Recently I've fallen for U.S. presidents in my reading and movie watching. Last week I watched the Oscar nominated Frost/Nixon, and before that I watched W. Then Sunday I finished State of Denial. Richard Nixon and George W. Bush are in some ways quite similar and in other ways very different. With Nixon we have the maniacal claim to power, even when it's abused. With the second president Bush we have an almost stumbling like entry to the presidency, then a claim to the power the office affords him even when it's abused. Yet Nixon was an intellect, curious, smart (too smart for his own good) whereas Bush was impatient, intellectually anti-curious, and stubborn (too stubborn for his own good). Both men are tragic figures in American politics and will be remembered as presidents in a critical light.
Meanwhile there is the man who left office just two months ago: George W. Bush. Oliver Stone in W is more sympathetic than we might imagine when it was first announced he'd make the film. Josh Brolin and accompanying cast did a marvelous job, and I believe reflected much of who W. is. Watching it had some unintentional consequences for me. I've started to dip into the Bush presidency a little in my reading. When I saw State of Denial on sale for HK$50 down from HK$285 I snapped it up at Swindon's sale. And I bought The War Within (Bob Woodward's final book in the series some months before), so now I have the final two books analyzing, as it happened, Bush's presidency focusing mainly on the Iraq War. I've always enjoyed Woodward's writing (Shadow is one of my all-time favorite books on politics) and he does a good job again in State of Denial.
The most interesting parts for me come in the last quarter of the book and begin with the stories of W. getting re-elected. So much of this volume deals with the details of the Iraq war, which is fine and necessary but I am more interested in what was taking place back in Washington, how decisions were made or not made, what the president's mode was like, who he was during this significant time in American history, and how he dealt with those around him - basically how he led or did not lead. And what Woodward uncovers is not pretty. He summarizes it best below. He's writing about a meeting the president had with Dick Cheney (it seems he never missed any meeting!), Don Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, and Condi Rice along with another assistant Robert Blackwill.
"Blackwill saw Rice try to intervene and get nowhere. So critical comments and questions - especially about military strategy - never surfaced. Blackwill felt sympathy for Rice. This young woman, he thought, had to deal with three of the titans of national security - Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell - all of whom had decades of experience, cachet, and strong views. The image locked in Blackwill's mind of Rice, dutiful, informed and polite, at one end of the table, and the inexperienced president at the other, legs dancing, while the bulls staked out their ground, almost snorting defiantly, hoofs pawing the table, daring a challenge that never came (241-242, italics mine)."