A popular rant among book critics is that autobiographies are acts of vengeance in which the writer gets to publicly strike back at his enemies for eternity.
There's something to that, but in recent years, autobiographies by public figures have increasingly become exercises in damage control. The people who write them are presumably controversial enough to merit a book contract, and sufficiently motivated by the indignities of having been misunderstood to rehash for the public things that they may prefer, remain well, unhashed.
President George W. Bush's new book, Decision Points, falls into the damage control category -- vindictiveness being more a Nixon-Carter trait than a Bush one -- and will serve as the cornerstone of the never-ending battle to write history.
One of the realities of crisis management is that timing matters more that strategy, and timing is on Bush's side with his book's release. Despite the fabled power of Bush's PR team to control public opinion, he left office despised to seismic degrees not felt since Nixon did his tortured salute when he boarded Marine One for the last time.
For Bush, the dividend of being a near-universal target of wrath is that there's nowhere else to go but up. There are qualities about "43" that come through in his book, which would have landed with a Mission Accomplished-y splat had it been published during President Obama's two-year canonization.
For one thing, Bush reminds us in Decision Points that he is not a man of Jeffersonian brilliance, a perverse endearment that contrasts starkly with Obama's divinity. It's a tonal thing with Bush, not an explicit declaration or specific revelation.
That a middling student led the country during exceptional times makes the book all the more interesting given that his successor, who was declared Lincoln 2.0 before even being sworn in, is having such a tough go of it lately.
Americans have a complicated relationship with exceptionality: We are transfixed by it, wanting it for ourselves, but secretly pray for its failure in others. If somebody's going to think he's better than we are, we want to see that magic working, pronto. In this regard, Obama's radiance has betrayed him lately. If you rise by juju, you fall by juju when you fail to pull silver dollars from children's ears.
When someone without the pretense of greatness, however, confirms that he is exactly who we thought him to be -- he can merchandize his actions more credibly as having done his best given the circumstances. We are more likely to give Mr. Normal credit for the good things that happened on his watch and less likely to hold him responsible for failing to work miracles.
Obama promised us morning in America, and indeed we've got it, but with a scorching hangover. This is true even if the core events were not of his making.
Bush's everyman appeal is the source of what moral authority he had -- and still has in some places. Somehow, as the conversational, warm and sometimes even funny, tone of Decision Points underscores, he emerged from Rooseveltian blueblood society with Truman's horse sense.
Some will still contend that Bush's nickel-word use is further proof that he's dumber than dog dirt, but the legend of Republican imbecility has been the GOP's secret weapon since Lincoln's heyday. That's right, the campaign literature of the times labeled Lincoln a moron, too.
Still, the best damage control efforts will fail to change the minds of dug-in opponents, but no seasoned spin doctor ever believes that's the real goal. The aim of crisis management is to beat back your enemies and rally your friends. To this end, Bush's take on the Iraq war will be cold comfort to the war's opponents who will view his take on the failure to find weapons of mass destruction as little more than a Homer Simpson-esque "D'oh!" But the former president may also assure the families of those who lost loved ones that it was not a meaningless struggle.
Bush is "shocked," "angry" and stricken by "sickening" feelings over the WMD debacle, but believes the world is better off without Saddam Hussein's regime. Which will we focus on, the wrongheaded catalyst of the conflict or the long-term result? The answer will depend upon events and the politics you brought to the debate in the first place, not rhetoric.
On Katrina, one senses that Bush knew how far he could push the counter-narrative. On one hand, he is outraged by the characterization that the government's anemic response was motivated by race. On the other, he acknowledges his obliviousness to the symbolism surrounding the disaster (flying over New Orleans but never landing), but doesn't prattle on about force majeure.
Bush will win points for tweaking the Auric Goldfinger of his administration, Vice President Dick Cheney. Bush commuted the prison sentence of Cheney aide Scooter Libby to a $250,000 fine and probation, but declined to pardon him. Cheney was furious and, after years of being portrayed as the vice president's sock puppet, the reader is left with a feeling that Bush may have shut the door of the Oval Office and shouted "Booyah!"
Spin has its limitations, and nobody knows this better than Bush. Since leaving office, he has been quiet, and one is left with the impression this is due to some combination of Bush family omerta and a genuine abhorrence of public life, an odd quality for a guy who made it to the top of the public life heap.
Iraq will be Bush's main legacy whether he wants it or not. We will be paying for it in multiple currencies for generations regardless of what he says.
The causes of the financial meltdown have barely begun to be debated, but it will be impossible to read about this minefield of an economic era without detonating on the name Bush.
Contrary to our culture's alchemic belief in the power of spin doctors, the truth is that one has limited power over how they are perceived. The more you try to shuck and jive away your nature (think Nixon walking on the beach in wingtip shoes trying to be more Kennedy-esque) or the toe-stub of reality ("heckuva job Brownie"), the harder the culture laughs. Or cries.
The best of Bush's not-so-great options was to use his autobiography to certify who he is, and who we already knew him to be. Period.
This would not have worked amidst the narcotic vapors of Hope and Change. But the rip of the political current allowed Bush this thaw to plant the seeds of the history he helped make.
As Abraham Lincoln said, "For people who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like."
Or, as Bush himself might say, "Or not."