On Top of the World



By: Jean Edward Smith

Smith received an A.B. from Princeton University in 1954. Smith mentored under law professor and political scientist William M. Beaney. In 1964, he received a P.H.D. from the Department of Public Law and Government of Columbia University.

The Decider or the Decimator

By: Amy Vandyken

By the time George W. Bush left office in 2009, the average American characterized his term as one of recession, terror, and war-mongering. This seems, and was, far from W’s original four-pronged goal of domestic change—education, juvenile justice, welfare reform, and tort reform. In his book, Bush, Jean Edward Smith delves into how Bush’s upbringing, religious beliefs, and desire to be “The Decider”, all contributed to his tumultuous two terms as President.1

Smith starts his piece with a chapter titled “The Wilderness Years,” which details Bush’s early childhood and teenage years. Both of the senior Bushes had attended Yale, and had privy to its secret, exclusive society, “Skull and Bones.” George H.W. Bush, also known as “Poppy,” married Barbara Bush and together they had five children —George W. (“W”), Jeb, Neil, Marvin, and Dorothy. From the start, George W. had social acceptance, but relied more on his good-looks and exuberant personality than his athleticism or academic prowess. This continued into high school, when he was sent to attend Andover, a prestigious all-male boarding school. At Andover, one of the world’s leading preparatory schools, George W. faltered under the pressure of academic rigor and uptight classmates. On reflection, W would say that his attendance at Andover was “the hardest thing I did until I ran for President almost forty years later.”2 And here, Smith makes the conscious effort to point out the parallels between George’s ascent up the social hierarchy of Andover and his later presidential campaign. His fellow classmates came to accept W Bush, as they warmed up to his chutzpah, audacity, and general goofiness—a change from the tedious prep-school atmosphere. Bush ascended to become Head Cheerleader at Andover, a position similar to being ASB President. Smith uses this detail to foreshadow Bush’s eventual Presidency—he explains how Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Regan, and Franklin Roosevelt were also head cheerleaders at their respective colleges. However, he was still incompetent at other aspects of school. Graduating near the bottom of his class in 1964, W’s admission into any college appeared skeptical... except for the fact that he had a “legacy advantage” at Yale.3 Since both his grandfather and father had attended Yale and been prominent students, W “assumed he was entitled to admission,” and he was right.4 As Smith chronicles these events, several connections are made between Bush’s teen years and his presidency, with emphasis placed on how he used his powerful personality to distract from all his shortcomings.

Overall, Bush had no real direction or expectations placed on him after he left Yale—except that he not embarrass his father, who had just been elected to Congress and was a staunch supporter of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. George W. Bush realized that his service would be inevitable. Smith comments that “the record of George W.’s military service is murky and controversial,” adding that it appeared as if W had, again, received preferential treatment, as he was admitted to the Texas Air National Guard and would not have to be deployed to Vietnam.5 In the Texas Guard, Bush was instilled into the 147th Fighter Group, widely considered as a “champagne unit” because its members consisted of the privilege sons of those in power.6 After completing six weeks of basic training, the Air Force Base discharged Bush as an enlisted man in the Air Guard and recommended him for a direct commission as second lieutenant slotted for flight training.

Although the route W. Bush took into the air force was far from fair, he proved himself capable and mastered the various jet fighters, becoming an accomplished pilot. Afterwards, W. Bush enrolled at Harvard to study business, and again, found himself at the bottom of the academic bell curve. His professor, Yoshi Tsurumi, remembered Bush as “exceptionally opinionated” but in a way that “came across as totally lacking in compassion, with no sense of history.”7 This portends his political decisions—they were made with little to no true authentication. Because of Bush’s lack of tactful business management, his record at Harvard was lackluster, and he struggled finding a job, eventually resigning himself to the oil business. While building his business, an unexpected political opportunity arose—a congress seat was vacated. To the surprise of his friends and family, Bush decided to run for the open position. He believed that he was a “seasoned political operative” as he had worked on his father’s three previous campaigns, and now wanted to partake in political affairs on his own behalf.8 Although Bush won the Republican primary, he lost in the general election. He accepted his defeat graciously, stating that “getting whipped was a pretty good thing for me” as he discovered that he could accept defeat and move on.9

Now that Bush had had a taste of the political sphere and the campaign trail, he decided to expand his range of influence. He concentrated his efforts on purchasing the Texas Rangers and winning the position of Texas Governor. After his father, now President H.W. Bush, lost his re election in 1990, W. Bush’s political path opened up—he was no longer “riding his father’s coattails.”10 Subsequently, he ran for governor in Texas in 1995 and stressed an agenda focused on educational changes, justice for juvenile criminal offenders, welfare reform, and tort reform. As Smith notes, these policies reflect his later rallying points in his Presidential race. Historians commonly refer to Bush’s victory over then-Texan governor Ann Richards as a “not-loss” rather than a “win,” as it was Richard’s muted campaign that gave Bush the sweep, not necessarily Bush’s qualifications or political prowess.11 As governor, Bush played a minimal role, but through no fault of his own; the governor position in Texas was equivalent to that of an English monarch—mostly ceremonial. However, Bush at least attempted to defy this set standard, and succeeded to some degree. The 74th legislature that occurred during his term was “the most productive in the history of Texas”, as better schools, tougher criminal laws, and a reformed welfare system resulted from it.12

His continued political success prompted his desire to run for U.S. President in 2000. The Bush family contributed their support and funded W to enter the Republican primary. His main opponent was John McCain, and after fierce battling in New Hampshire, Bush dived into “dirty politics,” appealing to voters in the major swing state of South Carolina with thinly veiled homophobic and racist remarks.13 He also endorsed thousands of letters, billboards, and emails slandering McCain and bought up all the available TV time in the State. These tactics proved successful, as Bush clinched the Republican primary over McCain. He would later claim victory in the controversial recount over Democratic Vice-President Al Gore. Bush was the President of the United States.

As President, George W. Bush and his subordinates saw him as the “Decider.” The Department of Defense, Education, Security, and State seemingly lost all their power and the White House bureaucracy seemed to gain it. For example, the “No Child Left Behind Act” was drafted without consulting the Department of Education, and Bush himself pushed it through Congress. And it was Bush who was traversing the United States making speeches supporting the act when he received tragic news—there had been a terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and another one on the Pentagon. His initial reaction displayed his overall attitude towards terrorism; as he riled up the American people instead of reassuring them. As the dust settled from the attack, the US identified the apparent culprits—Al-Qaeda and, according to the Bush administration, Saddam Hussein. The latter was accused based on flimsy allegations, such as “Al-Qaeda sent members to be trained with WMDs [weapons of mass destruction] in Iraq.”14 Bush’s rhetoric when discussing the situation with Hussein’s Iraq, seen in speeches like the “Axis of Evil” State of the Union, made it clear that he was determined to wage war. This resolve would evolve into Bush’s “preemption plan”—to strike first before another attack occurred. Bush disregarded numerous CIA reports and even the 9/11 Commission’s verdict about Iraqi innocence, and declared war on Iraq in 2003. After the invasion of Iraq, execution of Hussein, and occupation by US troops, the war continued to drag on for more than ten years, as the US faced difficulties with insurgents and civil conflicts. Smith points a finger at Bush for these happenings, as he had not heeded the rest of the US government’s advice about the power vacuum and disarray Hussein’s death would create. The disarray bubbled over as the UN refused to help the US restore order, Iraq was found to be uninvolved with Al-Qaeda, and the American people’s support waned. Bush’s rationale for war, based on falsified information, faced heavy criticism from US citizens, and this solidified Bush’s reputation as a warmonger abusing presidential powers.

Smith’s thesis in Bush exhibits how George W. Bush’s upbringing, religious beliefs, and personality caused him to take his own Presidency into the downward spiral of failure. A hefty portion of the text is devoted to Bush’s adolescent years, and Smith does this to demonstrate how Bush had always had a domineering streak. An example can be seen in quotes such as “Once again, it was the personalization of presidential power.” Smith also focuses on Bush’s deep devotion to Christ and how he was “the most openly religious president in generations.”15 His faith influenced Bush many times during his presidency, specifically when rallying the American people against al Qaeda. And lastly, Bush’s imperious personality recurs throughout Smith’s entire work. Once he was in a position of power, he dominated all his subordinates as seen in how “none of the congressional leaders objected; if they had misgivings they kept them to themselves.”16 These instances of Bush’s extreme influence over his Cabinet and administration demonstrates how he deserves the blame for his own failure.

Jean Edward Smith is currently viewed as one of the most prominent American historians. He was mentored by a distinguished constitutional law professor, and gained extensive knowledge in that particular field. Later, he joined the army and served as captain and second lieutenant. He also obtained a PhD from Columbia University on Public Law and Government. All of these experiences contributed to how he could evaluate George W. Bush’s presidency from a legislative perspective and not be swayed by Bush’s leftist or rightist ways—instead by his characteristics. For example, by having served in the military, Smith saw through Bush’s apparent “service” as a “fad that was orchestrated by his privileged connections.”16 He also used his degree in public law to assess the validity of Bush’s many executive decisions. Smith wrote several other biographies on presidents, such as Grant and Eisenhower, demonstrating his wide experience with appraising presidents. For these biographies, and Bush, Smith was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

There was a gap of seven years between Bush’s last term and the publication of the biography. Although the typical time for a truly objective analysis of a historical period is twenty years, Bush still stands as a reliable evaluative work. Smith addresses how the American people’s consensus about Bush centers on how “he ruined the economy and dragged the US into a war”, yet still provides basis for the good laws and acts that were passed (No Child Left Behind, Job Creation and Worker Assistance Act).17 So although the post-Bush presidency time period was marred by anti-Bush feelings, Smith remained as unpartisan as he could be, while maintaining accuracy.

In his article ‘Bush,’ A Biography As A Scathing Indictment, Peter Baker asserts that Jean Edwards Smith was not sympathetic to Bush at all in his work, as he included searing verdicts of all the places where he believed Bush went off track. Furthermore, Baker views Bush as similar to the conventional assessment of Bush, presenting him as driven by religiosity and immune to the advice of people “who knew what they were talking about.”18 Baker brings up how Smith sides unmistakably with those who view Mr. Bush’s presidency in the darkest hues, and extracts these examples from the book as evidence: “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush”19 and “Whether George W. Bush was the worst president in American history will be long debated, but his decision to invade Iraq is easily the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.”20 Baker believes that although Jean Edward Smith does not provide any new insight about Bush, his biography is still a thorough interpretation of the existing record.

Jason Zengerle, a writer at the New York Times, claims in his book review “A New Biography Says George W. Bush Really Was the Decider,” that Jean Edward Smith reminds the American people about all of Bush’s shortcomings and seeks to cure them of their “political amnesia.”21 Zengerle defines this so-called “amnesia” as when the common person begins feeling nostalgia for the past, and memories of the disastrous Iraq War fade. Once again, Bush’s personality is magnetizing, drawing people into his control. Zengerle believes that Smith effectively analyzes how Bush’s relationships and upbringing influenced his decision making as President, while also sending a warning caution about having a “Decider” as President.

On the topic of George W. Bush, it appears as if he was too enamored with his own personal situation to be able to manage and go about his presidency effectively. The justifications he made in attacking Iraq for harboring “weapons of mass destruction” were contemptible, as US attacks killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, and it was revealed that these WMDS did not actually exist.22 His eagerness for war, battle, or conflict of any kind was also disconcerting, as a true leader typically does everything in their power to avoid war. Bush epitomizes this belief, with Smith criticizing Bush’s actions, while remaining objective concerning Bush’s political party or religion—focusing just on his decisions as President.

Bush reflects the social and political changes about the rise and the fear of terrorism by depicting how easy it was for Bush to gain support for the war on Iraq, even though the evidence, such as the “The Iraqis providing bomb-making expertise and advice to al-Qaeda” he presented was nonexistent or insubstantial.23 Furthermore, Jean Edward Smith also presents a possible theory for why Bush was so adamant about instigating conflict with Iraq and their so-called terrorists—he wanted to cover up the fact that before the 9/11 attacks, he had ignored the warning signs of a incoming terrorist attack and had instead focused on domestic affairs. As the American people did not take note of this occurrence at the time, it just shows how deeply they were blinded by fear and apprehension of terrorism.

In conclusion, Bush effectively demonstrated the common perception of Bush but also provided examples and instances on why this negative perception of him was formulated in the first place. The reader finishes the book with a deep understanding of Bush and how his religion, chutzpah personality, and adamancy to be a “decider” all contributed to the outcome of his presidency.

[1] Smith, Jean Edward. Bush. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016, 3
[2] Smith, Jean Edward. 19
[3] Smith, Jean Edward. 33
[4] Smith, Jean Edward. 87
[5] Smith, Jean Edward. 116
[6] Smith, Jean Edward. 171
[7] Smith, Jean Edward. 182
[8] Smith, Jean Edward. 236
[9] Smith, Jean Edward. 287
[10] Smith, Jean Edward. 336
[11] Smith, Jean Edward. 124
[12] Smith, Jean Edward.. 445
[13] Smith, Jean Edward. 467
[14] Smith, Jean Edward. 232
[15] Smith, Jean Edward. 513
[16] Smith, Jean Edward. 67
[17] Smith, Jean Edward. 103
[18] Smith, Jean Edward. 367
[19] Baker. Peter. “Review: ‘Bush’ a Biography as Scathing Indictment.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 03 July 2016.
[20] Baker. Peter. “Review: ‘Bush’ a Biography as Scathing Indictment.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 03 July 2016.
[21].Zengerle, Jason. “A New Biography Says George W. Bush Really Was the Decider.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 July 2016
[22] Smith, Jean Edward. 489
[23] Smith, Jean Edward. 286