Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1943
In Ambling into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush, Frank Bruni offers a behind-the-scenes account of Bush the candidate as he completed the home stretch of his quest for the presidency in the 2000 election. As The New York Times correspondent covering the Bush campaign, Bruni is able to present numerous glimpses which, in the end, add up to a thought- provoking overall portrait of the future president. This portrait is based on access not available to ordinary Americans. For most people, presidential candidates are figures presented through the filter of mass media. Bruni and other correspondents got to see Bush face-to-face on a daily basis. While Bruni does not go so far as to suggest that this gives him knowledge of the “real” George W. Bush, he does believe that he has valuable insights to offer as to Bush’s personality and motivations. These insights, of necessity, throw light on Bush’s most important advisors and allies as well, including key Bush family members. Bruni’s book also includes a modest attempt to augment his portrait of George W. Bush with helpful commentary about the nature of presidential politics in the United States. Finally, Bruni opens and closes his book with a brief assessment of President Bush’s performance during the early days of the war on terrorism following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., often referred to as 9/11 (which took place about eight months after Bush took office).
The George W. Bush revealed in Bruni’s book is neither the magnanimously compassionate conservative and strong leader portrayed by Bush publicists nor the total bumbler and dunce portrayed by late-night comedians and some of Bush’s less subtle critics. He cuts, instead, a more complex figure, one which is less easily cast simply as hero, villain, or court jester.
To be sure, Bush is neither an eloquent extemporaneous speaker nor an impressive thinker with a clear focus on issues of public policy. Bruni makes it clear that the frequent “Bushisms” one sees quoted are not isolated incidents which have been magnified by the media. Left to fend for himself, Bush produces a never-ending abundance of malapropisms, which, in turn, have contributed to his image as an intellectual and rhetorical lightweight. Also feeding this image is the fact that Bush is not particularly knowledgeable about any topic outside sports. In short, despite holding a bachelor’s degree from Yale and a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard, Bush has never been a distinguished student of ideas. This image of Bush is not refuted in Bruni’s book.
It does not, however, tell the whole story. Bruni reports that Bush’s SAT scores were well above average. (In addition, Bruni deflates the intellectual credentials of Al Gore and John McCain, Bush’s chief rivals in the 2000 campaign.) Moreover, Bush has shown, both during the 2000 campaign and subsequent to his election, the ability to deliver effectively speeches written by staff members. Bruni argues convincingly that this is an indication that Bush is willing and able to put in sufficient time and effort to understand complex issues. Thus, the image of Bush as disinterested and even lazy must be tempered if one is truly to understand the man. For example, Bruni thought, during the campaign, that Bush handled the education issue with an acceptable level of authority.
This is not to say that Bush lives and breathes “compassionate conservatism.” Rather, for Bush, that credo appears, for the most part, to be a convenient and effective formula for political success, with the conservative element cementing the allegiance of the powerful right wing of the Republican Party (including the “religious right”) and the compassionate part appealing to moderates among Republicans, as well as Independents and some potential crossover Democratic voters. Perhaps because his emergence from alcoholism in the 1980’s was linked to religious beliefs, Bush does have a more than convenient affinity for issue positions held by the religious right, including those on the question of abortion. This does not, however, keep him from pursuing more moderate or centrist stances in order to win elections and keep his political persona in line with public opinion. Indeed, this application of the Ronald Reagan formula for success also suggests that Bush is focused and adequately intelligent when it comes to the bottom line of political campaigns—victory. Put another way, Bush may be seen as a talented and hard-working political opportunist.
What is left after one has eliminated the misleading positive and negative images of Bush? It adds up to a person who can, with some accuracy, be called capable and, at least in some settings, charming. Based on Bruni’s book, however, one could not by any means describe Bush as a charismatic leader or political visionary.
None of this should come as much of a surprise, since it mirrors the early perceptions of President George W. Bush held by the public as a whole. This is clear from the results of the 2000 presidential election and subsequent public opinion polls. Though Bruni passes over the results of the election rather quickly, the fact is that Bush was not immediately popular with the American electorate. He suffered some early defeats at the hands of the underfunded and underorganized Arizona senator John McCain in the Republican primaries. In the general election, he came very close to defeat at the hands of Vice President Al Gore, a candidate with heavy baggage and one who, in the opinion of most expert observers, ran a lackluster campaign. Bush actually did lose the popular vote. In short, Bush did not exactly sweep to a convincing victory, indicating that the American people had their doubts about him.
After the election’s litigious and chaotic conclusion, Americans clearly threw their collective support to the new president, but in a way that affirmed the legitimacy of the republic, rather than deep-seated belief in Bush himself. Even after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when the president’s approval rating shot to record high levels, public support was limited to Bush’s role as war leader, not as overall policymaker for the nation. Polls showed consistently that Americans wished to show a united front behind the commander-in-chief, but were willing to differ with the president on a whole range of domestic issues. Taken as a whole, through the first half of Bush’s term in office, the American public has seen the president as having sufficient ability to man the ship of state in troubled times. Supreme confidence in Bush’s personal abilities has yet to be demonstrated. Nor has Bush been provided with a deep mandate in terms of his overall policy agenda.
In seeking a fuller picture of George W. Bush, Bruni also looks at key people—handlers and family—around Bush, in turn shedding more light on Bush himself. Bush campaign (and later White House) staff members Karl Rove and Karen Hughes are portrayed as single-mindedly dedicated to Bush and—for the most part—highly competent. Indeed, they overtly attempt to conceal and compensate for Bush’s more than occasional lack of a serious demeanor. Bush’s parents are also subject to a lengthy interview. They come off as intensely loyal to their son and surprisingly bitter (to the point of ungraciousness) about outgoing president and First Lady, Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as Al Gore. George H. W. Bush (George W. Bush’s father) was defeated by Clinton in his campaign for a second presidential term in 1992. Bruni sees this as a prime motivator for George W. Bush in 2000. As indicated by the book’s title (“ambling”) and subtitle (“unlikely odyssey”), Bruni sees Bush as a somewhat reluctant candidate for the nation’s highest office. It is the desire to please his family, both avenging his father’s defeat in 1992 and erasing his image as the family clown, that drives Bush on, according to Bruni. (On the other hand, Bruni sometimes interprets Bush’s rhetorical strategy and image-building effort during the campaign as conscious attempts to avoid making the mistakes that led to his father’s defeat in 1992.)
While Bruni’s book presents a useful portrait of Bush, it is far less successful in its commentary on the nature of contemporary presidential campaigns. Bruni does include some interesting snippets of the wild and crazy experiences of correspondents on the Bush beat during the heat of the campaign, but his half-hearted effort to explore the role of the media in making and breaking campaigns (if indeed they have that power) is not well enough developed to advance discussion on the issue. Clearly, there is a triangular relationship in which candidates, reporters, and voters are accomplices in making campaigns superficial and unsatisfying. Bruni’s occasional criticisms and confessions merely whet the reader’s appetite for penetrating analysis of the issue and perhaps even some fresh insight and helpful suggestions.
Likewise, Bruni’s attempt to put his book into the dramatic context of the war on terrorism feels like a gimmick for selling more books or perhaps even achieving the proper measure of political correctness. The book went to press far too early to cover Bush’s response to 9/11 in any depth or detail. Beyond the fact that Bush did not, on one hand, turn tail and run, or, on the other, simply “nuke” every alleged ally of terrorists, Bruni really has very little of value to contribute to the matter. Since Bruni stopped covering Bush after he was elected, he has no firsthand information to share with the reader.
Bruni’s book has other weaknesses as well. There is something highly questionable about Bruni’s decision to divorce observations of Bush’s behavior and personality from his policy proposals and political vision. For example, when it is asserted by his father that George W. Bush has read the entire text of the Bible twice, one would like an analysis of how that experience is reflected in Bush’s policy agenda. Bruni does not even raise the question. Nor does he critically consider the reliability of the glimpses he is permitted of the “behind the scenes” Bush. For example, Bush and his cronies were constantly indicating that the candidate was an avid reader, something Bruni had disputed in an early piece he wrote for The New York Times. Bruni accepts the evidence that he was mistaken and, at least partially, withdraws the notion that Bush is a confirmed nonreader. Yet Bush never goes into depth in his discussion of these books, nor is it clear that Bush would have read them if he had not wanted to change Bruni’s opinion. On this and other matters, Bruni sometimes seems to overestimate the reliability of his data, forgetting that, even behind the scenes, reporters are privy only to what candidates let them see. Bruni did get a front row seat to the show behind the show. How close this comes to reality is something that is hard to assess. In order to know for sure, one would have to peel away another layer or two of facade and get to the guts of the campaign itself. This Bruni is not able to do. Despite these limitations, Bruni’s book is worthwhile for its readability and the light it casts on the personality, strengths, and limitations of the United States’ forty-second president, George W. Bush.
Sources for Further Study
The American Prospect 13 (May 20, 2002): 33.
Business Week, April 15, 2002, p. 20.
The Economist 362 (March 23, 2002): 100.
Library Journal 127 (March 15, 2002): 95.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (March 31, 2002): 8.
The New Yorker 78 (April 1, 2002): 93.
Publishers Weekly 249 (February 11, 2002): 174.
The Village Voice 47 (March 19, 2002): 64.
The Weekly Standard 7 (March 11, 2002): 35.
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