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