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George W. Bush by James Mann
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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book is the 43rd volume of the American President's series, concise books of less than 200 pages on each of the holders of that office. To assess dispassionately the presidency of such a controversial and divisive figure as George W. Bush would be a difficult task for most any author. However, James Mann is well qualified; not only has he long been a correspondent for the LA Times, but he is the author of 2 books on Bush's presidency and another on that of Barak Obama.

Mann's biography compares favorably to others in the President's series. Unlike the volume on Eisenhower, for example, Mann's contribution considers its subject's entire life, not just the presidential years. Further, unlike the volume on Nixon (in which the author's contempt for her subject permeates the work), Mann's account of GW Bush is even-handed, despite the author's clear recognition of the flaws and failures of his subject.

Chapter 1, appropriately - entitled "A Good-Time Guy" briefly covers Bush's childhood and years as an indifferent student, and his membership in the Texas National Guard service. As is well-known, his family connections secured him a position in the latter, where (as the author points out) he would be responsible for defending the US if it were attacked by Mexico. It also covers his spotty business career -- one that despite his successive failures and drinking problems, left him quite wealthy, through a deal hatched by his cronies. Chapter 2 considers his rise in Texas politics. While Mann does not say so explicitly, Bush clearly managed to get into politics by riding on his family's wealth and name (after all, he was elected to the Texas governorship with no prior political experience).

In the chapters on Bush's presidency, Chapter 3 is entitled "The New President and His Tax Cuts"; and Chapter 4 is "September 11" (on the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon). Readers may be surprised to learn that Dick Cheney assumed the authority of US president after the attack, by ordering that any commercial airplane be shot down. (The official story later was that Bush verbally authorized him to give that order, but according to Mann, no evidence exists for the alleged conversation). This chapter covers the controversial decision to subject Al Quaida prisoners to military tribunals, the setting up of the international network of "black site" prisons, and Bush's approval of the use of torture to extract information. Chapter 5 is simply entitled "Iraq", and is on how the Bush administration used the 9/11 attack as an excuse to attack a country that was not involved. According to the timeline given, hawks in the administration were pressuring him to attack Iraq as of Sept 12th; and while Bush initially resisted, by November of 2001, he endorsed the plan.

Chapter 6, "Reelection and its Unhappy Aftermath" deals with the reelection campaign and the court-ordered coup that stopped the vote- counting and installed Bush as President. Chapter 7, "Second Term Chances" deals with Bush's relatively uneventful second term; and Chapter 8, "I'm Going to be a Roosevelt, Not a Hoover" is entitled with a quote from Bush, given in response to the looming prospects of an economic depression near the end of his term. The crisis was not entirely Bush's fault (states Mann); it partly reflected the accelerated de-regulation of the financial system in the 1990s.

Mann avers that Bush turned out to be surprisingly liberal on social issues. As governor, he refused to joint the Republican backlash against immigration, and also signed a law requiring public universities to admit the top 10% of students from every high school graduating class. As president, he backed a large government initiative to combat AIDS in Africa, and expanded Medicare to pay for drugs. On the other hand, Mann argues, the Iraq War was "a strategic blunder of epic proportions, the most serious in modern American history". Likewise, the Bush- era tax cuts (enacted despite the enormous costs of the military actions) "ushered in a new era of massive budget deficits, and created vastly greater disparities in income and assets between wealthy Americans and the middle class." "Overall" (concludes Mann), "the country paid heavily for the risks he took."

In my opinion, Mann's attempt to be even handed in his assessment led him to downplay and ignore many negative aspects of Bush's career and presidency. For example, the book says nothing about whether (as is often charged) Bush went AWOL during his National Guard service; and says nothing about the very dubious means by which Dick Cheney secured the Vice Presidency (Bush "chose him" is all the Mann says). Likewise, Mann doesn't mention the incompetence that let Osama bin Laden escape to Pakistan, or that led to US soldiers being sent into combat without protective gear. Nothing is said about how members of the Bush administration exposed a CIA operative (Valerie Plame) for political revenge, or why Scooter Libby was indicted. Nor is the significance explored of the Supreme Court decision that installed Bush -- nearly the worst Court decision in US history, according to several legal scholars. Nor, for that matter is the massive intelligence operation outlined that made it permissible for American citizens to be spied upon -- a situation that continues to this day, with some restrictions.

Finally, as to the claim of some that it's too early to assess the lasting effects of the Bush presidency, one is compelled to recognize that the US is engaged in the longest war in its history -- after 16 years, and 5 Trillion dollars spent, no end is in sight. Furthermore, by invading Iraq and by seriously botching the aftermath, the Bush administration managed to turn that country into a near- puppet of Iran, shifting the balance of power of the region to a theocratic state that considers itself a sworn enemy of the US. It's easy to see why professional historians routinely rank GW Bush as one of the worst presidents in US history. Of course one might argue that with the current holder of the presidency, we now have a new contender for the "the worst" designation -- so perhaps a few years hence Bush may be viewed as only the "second worst".

I can recommend this work as a worthy contribution to the American President's series, and one of the two best in the series of the 7 that I have read so far. However, while it offers a useful introduction, readers will benefit by looking farther afield in order for a full assessment. ( )
3 vote danielx | Aug 28, 2017 |
I was going to conclude my self-inflicted survey of American Presidents at the end of the last millennium, because the closer I got to current events, the more bios seemed to be hysterical than historical. But this biography popped up in Arthur Schlesinger’s series and I thought, what the heck, I’ll have just one more read for the road.

Anyone who paid much attention to Democrats and media reports at the time might ask themselves how such a “dolt” got elected President twice. Well, this book answers that question in a pretty straightforward and even-handed way, rounding out who George W. Bush really was, hitting both high and low points. Love him or hate him, at least it’s clear how the Bushes became the only other father-son Presidents since the Adams family. ( )
  mtbass | Feb 1, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
James Mann. George W. Bush. American Presidents Series. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015. 174 pp. $25.00.

James Mann has worked as a newspaper reporter with the Washington Post and as a columnist with the Los Angeles Times. Mann is author-in-residence at John Hopkins University. His most recent books include Rise of the Vulcans, The China Fantasy, The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan, and The Obamians. This current volume is Mann’s seventh book to date.

The American Presidents Series has some excellent volumes. Ira Rutkow’s contribution on James A. Garfield is one such jewel. Unfortunately, Mann’s addition does not rise to the level set by Rutkow.

While in Andover, Bush proved himself socially, not academically, gifted. He walked with swagger and spent his time mocking rival schools and organizing a stickball league. According to Mann, Yale should have rejected Bush as a classroom slouch. A recurring theme of this book begins early by the author lamenting the indisputable fact that everything George W. Bush “achieved” in life has been handed to him due to his family connections.

When Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard’s 147th Fighter Group as a pilot, Mann has nothing good to say about his military service. The Texas Guard was a “champagne” unit with a pointless mission. Several examples are given of how Bush knew nothing of hardship as he was a son of privilege. Furthermore, it is implied that his service was nothing more than draft-dodging.

As an avid reader and an armchair historian, I’m not asking that Bush be painted in a favorable light. However, the unfavorable and negative light in which Mann consistently portrays Bush made this so-called biography seem more like tabloid journalism. Just give us an unbiased picture.

For example, at the beginning of chapter two it is noted how Bush put down his beer bottles and took up his Bible. Mann explains this change of lifestyle by stating, “A fuller explanation would be that George W. gave up drinking and took up evangelical religion at a time when his father was preparing to run for president” (21). Likewise, the money W. made with Arbusto and with the Texas Rangers was made off of the backs of others. Such editorial comments reveal an author who begrudges someone else’s wealth and who resents that Bush should be afforded those opportunities. Or, perhaps it is just a resentment that is personal. If so, why have Mann write this volume? Perhaps the general editor, Arthur Schlesinger, set him up for failure with this venture.

Mann summarizes Bush’s time as the governor of Texas: “Politically, the details of Bush’s performance as governor did not matter all that much. His name was Bush and he was the Republican governor of the nation’s second-largest state” (31). George W. was handed Texas which would make him a shoe-in for POTUS. Even though Gore won the popular vote, Bush would become the 43rd Commander-in-Chief. Mann notes that Bush “derived the impression that he did not need to have any deep grasp of policy or of history because he could rely heavily on his advisors, including, above all, his father’s advisors. Bush had done little more during the campaign than to come up with some phrases or brushstrokes for what he might do in office” (41).

His presidency? Nothing but failure ad nauseam. Mostly the book was a failure. ( )
  amramey | Jun 22, 2015 |
Now that the hubbub has calmed a bit, it is time for the historians to begin to analyse the Presidency of Bush '43. Attempting to strike a fair balance, James Mann acknowledges that many things that impacted the Bush years were outside of Mr. Bush's control, Mann nevertheless argues that Bush will still go down as a poor president. Once again we get the analysis that though "W" is an honorable man, he just wasn't quite up to the job. The author describes a beginning that seemed to describe the expected 8 years to be calm, almost dull. Big changes weren't expected and the world was a fine place. And then along came 9/11 which changed everything. Left unsaid and un-analysed is if things were so good in 2000, how did Bush '43 get elected, and shouldn't Gore have been a shoo-in?
James Mann has done a serviceable job but there is still much to be learned. Future historians ought not to be lacking for source material with all the books that have already been written. ( )
1 vote DeaconBernie | Apr 8, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A little disappointed in the lack of brevity of this book. I had been hoping for a more detailed biography of George W. Bush. I would recommend this book only to those interested in a overview of his 8 years as president. ( )
  cweller | Feb 9, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805093974, Hardcover)

The controversial president whose time in office was defined by the September 11 attacks and the war on terror

George W. Bush stirred powerful feelings on both sides of the aisle. Republicans viewed him as a resolute leader who guided America through the September 11 attacks and retaliated in Afghanistan and Iraq, while Democrats saw him as an overmatched president who led America into two inconclusive wars that sapped the nation’s resources and diminished its stature. When Bush left office amid a growing financial crisis, both parties were eager to move on.

In this assessment of the nation’s forty-third president, James Mann sheds light on why George W. Bush made the decisions that shaped his presidency, what went wrong, and how the internal debates and fissures within his administration played out in such a charged atmosphere. He shows how and why Bush became such a polarizing figure in both domestic and foreign affairs, and he examines the origins and enduring impact of Bush’s most consequential actions—including Iraq, the tax cuts, and the war on terror. In this way, Mann points the way to a more complete understanding of George W. Bush and his times.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:41 -0400)

A biography of the controversial president whose time in office was defined by the September 11 attacks and the War on Terrorism.

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