History

The best books on George W Bush

recommended by Jacob Weisberg

The editor-in-chief of Slate Group says what is charming about Bush is his wit and physicality, but he needs to cut people down and does it in a very effective and cruel way. He called Karl Rove "Turdblossom"

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Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is a political journalist, editor-in-chief of Slate Group, a division of The Washington Post Company, and a columnist for the Financial Times. The creator and author of the Bushisms series, Weisberg published The Bush Tragedy in 2008.

Jacob Weisberg on Wikipedia
Jacob Weisberg on Slate

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Tell me about the Schweizer book.

The Schweizers started reporting on the Bush family well before George W decided to run for president, so many family members co-operated with them – because the Schweizers were sympathetic and from a conservative background and the family weren’t as worried in those days about how everything would look and sound. The Schweizers simply had a lot of access and they are very solid reporters and good storytellers. They give a sympathetic version of the story and they have detail and anecdotes that nobody else has.

What kind of thing?

The best one is about 1994 election night when George W was running for governor of Texas and Jeb was running for governor of Florida. The parents were very invested in Jeb winning and very sceptical about the idea of George W as governor. There is a great depiction of the scene at the election night party and George W is on the phone to George H and he’s saying: “Why do you have to be sad for Jeb? Why can’t you be happy for me?”

Tell me about Robert Draper’s book.

Draper is an excellent political reporter steeped in the Texas background of Bush’s political story. He also had access that other reporters didn’t have – he used to work for the Texas Monthly – and this is a chronicle of the Bush presidency. He gets detail that other people weren’t in a position to get and Bush gave him several interviews when he was in office and he spoke much more candidly with him. He is good on vignettes and the book opens with a scene where George W is eating the kind of lunch a ten-year-old might eat, kind of hot dogs and ice-cream or something like that. He captures his cavalier attitude and his impatience with people.

I always thought politicians would be charming with everyone.

He has a lot of bottled-up aggression and hostility, and even when he’s being personable and trying to charm someone you can sense this anger just below the surface – and it very often does come to the surface. Draper is hardly a hostile outsider, there was even talk of him doing an authorised biography at one point, but even here you can sense Bush’s rage often bubbling up. What is charming about Bush is his wit and physicality, his approachability and lack of pretension – but he needs to cut people down and does it in a very effective and cruel way, like demeaning the people close to him with nicknames.

Like what?

He called Karl Rove “Turdblossom”. It’s a Texas flower that grows out of cowshit. The nicknames always show a kind of insight into the person and their weakness and vulnerability. He shows a serious immaturity and he’s famous for his cut -downs and nicknames.

The Bill Minutaglio book.

This is the pre-presidential counterpart to the Draper book. He’s a Texas reporter who covered George Bush’s period as governor. It was one of the first books written about George W and it contains a lot of the most familiar ideas about Bush and the classic family stories. When George was drinking and was basically a bum hanging around in Texas he took his little brother out drinking and then drove him home and drove into some garbage cans. His father came down in his bathrobe and started shouting at him and George W said: “You want to go mano a mano right here?” That story has been reported thousands of times but it comes from here. My view is very much that his latent aggression comes from his relationship with his father. George H was the chosen one of the family – he was an athlete, a war hero, a businessman and was successful in everything that he did. He was the family hero and for George W, the eldest son and sharing his father’s name, it was hard. His career was like a parody of his father’s career. He tried to do everything his father did and failed at all these things. I think his attempt to emulate his father fuelled his drinking and his anger because at some point he decided he couldn’t be like his father. So, that night with the garbage cans, Jeb said: “George hasn’t told you that he’s been accepted to Harvard Business School.” George W said he had no intention of going but he just wanted to prove he could do it without his father’s help. Jeb was younger but he was smart, successful and stable and the family had come to rely on him a lot more. So, when Jeb got ahead the rivalry between the brothers intensified. George W decided to run for governor in part because of Jeb having become the leader of the family.

And the Richard Ben Cramer book?

This is about the 1988 presidential campaign and is one of the great political books. Cramer was a Yale classmate of George H Bush and so had better access again to the family. It’s really about the father, about George H, and George W plays only a small role, but it has very revelatory scenes in it showing how George W was acting out and was the troublemaker and the reckless one, the black sheep, and how the rest of the family dealt with it. In 1986 George H was trying to get his campaign started and it’s about how people reacted to him and about Prescott Bush, his father, and the sense of this political family dynasty. It’s a great read and he tells the story of the rise of George H better than anyone else has ever told it.

I love your last choices, the Shakespeare plays. Why have you chosen those?

Well, they have always been my favourite Shakespeare plays and they are about a family dynasty and the son of the king who is considered too irresponsible to rule but he, Hal, turns it around and becomes king himself and reverses everyone’s low expectations of him. Like Prince Hal, Bush did go from nothing, from having been written off by his family, to doing what nobody in the family thought he was capable of. But then in Henry V, when he is king, he is the most militaristic and the most religious king of all Shakespeare’s kings. It is a patriotic play and he is a triumphant leader but he drains the country’s resources with war. In reality Henry V was a much less successful king than he is Shakespeare’s play. There is a wonderful scene in Henry IV Part I where Hal picks up his father’s crown and is contemplating it. The whole sequence is full of incredible resonances. I suppose the plays are about the problems of dynastic power.

William Hazlitt writes, in his commentary on the plays: “Henry V is a very favourite monarch with the English nation, and he appears to have been also a favourite with Shakespeare, who labours hard to apologize for the actions of the king, by showing us the character of the man, as ‘the king of good fellows’. He scarcely deserves this honour. He was fond of war and low company; we know little else of him. He was careless, dissolute, and ambitious, idle, or doing mischief. In private, he seemed to have no idea of the common decencies of life, which he subjected to a kind of regal licence; in public affairs, he seemed to have no idea of any rule of right or wrong, but brute force, glossed over with a little religious hypocrisy and archiepiscopal advice.”

Uncanny.

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Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is a political journalist, editor-in-chief of Slate Group, a division of The Washington Post Company, and a columnist for the Financial Times. The creator and author of the Bushisms series, Weisberg published The Bush Tragedy in 2008.

Jacob Weisberg on Wikipedia
Jacob Weisberg on Slate