleasant side of Bush come through. That more than some recent presidents you could enjoy spending a day with him. I’m sure the author never meant for that to come through, but for me it did.
Barry Simich said:
Thank you for your review of Smith’s biography of President Bush 43. I too was quite disappointed with this work and for that matter, the author for stooping to such a low level. His contempt clouded his otherwise ability to present a good biography.
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I suspect (but don’t know) he was really frustrated with Bush’s presidency and rather than waiting another decade or two, just decided to write what was on his mind. I suspect (but, again, don’t know) that if he had the ability to witness the current presidency it might have tempered his animosity toward Bush. Said another way…as I was reading his biography of Bush 43 I couldn’t help but wonder what Jean Edward Smith thought about the Trump presidency 🙂
I’m not sure what the publisher’s or author’s intentions were to be for the book. If their aim was to provide a detailed examination of Bush’s entire life and his time in the White House, then it definitely falls short. But as a critical assessment of his administration, something I wanted, then it succeeds. Perhaps that really was Smith’s goal. That said, I really enjoy reading a comprehensive biography on a former president and the arc of the individual’s life (Grant by Chernow immediately comes to mind), but I take equal value in reading about the intricacies of a recent administration that has affected the country and world in my lifetime. And I think Smith does a fair job in doing this.
Very well said.
This was an unusual book for me and I had a hard time coming up with a rating. If judged based on its value as an examination of his life and a balanced assessment of his presidency I would give it one score. If rated as a critical but well-prosecuted analysis of his presidency then I would give it a very different score. But I tend to want “everything” in a perfect biography: great writing, a high level of engagement, a critical but balanced assessment of strengths and weaknesses, an ability to put me (as the reader) in the scene, the perfect amount of detail and context,…
In this case I was obviously disappointed by the lack of balance, but I also found it disappointing that JES frequently denigrated his subject personally (for being an extremely poor student, an alcoholic, relying on his religious faith for guidance, etc.) The good news is that I was consistently engaged and the narrative was never dull. The bad news is that I felt like JES couldn’t wait to get some things off his chest and pushed a bit too hard on one side of the balance sheet.
Christopher Saunders said:
Fair review and rating. I’ll echo Tracy’s comments, in that I’m very torn about this one. As a biography, which it bills itself as, it’s incomplete, selective and decidedly slanted in its coverage (even if I mostly agree with Smith’s views on Bush and his presidency, I don’t think anyone would consider it a fair portrait). As a critical assessment of a controversial president, it’s extremely readable and passionately argued, and reading it now does a good job connecting the supposedly more genteel, respectable Republicans of past administrations with what we’re living through now. The problem may indeed be that we’re not far enough removed from Bush for anything like a balanced assessment of his legacy. That said, I would rather read this one again than Days of Fire, even if the latter is more successful at seeming objective.
I’ll again recommend Bill Minutaglio’s book “First Son.” It’s a thoughtful, well-balanced, thorough treatment of Bush’s pre-presidential life — it ends as he’s gearing up for his primary run for the GOP nomination. For obvious reasons it isn’t influenced by Bush’s presidency.
James Salerno said:
I originally planned on making H.W. Bush my cut-off point, but since Jean Edward Smith wrote this, I extended it to W. Bush. I read this back-to-back with Grant and wow, this was not what I was expecting.
This was by far the worst presidential biography I’ve read so far. There’s criticism and then there’s just mean-spirited, and this was the latter. Nothing but non-stop personal and professional attacks. There were also far too many footnotes that added little to the narrative, and it seemed like they took up half the book. Smith’s opinion on “the real reason” why the Soviet Union collapsed is prevented as absolute fact and anyone who disagrees has “a fundamental misunderstanding of why.” Random tangents on the legitimacy of John Yoo’s education also come across as petty and bizarre.
It felt like haughty academia lecture. Not enjoyable in the least.