A review of Bush at War, by Bob Woodward and The Right Man, by David Frum

In the same week in January, both the Weekly Standard and the New York Times Magazine ran long features about President George W. Bush. The Standard's David Gelernter made the case that the closest parallel for Bush is John F. Kennedy, another man of slight political background who (barely) made it to the White House mostly because of his father. Bush is plainly possessed of better character than JFK, but like Kennedy, Bush has the opportunity to "change the mood" of the nation if he will seize the moment with JFK-like determination and style.

Bill Keller of the New York Times advanced the thesis that Bush is Reagan Redux: "We seem to be witnessing the third term of the Reagan presidency; at this rate we may well see the fourth." This is obvious cause for alarm at the Times, which has become, under the unhinged editorship of Howell Raines, the de facto daily bulletin of the Democratic Party. The depth of the Times's panic can be judged by the fact that it is now willing to say such nice things about Reagan as a backhanded way of denigrating Bush. Unlike Bush, Keller says, "Reagan's principles were developed over decades and fortified by a selective but extensive reading of history…. [Reagan] arrived at the White House pretty much a finished product." This, from the same people who never tired of referring to Reagan as the "three-by-five card candidate" who never read any books, not to mention endlessly recycling Clark Clifford's dismissal of Reagan as an "amiable dunce."

In the case of George W. Bush the metamorphosis from dunce to deceptively capable leader is under way in the midst of his first term, aided, needless to say, by the sharp focus of the aftermath of September 11. David Frum's The Right Man and Bob Woodward's Bush at War deliver similar insights into Bush even though the books are radically different in their style and point of view. Frum's offers a first-person worm's-eye view from his 18 months in the White House speechwriter's nest, while Woodward has seemingly reconstructed a transcript of every post-9/11 White House meeting through his legendary narcosis-inducing interviewing technique.

Frum came to the White House with large doubts about Bush, stemming in part from his thin pre-presidential résumé, and substantive concerns about Bush's central campaign theme, "compassionate conservatism." He saw an administration that quickly lost momentum on the domestic front after the tax cut passed in the late spring of 2001, though he found encouraging signs of boldness in foreign policy. Then came September 11. Although Bush stumbled a bit in the first hours, Frum thinks he soon found his footing and has proven himself a superb wartime leader.

The media have quoted gleefully and widely Frum's critical comments about Bush: Bush is "tart, not sweet," and "often uncurious and as a result ill-informed; more conventional in his thinking than a leader probably should be." Moreover, "conspicuous intelligence seemed actively unwelcome in the Bush White House." Less noticed are Frum's observations that point to why he concludes Bush is The Right Man. Although Frum doesn't draw the parallel, Bush shares many of Reagan's most important attributes. Both men were highly disciplined. Bush may not have a strong memory, but like Reagan he has imagination, which is more important. (Rote memory is overrated anyway; Reagan had a phenomenal memory, but he sometimes recalled facts that were incomplete or incorrect.) Frum says Bush "was a very unfamiliar type of heavyweight. Words often failed him, his memory sometimes betrayed him, but his vision was large and clear." Vision is of course a dubious and problematic element in American political life, but Bush's understanding of vision is grounded in an instinctive understanding of fundamental American principles. Unlike Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, Bush does not indulge guilt or self-doubt. In a little-noticed line last June in his West Point speech announcing the new doctrine of preemption, Bush said, "Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place."

This could be marked off as a mere contrivance of speechwriters. Yet in an interview with Bob Woodward at his Texas ranch, Bush comes close to echoing Lincoln's understanding of the universal promise of American principles: 

There is a value-system that cannot be compromised—God-given values. These aren't United States-created values. They are values of freedom and the human condition and mothers loving their children. What's very important as we articulate foreign policy through our diplomacy and military action is that we never look like we are creating—we are the author of these values.

To be sure, this is not exactly as Lincoln or Jefferson would put it, but it's certainly better than what we have come to expect even from many conservative intellectuals, much less practicing politicians. Bush gets it.

It is less clear, however, whether Woodward gets it. His narrative expresses the frustratingly iterative quality of the post-9/11 deliberations, which led Angelo Codevilla in these pages to conclude that Bush and his war cabinet are dangerously confused (see "Confusion and Power," Spring 2003). Perhaps so, though it is doubtful this conclusion can be sustained without knowing the ellipses in Woodward's account, of which there are surely many.

Aside from doubts about the completeness and accuracy of Woodward's narrative, there is ample reason to doubt whether Woodward is an adequate analyst of the unfolding scene. Early in the book there is a sentence that begins, "When the Supreme Court declared Bush the winner by 537 votes in the Florida saga…." Hold it right there. The Supreme Court "declared" no such thing, and such a crudity raises a question about what other sloppy mischaracterizations may be present in Woodward's account.

Bush at War is well worth reading, however, because it complements Frum's assessment of Bush's strengths in ways that suggest Bush is far from confused about how to lead. As in Frum's account, the Bush that emerges from Woodward's pages acts from instinct and is highly disciplined. He sees provoking his aides and appointees as a key task; he declared "unacceptable" the limited options and long timetable for action that the military first presented him after September 11. For all the difficulty of responding to the attacks, here and there Bush displays real insight into what is required of a president. Barely a week after the attack, Bush understood that the pro-American sympathy in the world would prove evanescent: "Two years from now only the Brits may be with us."

Bush admires Churchill, so when Bush told Woodward "It is impossible in war to get everything perfect," he was perhaps echoing Churchill's wartime maxim, "'Nothing avails but perfection' may be spelt shorter, 'Paralysis.'" Frum and Woodward both notice a pattern in Bush's management of conflicting advice from competing factions among his senior advisers: he doesn't commit himself to a course of action until he has to, often allowing competing policy ideas to be developed in tandem until the last minute. Another of Churchill's maxims was "There is great wisdom in reserving one's decisions as long as possible and until all the facts and forces that will be potent at the moment are revealed."

In addition to many revealing details about Bush, there are some telling details about the other major players in Washington. While most attention is paid to Condi Rice, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and the rest of the inner circle, one vignette about the Democrats stands out. When Bush met with congressional leaders on September 12, Senator Tom Daschle cautioned Bush about his rhetoric, saying "war is a powerful word" (and therefore should not be used) and Senator Robert Byrd, the leading buffoon of Capitol Hill, lectured Bush that he should not expect a Tonkin Gulf-style "blank check" to conduct war. One can imagine the egregious Byrd warning Franklin Roosevelt not to overreact to Pearl Harbor or get too worked up about that diminutive Hitler fellow. The episode reminds us that, whatever may be the shortcomings of the Bush war plan, the Democrats would not make any kind of war at all.

Hence we return to and affirm Frum's concluding judgment about Bush: he was "hardly the obvious man for the job. But by a very strange fate, he turned out to be, of all unlikely things, the right man."