George W. Bush's Decision Points
Tony Blair and George W. Bush both came into office expecting to focus on domestic policy, and both promised in many ways to break away from the ideologies defining their political parties in the past. Blair was the standard bearer for a modernized Labour movement. The slogan “New Labour, New Britain,” coined by his colleague Alastair Campbell, became one of Blair’s most cherished mantras. For Blair, a first step in modernizing the Labour Party was repealing Clause IV of its Constitution, a clause calling for “state ownership of ‘the means of production, distribution, and exchange’” (87). Blair wanted to lead a party and government willing to “be outward-looking, internationalist and committed to free and open trade, not an outdated and misguided narrow nationalism” (101–102).
George Bush saw his own role as reinterpreting some of the Republican Party’s long-held beliefs in the context of a globalized society. On one hand, he argued “The free market provided the fairest way to allocate resources. Lower taxes rewarded hard work and encouraged risk taking, which spurred job creation. Eliminating barriers to trade created new export markets for American producers and more choices for our consumers” (38). On the other hand, he sought to make good on a campaign pledge to reflect the ideals of compassionate conservativism. Bush thus sought to support a host of social service efforts through the establishment of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and educational reforms through the No Child Left Behind Act.
However, as becomes clear in their respective memoirs—A Journey: My Political Life for Blair (Alfred A. Knopf 2010) and Decision Points for Bush (Crown 2010)—domestic policy was not primarily what brought these two individuals together. Instead, international relations and, in particular, what became known as the “War on Terror” forged their relationship. Details concerning the September 11 attacks, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the eventual invasion of Iraq dominate the pages of both these works. While their discussions of these events alone make their memoirs worthwhile reads, the role of each man’s unique religious faith and idealism in their lives makes for fascinating reading, especially when the two memoirs are read side-by-side.
Political memoirs have proven insightful reading for generations of readers. In an effort to cast their stories from their own perspectives, and in a more gracious light, their authors often justify their most important decisions by reframing them in broader terms or by revealing favorable details to which few were privy at the time. The well-known controversies of their presidencies find a central role in the plots of these recollections, but they are often crowded out by less politically charged reminiscing and story-telling. Such revelations help former heads of state move public opinion beyond a single issue that otherwise might define their legacies. In the end, both Bush and Blair use comparable strategies in their own memoirs.
Along these lines, part of what makes Blair’s memoir unique is how he talks about individual human striving. Blair talks about his father striving to move his family into a higher social class (10) and about himself striving to launch his own career as a young man while “pushing and striving and driving” (33). He closes the memoir by observing that what young Israelis and Palestinians most have in common is that “…they are striving for the same fulfillment and chance to do well” (682). At one point, Blair even writes, “…the anxiety, the ambitions that have to be fulfilled, the dreams you know will be dashed, so much striving… That’s the purpose of life: to strive” (565). If Blair’s views on domestic policy seem out of place in the Labour Party, the roots of these beliefs can be traced back to these attitudes, which he describes as his hatred for class but his love for aspiration. While this theme is woven in throughout the course of his book, Blair never fully unpacks what he means by human striving. As a result, we are left to wonder whether this understanding of human striving is akin to a Nietzschean will to power or to his willingness to be one, like Jacob and the people of Israel, who strives with God.
Blair offers a host of details concerning his efforts to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Bush and thus Britain with the United States. He offers that he learned to have a genuine appreciation for Bush as a person, and at one point he goes so far as to refer to Bush as an “idealist” (507)—not a label often used by Americans to describe him. However, Blair’s relationship with Bush appears to have been born of pragmatics as much as anything else. He recognized the United States as the sole superpower amongst any number of possible emerging superpowers such as China, India, and Brazil. As a result, Blair contends “that the alliance between our two nations was a vital strategic interest and, as far as I was concerned, a vital strategic asset for Britain” (400).
Blair’s religious convictions are hardly front and center in this book. For example, no explicit details are offered concerning his eventual conversion to Catholicism. In addition, only scant details appear concerning the establishment of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Yet, several of the most critical matters of international relations with which Blair dealt during his time as Prime Minister were driven, in part or whole, by religious convictions. One needs to look no further than Northern Ireland, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, for prime examples of places where religion played a critical role. Blair is keenly aware of the extent to which human conflict is driven by religious conflict, and he sees the chief opponent in the War on Terror as an extremist ideology that is “… not born of a desire for military domination… [but] born of a world view based on belief in God’s will.” Success in Afghanistan, Blair argues, “… doesn’t begin on the battlefield, it begins in the school. It starts not with talk of military weapons, but with talk of religion.” In the end, he pleads, “We need a religious counter-attack, not just a political or military one” (666).
Those unfamiliar with British politics likely will find Blair’s candid remarks concerning his successor as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to be somewhat surprising. Convinced Brown’s ascendency to Prime Minister would signal an end to New Labour and thus to his vision of New Britain, Blair appeared unwilling to yield leadership. Perhaps Blair’s belief that the purpose of life is striving, led him to succumb to the challenge many leaders face when forced to recognize that the time has come to relinquish the mantle of power.
Just over two months after Blair published A Journey, Bush published Decision Points, a title that indicates an attempt to portray his memoir as outside the stream of presidential memoirs. Bush writes that in contrast to other memoirs, “I have told the story of my time in the White House by focusing on the most important part of the job: making decisions” (xi). While the mechanics of this memoir may be different, the purpose and spirit is quite similar to previous efforts. Bush claims the two purposes of his memoir are to “paint a picture” (xi) of his eight years and to “give readers a perspective on decision making in a complex environment” (xii). Decision Points is thus written in a casual, conversational style. The language is direct and down to earth, much like the language one might use to tell a neighbor a good story while sitting out on the front porch. This language stands in stark contrast to the more sophisticated language found in Blair’s contribution, which seems geared more toward individuals with a keen interest in the details of policy making. One could surmise that the tone and style of the two books seems reflective of the authors’ oral styles.
Of the fourteen chapters in Decision Points, six focus either on the events of September 11, 2001, or the United States’ reaction to those events. When referring to the fact that the United States has not witnessed a terrorist attack since September 11, 2001, Bush contends, “If I had to summarize my most meaningful accomplishment as president in one sentence, that would be it” (181). The other major decisions concern domestic policy decisions or more personal issues like his decisions to quit drinking and to run for public offices or how he built his leadership teams.
While it is no surprise that Bush comes across as a man of strong faith, perhaps the surprise comes in just how often and plainly he refers to his faith as a primary factor and point of influence during his presidency. While he frequently invokes the ideals of freedom and liberty, he also carefully notes why those ideals were so highly valued. In the end, he saw them as in the self-interest of the United States as well as reflections of his fundamental beliefs. For Bush, “The freedom agenda, as I called the fourth prong, was both idealistic and realistic. It was idealistic in that freedom is a universal gift from Almighty God. It was realistic because freedom is the most practical way to protect our country in the long run” (397). In summary, he argues “America’s vital interest and our deepest beliefs are now one” (397).
Both Blair and Bush indicate that they left office with a deep sense that there was considerable work yet to be done. The war in Afghanistan (and arguably Iraq) is still being waged. Blair left office prior to the global recession that emerged in the fall of 2008, and Bush left office just as efforts to stop the bleeding inflicted by that monumental challenge were initiated. Blair now spends much of his time working with his previously mentioned foundation. One outgrowth of these efforts is the partnership he formed with Miroslav Volf to establish the Faith and Globalization Initiative at Yale University. Bush is establishing the George W. Bush Presidential Center on the campus of Southern Methodist University. Historians now have the opportunity to begin coming to terms with the unique legacies left at the intersection of Downing Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.