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The Bush Tragedy Hardcover – January 15, 2008
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Although he cautions his reader against what he calls "psychobabble", Jacob Weisberg also claims the Freudian legacy. The Freud he refers to is the co-author of Woodrow Wilson's biography, in which he argues that Wilson's inability to process aggressive feelings towards his father left him increasingly messianic and detached from reality: "facts ceased to exist for him if they conflicted with his unconscious desires".
But Weisberg also implicitly refers to Poe's narrative to characterize his method of investigation: "In pursuit of leaks and scoops, we journalists often miss what's hiding in plain sight. The key that unlocks the mystery of political motivation is seldom hidden in a locked vault. It's usually right in front of us".
Indeed, there is a purloined letter in almost every chapter of The Bush Tragedy. The elusive letter is most obviously revealed in the opening chapter, where the key to George W. Bush's destiny is to be found in his middle initial. According to Weisberg's version of the family story, "W" is the product of two family traditions, the Bushes and the Walkers, and he is in many ways more a Walker than a Bush. As is well known, only one letter separates him from his father, and the towering figure loomed large on everything he did to gain recognition or assert independence.
Weisberg also exposes the plans of the two most controversial characters of the Bush presidency: Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. As he demonstrates, they were not driven by a hidden agenda or a secret plot to take over America: they acted in plain sight, and their intentions had been publicized all along. Rove's grandiose historical ambition was to achieve nationally what he had done in Texas: operate a major political realignment and ensure Republican dominance for decades to come. Cheney, otherwise secretive and manipulative, never hid his intention to expand executive power and limit interference by the legislative branch. The writing was on the wall for all people to see.
Another version of the tell-tale letter is the wave of anthrax letters that followed the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Weisberg greatly reevaluates this episode: without the anthrax attacks, Cheney would never have gained such ascendency over the president, and Bush probably would not have invaded Iraq.
I have read several biographies of American presidents and I thought the genre improved with the passage of time, with history providing a decanter that allowed the best wine bottles to mellow. But Weisberg's Bush Tragedy proves that a portrait could be written on the spur of time and still claim a commanding place on history's bookshelves.
Weisberg uses a parallel to Shakespeare's Henry IV and V, a literary device I thought might be a distraction. It does suggest, though, that there is precedence for the psychology of the Bush family. The father-son relationship was also there in plain view for us to observe, but no one took it seriously enough to think it could be an indicator of future direction.
Nothing Weisberg says can resurrect the Bush presidency in its waning days, nor can it correct any mistakes they have made. It can serve, though, as an important cautionary tale as we elect new leaders. While we can never really know what they will truly do if elected, understanding their past a little more deeply can give us some substantive clues that, next time (hopefully) we can take seriously.