The first two presidents in this journey took me nearly three months to get through. George W. Bush and his predecessor hardly took me three weeks.
But unlike George Washington and John Adams, recent presidents haven’t been off the stage long enough to induce most historian-biographers to tackle their lives.
That will change as additional time passes, more documents are de-classified and presidential legacies (and lives) continue to marinate under the bright light of day.
I read just two biographies of Bush 43, but was excited about each for different reasons: one was written by an author who ranks as one of my all-time favorite biographers…and the other was written by an author known for his indefatigable determination and uncanny ability to piece together a story.
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* “Bush” (2016) by Jean Edward Smith
No biographer has impressed me more often, or more consistently, than Smith. His biographies of Grant, FDR and Eisenhower are each my top pick among the thirty-six biographies I read for those three presidents. My expectations for “Bush” were high but I was suspicious when Smith turned his attention from long-dead presidents toward one still very much alive.
This biography quickly proved unique. In many ways it looks and feels like a traditional JES biography: it is well written, engaging, extensively footnoted and, with at least one or two curious exceptions, well-sourced. But its very first sentence gives away the punchline: that George W. Bush ranks as one of the worst presidents in the nation’s history.
Smith’s underlying premise is that Bush’s invasion of Iraq – and the assortment of civil liberty catastrophes which accompanied the war on terror – irredeemably tainted the presidency of a man who was in no way prepared for the weight of the office. Much of Smith’s argument may be fair, but the disdain he shows his subject leaves this more a partisan screed than a reflective biography.
In the end, Smith’s biography is worth reading for its excellent moments and its engaging narrative. But due to the jarring lack of objectivity it is hard to avoid concluding that Smith simply couldn’t wait to publicly castigate Bush for his perceived misjudgments and misdeeds — 3¼ stars (Full review here)
* “Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House” (2013) by Peter Baker
Peter Baker’s biography covers much the same ground as Smith’s: a substantial focus on Bush’s presidency with only modest coverage of his earlier years. Otherwise, the two biographies are quite different in both tone and style. (And Baker somehow convinced Dick Cheney to provide his thoughts for this book…)
“Days of Fire” is essentially an “as it happened” history – a behind-the-scenes review of the Bush administration. For better, and occasionally for worse, it often resembles a transcript with stretches of dialogue held together with narrative glue. This style proves riveting during Bush’s most revealing moments but grows tedious with time.
The book’s most interesting feature may be its introduction to Bush and Cheney; the first 10 percent of the book compares and contrasts the characters and personalities of these future political partners. Fortunately, Baker never loses sight of their ever-evolving relationship. And in contrast to Bush’s most notable biographer, Baker maintains a ruthless degree of balance and objectivity — 3¾ stars (Full review here)
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Two Books, Limited Time…Which to Read?
Jean Edward Smith’s “Bush” is censorious but fluid and easy to read while Peter Baker’s “Days of Fire” is insightful and ruthlessly balanced but frequently colorless and sterile. Smith’s literary style reveals his background as a gifted biographer; Baker’s narrative exposes his thirty-year career as a talented and tenacious journalist.
In the end, it is Smith’s suffocating political agenda which impairs his biography’s potential…and it is Baker’s reportorial style that leaves his book a better reference than biography. Both books are fine but neither is destined to become the definitive biography of George W. Bush.
Best Biography of George W. Bush: ***Too early to call***
– “First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty” (1999) by Bill Minutaglio