We lay unrealistic demands on our presidents’ shoulders. Give us prosperity and peace, protect us from natural disasters and do it with dignity and grace. And in recent years, with the access we have to them through 24-7 media, we also put them on the psychiatrist’s couch and tie everything from extramarital affairs to wars back to unresolved issues from childhood. None of this is fair, but it is the reality of our time. So when a former president writes a book explaining his key decisions, it invites the kind of scrutiny that includes consideration of temperament and emotional baggage.
George W. Bush has promoted his memoir, “Decision Points,” with interviews on several TV programs, including a Nov. 8 sit-down with NBC’s Matt Lauer. It gave much to chew on for a nation trying to make sense of the tumultuous Bush years.
The former president seemed relaxed and reflective through much of the interview. Repeatedly, he emphasized his refusal to be influenced by approval ratings and public perception. But that vanished when asked about one moment during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that triggered the public’s abandonment of this president. During a telethon to raise money for victims, black hip-hop singer Kanye West said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
Mr. Bush bristled about the racism charge, saying, “I resent it — it’s not true. It’s one of the most disgusting moments of my presidency.” In fact, in his book, he writes of telling wife Laura that it was the worst moment of his presidency.
The flash of anger at being accused of being racist — especially when two of his senior advisors, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, are of African descent — is understandable. But what followed is more revealing. Mr. Lauer suggested the former president may be criticized for pointing to this moment and not the deaths of American troops or the suffering of Katrina’s victims as his worst moment. The petulantly defiant Bush seen in key moments during his presidency returned, and he replied: “Don’t care.”
A truly astonishing statement came when Mr. Bush was asked whether the barrage of criticism about Katrina caused him to be gun-shy about further decisions. “No, not all, because shortly thereafter I made a decision to send more troops to Iraq,” he said, and then chuckled.
Another bombshell is that in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld twice offered to resign. The president refused to accept because “there was no obvious replacement,” an admission of a very limited reach.
Dismissing public perception and approval as irrelevant, then explaining how it influenced his decisions is a theme of the interview.
Unlike like Bill Clinton, who seemed to need public approval, the 43rd president seems to have needed approval from his father. Mr. Bush teared up when talking about letters his father wrote him and about a moment when his father reached to touch his hand after the son spoke at the National Cathedral after 9-11.
On why he ran for president, Mr. Bush cited his father, saying, “I wondered whether I had what it took to get into the arena like he did.” He got in, but history will decide whether we were better for it.