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Bush Releases Memoir: ‘He Knows the Historians Are Coming’

November 9, 2010 at 8:11 PM EST
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In his new memoir "Decision Points," former President George W. Bush explains some of the tough decisions he made while in office, including how he dealt with 9/11, the lack of weapons of mass destruction and Hurricane Katrina. Historians Michael Beschloss and Julian Zelizer give perspective on presidential memoirs.
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JIM LEHRER: Today marks the official release of “Decision Points,” former President George W. Bush’s memoir about his major decisions as president and in his personal life.

Since leaving the White House nearly two years ago, Mr. Bush has largely kept out of the public eye. But, with the release of his memoir, the former president has reemerged on the national stage just as Republicans stage a resurgence in the Congress.

The media blitz to promote the book kicked off last night in an interview with Matt Lauer of NBC News. The interview, like the book, focused on key decisions Mr. Bush made as president and in his personal life, among them, a defining moment of his presidency, his remarks at Ground Zero in New York City in the days just after the September 11 attack.

GEORGE W. BUSH, Former President of the United States: But, I mean, it was like you’re walking into hell. And I got down to the bottom of the area there, and there was a palpable sense of revenge and anger. And — and, you know, I’m — I am trying to be the comforter. And these guys are looking at me like, are you going to go get these guys or not?

MATT LAUER, co-host, “The Today Show”: They’re calling you George.

GEORGE W. BUSH: That’s right. It was just fine. I mean it…

MATT LAUER: Yes. Not Mr. President. George.

GEORGE W. BUSH: It was George. “Kill them, George,” you know?

And I believe in justice, not revenge. And I was — overwhelmed by the — you know, the palpable anger and emotion.

MAN: We can’t hear you.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I can hear you.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GEORGE W. BUSH: I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people…

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GEORGE W. BUSH: And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JIM LEHRER: In the pursuit of al-Qaida, Mr. Bush authorized water-boarding captured suspects like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of 9/11. He told Lauer that it saved lives.

GEORGE W. BUSH: They say, he’s got information. I said, find out what he knows. And so I said to our team, are the techniques legal? And a legal team says, yes, they are. And I said use them.

JIM LEHRER: The former president also stood by his decision to invade Iraq, even though the U.S. failed to find weapons of mass destruction. It had been the main rationale he cited for going to war.

MATT LAUER: Your words: “No one was more sickened or angry than I was when we didn’t find weapons of mass destruction.”

You still have a sickening feeling –

GEORGE W. BUSH: I do.

MATT LAUER: … when you think about it.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I do.

MATT LAUER: Was there ever any consideration of apologizing to the American people?

GEORGE W. BUSH: I mean, apologizing would basically say the decision was a wrong decision. And I don’t believe it was the wrong decision.

JIM LEHRER: But he did admit fault for this announcement aboard the aircraft carrier U.S. Abraham Lincoln in May of 2003.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. And I also went on to say, there’s more difficult work ahead. The problem is…

MATT LAUER: But you stood under that banner, and it sent a very strong message.

GEORGE W. BUSH: No question.

MATT LAUER: Mission accomplished.

GEORGE W. BUSH: No question it was a mistake. And I say so…

MATT LAUER: And it’s one of those times where you used — your words were used against you over and over again.

GEORGE W. BUSH: No, and that happens when you’re president. It’s…

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Bush also acknowledged the storm of criticism he faced after Hurricane Katrina. It included his decision to fly over New Orleans in Air Force One, without landing.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Huge mistake.

MATT LAUER: And it made you look so out of touch.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Detached and uncaring, no question about it. And…

MATT LAUER: Whose fault was it?

GEORGE W. BUSH: It’s always my fault.

JIM LEHRER: The memoir also includes the disclosure that Mr. Bush briefly considered replacing Vice President Cheney before his reelection bid in 2004.

The book publicity campaign is now in full swing, including a taped appearance on “Oprah” this afternoon, and a series of print, radio and television interviews in the coming days.

And to Julian Zelizer, editor of the book “The Presidency of GEORGE W. BUSH: A First Historical Assessment” and a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, and a “NewsHour” regular presidential historian, Michael Beschloss.

Julian Zelizer, to begin, are there some — some important things about George W. Bush that were not known until this book was published?

JULIAN ZELIZER, Editor, “The Presidency of GEORGE W. BUSH: A First Historical Assessment”: Well, we learned a little.

We hear about some of the regrets that he had about his presidency, how he handled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some discussion of the WMDs that were not found in Iraq, and some acknowledgment by the president that this was, you know, unfortunate and saddened him.

But, in general, this is the same President Bush who we heard when he left office. He defends much of his record, and he’s pretty resolute about the decisions that he made.

JIM LEHRER: What about the — the consideration that he gave to dropping Dick Cheney from the ticket in 2004?

JULIAN ZELIZER: Yes. Of all the facts, this is one we didn’t know about, that there was some discussion and consideration of replacing Vice President Cheney with Senator Bill Frist to be the vice presidential candidate.

Part of the reason he wanted to do it was to demonstrate to the public that he was, in fact, in charge of the White House and that Vice President Cheney didn’t run the show behind the scenes. So, this is a revelation. Again, it’s not uncommon for people to talk about changes in the tickets behind the scenes, but it still is some news.

JIM LEHRER: But there were — there were a lot of things quote believed about George W. Bush, that he wasn’t as sharp as — as presidents ought to be, that — that he really wasn’t in charge at the White House.

Based on your own research, and now overlaying what George W. Bush himself has said, where do those — how do those myths stand up?

JULIAN ZELIZER: Yes, I don’t agree with that. I think, the more we learn from journalists and from historians about what went on in the White House, and from what we’re learning about people who left the administration, most don’t agree with that assessment.

Whether you disagree or agree with his policies, this is someone who is intelligent and who was capable and who could be politically skillful at various times. I imagine there will be a bit of a revision, like you had with Ronald Reagan, who originally was thought to be not very intelligent, more an actor than a policy-maker. But the more we learned, we learned there was someone pretty cunning in the White House.

JIM LEHRER: As a George W. Bush expert, what is your reading of what his motivation was for writing this book and the way he wrote it?

JULIAN ZELIZER: Well, I do think, like many presidents, he wants to get a first cut of the history. He knows that historians are coming.

He knows that the historians are going to start investigating what went on. I think this is his effort to offer a defense and an explanation of what he did during his administration. And even on controversial issues like Iraq, where he acknowledges his regrets, he still stands by the decision. So, this is his kind of last argument before the historians start the debate.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of the historians, Michael, how does the Bush book fit into the normal mold of presidential memoirs?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: Well, I should begin by saying I haven’t read it yet.

But, usually, they’re pretty awful. So, he has a pretty low bar to jump over — case in point, Lyndon Johnson. Johnson in private was fascinating, candid. And he begins his book, for instance, by saying, “My last meeting with John Kennedy was in the Rice Hotel the night before John Kennedy was assassinated.”

JIM LEHRER: It’s in Houston, yes.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And I saw an early version. And he says: “I was talking to Kennedy. And I kept on noticing that Kennedy was wearing his boxer shorts and his shirt. And I noticed that that was true. And that was so different from in Texas, because, in Texas, you’re supposed to put on your trousers first to cover up the boxer shorts,” not momentous…

JIM LEHRER: No.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: … but it sounds like Johnson, sounds like a human being. That book did not.

Very defensive, almost robotically, it suggested that Kennedy would have done everything that Johnson did in Vietnam, and it suggested almost everything he did in Vietnam was perfect. Didn’t help him.

Other end of the scale was, Ulysses Grant, one of the…

JIM LEHRER: That’s considered one of the best, right?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes, one of the worst presidents, but a great writer of memoirs, finished four days before he died.

And it’s good because — and it’s about his war years. It’s not about his presidency. He wrote it himself, sounds like him. He talks about a great record as general during the Civil War. And, also, people began to say, there’s something to Grant that is a lot more intelligent. There’s an inner life there that we didn’t know about.

JIM LEHRER: The other president who gets good credit, or high credit, high grades for his memoir is Harry Truman. Do you buy that?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I don’t.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I know that some people think that.

That was written by committee. And I guess the reason I don’t like it that much is because, if Truman actually wrote a book, you know the way that Truman talked and told these stories and fascinating insights about all the people like Stalin, others he dealt with — this book was written almost by committee, not quite as bad as Johnson’s.

But it shows the same problem, which is that presidents are very tempted when they’re writing these things to write essentially a defensive brief for their place in history.

And maybe it helps. I don’t think it very often does. But it certainly doesn’t make a very good book.

JIM LEHRER: Is — the Bush — you heard what Professor Zelizer said…

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I did.

JIM LEHRER: … what his reading is as to why he wrote the book. Those are the same reasons for any president to do it, right?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: They all do. You’re almost shocked if a president doesn’t do this.

But the interesting thing is, he took after his father. His father, when he was no longer president, didn’t write a presidential memoir. He wrote a book about foreign policy at the end of the Cold War that he was involved in.

And, so, George W. Bush, rather than writing about every single thing he did over eight years, he chose the terrain. This is “Decision Points.” And, in a way, that plays to a president’s favor, because he can talk about the things he wants to.

JIM LEHRER: You know, Professor Zelizer, Matt Lauer, in that interview with NBC, President Bush said, whether or not he was going to be seen as successful by historians, he will be dead by the time that judgment comes.

Is that — is that the way these things should be seen, that the first take from the president, and whether it’s President Bush or any other president, is just the beginning of this long process that it’s going to take before the final version or the final history is written and verdict is given?

JULIAN ZELIZER: Well, I would disagree only in that there really never is a final verdict.

First of all, the historians have already started to write about him. And what will happen is, there will be multiple interpretations. There will be cycles of when people are negative or — about his policies, when they see more accomplishments than we noticed at the time.

You know, a president like Ronald Reagan has gone through many ups and downs in terms of how we view his character, his skills, and the record and legacy of his policies. So — so, it’s an unending debate that is about to start. And I don’t think there will be any point in time where anyone issues a verdict. And I think that’s a healthy way to treat a presidency.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s true of all presidents, right, Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It sure is. I agree with Julian about Reagan. And Reagan is a perfect example of an absolutely dreadful book. It was so bad that the publisher actually considered rejecting the manuscript and asking for their money back.

Reagan essentially presided over a process that had this book written almost out of things that he had said before. And there was actually a huge debate during the writing of the book whether he would be required to mention the actual name of his first wife, Jane Wyman. And, finally, they made a compromise. I think she was mentioned at least once.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes. Is there — is there another example of a really bad, really bad presidential memoir?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: How long have we got, Jim?

(LAUGHTER)

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Dwight Eisenhower, who once again almost wrote as good a book as Ulysses Grant about his war years, wrote it himself, wrote it in six weeks, “Crusade in Europe,” huge bestseller. You hear Eisenhower’s voice through the whole thing.

His presidential memoirs were done, once again, by committee. They were just essentially defending almost everything he ever did.

John Kennedy, when he was president, read the memoirs. And he said: “Well, Ike doesn’t seem to have ever done anything wrong during his whole presidency. When I write my memoirs, I’m going to do it very differently.”

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Of course, he didn’t get to.

JIM LEHRER: Certainly. Certainly. OK, Michael, Professor Zelizer, thank you both very much.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Thanks.

JULIAN ZELIZER: Thank you.