I still remember one of my first encounters with Donald Rumsfeld. I had recently relocated to Washington, D.C. and spent some time working in his office. We were discussing something not all that pertinent. Responding to a question, I began, “Quite honestly.” He interrupted me.
“Nick, don’t preface something you say with ‘quite honestly.’ It assumes everything you said before that wasn’t honest.” Rumsfeld flashed his toothy grin and we went on about our day.
The experience gave me a great deal of respect for a man I had been taught to hate. As a student, my political science (and sometimes even mathematics) professors frequently sniped at the Bush administration’s handling of the war. The class curriculum and assigned reading was constructed around their own policy prescriptions; ones that obviously weren’t being enacted. The sniping commentary bared their frustration.
Now, as retired Bush administration officials have released their memoirs, much of the Left’s frustration has become indignation. They’re indignant that their policy schemes were not only not implemented, but that much of their criticism during the early stages of the execution of the war turned out to be gravely misplaced. As President Obama learned, it is quite a bit easier to campaign than to govern.
And so, the Left uses the review of a memoir as their last-ditch-effort to win an ideological battle with the Bush administration. Instead of offering new suggestions for what the Obama administration calls an “Overseas Contingency Operation,” reviewers accused former President George W. Bush of trying to “rewrite his presidency.”
The Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward called my old boss’ memoir Known and Unknown a “brazen effort to…distort history.” Now, as former Vice President Cheney begins his memoir rollout, Time‘s Barton Gellman reviewed his book under the title, “In New Memoir, Dick Cheney Tries to Rewrite History.”
The truth is that the Bush administration memoirs take history head on. In Known and Unknown, for example, Rumsfeld was undeniably candid on serious points of criticism, particularly concerning appropriate troop levels in Iraq. Rumsfeld admitted, “it’s possible there may have been times when more troops could have been helpful.”
Previously, former President Bush wrote in Decision Points that he regretted “cutting troop levels too quickly.” Ultimately, Rumsfeld told Diane Sawyer, “the path you didn’t take is always smoother.”
Bush also openly discusses the federal government’s involvement, or lack thereof, in Hurricane Katrina recovery. He confesses that he “should have recognized the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster.” Even Cheney details how one hunting accident, which proved to be endless fodder for late night comedians, was the “saddest” day of his life.
Still, reviewers accuse administration officials of not adequately addressing public concerns during their time in office. The New York Times insisted that Bush “hops and skips over” many criticisms hurled at his presidency. Yet, in nearly all of these typical reviews, the reviewers rehash old quotes and anecdotes from low-level bureaucrats that they expect to effectively trump first-hand accounts of the individuals who actually made decisions.
Somehow the reviewers expect the Bush administration officials to suddenly walk back all of their decisions and apologize.
The impression any reader should get from all this is not that the Bush administration is trying to “rewrite history,” but that these memoirs are a reflection of their slice of history. They are a recounting of their participation in momentous historical events. Along the way they all intersected with each other, had disagreements, dealt with unexpected circumstances, and made judgment calls according to the information they had at the time.
Should reviewers give the memoirs more than just a “Washington read” (meaning “reading from the index”) they will discover the memoirs indicate a sober kind of honesty that only the experiences written about could produce.