Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Bush Tragedy–Jacob Weisberg

bush-tragedy-bkblak002484The history of American politics is riddled with presidents who, in their time, were reviled and later vindicated as the pendulum of history swung. George W. Bush hopes to join the ranks of this group which includes men like Harry Truman and Abraham Lincoln. In The Bush Tragedy Jacob Weisberg looks into the relationships surrounding the divisive 43rd President of the United States. He contends that these relationships were the foundation of Bush’s policy making and in the end led him down a dangerous path that divided the nation and embroiled it in war and failure. The tone of the book is strongly psychoanalytical; Weisberg continually hammers home psychological themes in order for the reader to understand George W. Bush. However, some of the finest analysis in The Bush Tragedy lies in the chapters dealing more with politics and less with psychology, the chapters containing W.’s relationships with Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. The Bush Tragedy is an interesting book, it succeeds as a powerful look into the relationships George W. had with the people around him, but it poorly supports its main thesis, which is the supposed competition between father and son.

It is important to note the Jacob Weisberg does not hold a degree in psychology. He is first and foremost a journalist who contributes to periodicals such as Newsweek, the New Republic and The Washington Post. It is important for the reader to know Weisberg’s background and education because complicated psychological themes are invoked many times in the book. When Weisberg speaks of an Oedipus complex the reader should understand that this is the amateur psychoanalysis of a political observer and not the conclusion of a licensed mental health professional. In the introduction to the book he claims no special feeling toward Bush, but it is clear from his affiliations, notably his work for the New Republic, a magazine that caters specifically to causes on the left on the political spectrum, that he has a well-defined sense of his political position. One would surmise that would include a certain antipathy toward a president who so betrayed the democrats and drove a wedge in American politics.

Published in 2008, a year before Bush left office, The Bush Tragedy came at a time that most Americans were looking forward to a future without George W. Bush. The economy was beginning to tank, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had pushed America to the brink, and any promise of peace and prosperity had long since faded. Americans were just getting a glimpse at who might be their future president as the primary campaigns were swinging into full gear. The Bush Tragedy served as a powerful forewarning, in order to avoid another mistake by the American electorate it was important for people to understand why Bush had failed. In the book Weisberg makes a compelling argument, laying out all the information and drawing, for the most part, lucent conclusions.

Weisberg does something refreshing with The Bush Tragedy. He tries very hard to take Bush seriously. He does not paint him as a political caricature, a cowboy, or a clown. Instead he looks seriously at the life of a troubled man. The psychoanalysis in the book often feels like a stretch. Weisberg does not fully flesh out or support his conclusions. He tosses out terms like oedipal complex without fleshing them out or fully investigating them. The reader is left to assume that because Weisberg has described a desire to emerge from his father’s shadow that Bush also held some unnatural desire for his mother; which is the true meaning of an oedipal complex. Weisberg however never makes the latter assertion. Much of the psychoanalysis in the book seems insubstantial, or only partially adequate.

Weisberg’s political analysis is strong and detailed. The chapters which deal with the Bush relationship with Karl Rove and Dick Cheney are superbly researched and well argued. These chapters contain the most insightful look into the Bush White House and his decision making process, or lack thereof. Weisberg portrays Rove as a worshipful political lackey willing to take abuse from Bush in order to leech benefits from the charismatic younger Bush’s spotlight. Weisberg goes in depth explaining their symbiotic relationship. Even likening Bush to the shark and Rove to the remora. In his discussion of the ways Rove led Bush astray during his presidency Weisberg does what he failed to do in earlier chapters, flesh out and support a strong argument. The Rove chapter is thoroughly researched and factually represented. It represents a fine piece of political and historical writing. The Dick Cheney chapter is also very well done. Weisberg penetrates the mind of Cheney, exposing the calculations that eventually secured him a spot as Vice President. He describes Cheney as a secretive mastermind, a description that rings true. His descriptions of the way Cheney successfully used Bush’s own psyche against him are some of the most powerful sections of the book. Weisberg, in these two chapters, paints a picture of a President under the influence of powerful men whispering in his ear, men that would lead the country into tragedy and the presidency into chaos.

A less captivating part of the book was Weisberg’s continual return to Shakespeare and the plays Henry IV and Henry V. Often these comparisons felt forced, and always unnecessary. The use of Shakespeare led to long introductions to chapters that broke up the flow of the book and took the reader totally out of the narrative that was unfolding. This was particularly a shame because otherwise the work was a masterful piece of non-fiction prose. Along with the extraneous use of Shakespeare Weisberg also adds other tangential information. Going so far as to conclude the final chapter of the book by holding forth for pages on Winston Churchill and barely mentioning Bush a single time on the final page.

The Bush Tragedy is an excellent piece of political history. The book contains chapters filled with powerful, fact based, political analysis, and chapters that focus on less substantial psychological assertions. It lost a bit of its power by being published before the end of the Bush’s final term because it was not able to examine his presidency as a whole. It missed some developments for the worse, and some not quite near as tragic as first supposed. As a whole Weisberg succeeded with his analysis and did give the reader a powerful glimpse into the mind of an embattled American President.


dlh said...

For earlier analogues made between the American President and Shakespeare's character, see the 2003 essay, "Step Aside, I'll Show Thee a President":

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