‘Blindsided’: A President’s Story

W. never sweated the small stuff.

Unfortunately, he didn’t much sweat the big stuff either.

Often the thing the former president was sweating most was, well, sweating — making sure he got in quality time for his cherished workouts.

In his deftly crafted and utterly selective new memoir, W. is the president we all wished him to be: compassionate, bipartisan, funny, charming, instinctive, independent, able to admit and learn from mistakes — and a good dad, who sang his twin girls the Yale fight song as a lullaby.

Heck, after I finished reading it, I was ready to vote for the guy.

The book lacks the vindictive or vaporous tone of many political autobiographies. It’s peppered with endearing personal stories, like the time W. made a Rose Garden speech supporting a Palestinian state and his mother called afterward to ask sarcastically, “How’s the first Jewish president doing?”

But when I look at the sad eyes of President Obama, buried alive with his party beneath the heedless decisions and reckless spending and tax cuts of his predecessor, I snap out of it.

Many presidents go a little loco. Others — even those who insist they want to be transformative and not play “small ball” — fall into periods where they seem strangely disengaged during crises.

It happened to President Obama during the interminable health care battle and intemperate birth of the Tea Party, and again when the BP well gushed.

It happened to W. with Afghanistan, Iraq and Katrina. When they tragically spun out of control on his watch, President Bush was not engaged.

He sometimes treated life-and-death issues like abstractions, not imminent threats, and frequently did not grasp the consequences of his decisions. By the time he got on top of things, many lives had been lost or shattered.

He wasn’t interested in the unglamorous part of decisions, the due diligence required before you plunge into wars that can break the military and expose to our enemies the limits of our power, or the follow-through essential for policies like nation-building in Afghanistan and education reform at home.

The author of “Decision Points” prides himself as The Decider, a man with a great gut and crisp opinions — the opposite of the discursive, deliberative Obama. From the beginning, the prodigal son of the first President Bush was packaged by Karl Rove as the anti-wimp — one hardy hombre. Junior was tougher than his cosmopolitan father, as his White House chief of staff Andy Card asserted, because W. was from West Texas and “his training was dealing with problems on the streets of Laredo or Dallas or Houston or Midland or Austin.”

W. modeled himself on a Western hero and he even walked like a gunslinger, noting that a president has to be the “calcium in the backbone.” Cheney played on this, taunting W. about sacking Saddam. At their weekly lunch, W. writes, “Dick asked me directly, ‘Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?’ ”

Yet for a self-proclaimed man of action, W. was often strangely passive, caught off guard again and again by shocks to America’s reputation and faith in itself.

He was “blindsided” when both his FBI director and his acting attorney general threatened to resign over the legality of the Terrorist Surveillance Program.

He was shocked by the looting and violence that followed the Iraq invasion, though it was widely forecast. He asked Rummy about the light troop levels, then meekly accepted the defense secretary’s tragic insistence that all was well.

W. writes that he was “blindsided” by the “grotesque” Abu Ghraib photos, which he only saw the day they were shown on “60 Minutes II.”

Rummy and Cheney knew how to play W.; when they offered to resign, he was so impressed with their loyalty, he let them stay. Besides, W. writes, “there was no obvious replacement for Don.” How about … anybody?

He was “shocked” that there were no W.M.D., though it should have been an obvious possibility that the proud, decimated Saddam might want to look tough in front of his neighbors. And W. was taken aback by the Iraq insurgency, though when you toss a ruthless ruling class into the street, you should expect a rumble.

When W. could have acted to try to prevent real disasters — Osama’s attack on 9/11, the fiend’s escape at Tora Bora, the financial meltdown — he was oblivious. When he jumped in pre-emptively, as in Iraq, it was because he and Cheney had conjured up fake disasters out of their own paranoia and obsession with proving their toughness.

Yet if W.’s decision-making leaves something to be desired, his story-telling is good. He writes of a visit to Russia, when Putin showed him his black Labrador, Koni. “Bigger, stronger, and faster than Barney,” Putin bragged.

Later, when W. recounted this to Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, Harper drolly noted, “You’re lucky he only showed you his dog.”

Maureen Dowd, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/opinion/07dowd.html