Thursday, May 11, 2006

"All the President's Books": The New York Times' Critic's Notebook

Here's the link to this New York Times book review on the wave of recent books analyzing the Bush presidency. The review's author has examined books that look at the administration from a variety of perspectives, and there are some key differences across the selection:

Yet taken together with earlier volumes, these books create a cumulative and, in many respects, surprisingly coherent portrait of the Bush White House and its management style. Authors as disparate as the Reagan administration economist Bruce Bartlett, the New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour M. Hersh, the Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes and the New York Times reporter James Risen point to ways in which this administration has discarded past precedent, and illuminate its penchant for circumventing traditional processes of policy development and policy review.

It's a tropism, an instinctive reflex that informs the Bush White House's decision-making process, as well as its strategic and tactical thinking, a tropism that has played a major role in this increasingly embattled administration's approach to a host of issues from the war in Iraq to Social Security reform to the government's policy on torture. Many books about the Bush administration and the war in Iraq — including "The Assassins' Gate" by the New Yorker writer George Packer; "The Next Attack" by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, former National Security Council staffers under Bill Clinton; and "Squandered Victory" by Larry Diamond, a former senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad — also underscore related predispositions on the part of this White House: an appetite for big, visionary ideas, imposed from the top down; an eagerness to centralize decision making in the executive branch; and a tendency to shrug off the advice of experts, be they military experts, intelligence experts or economic experts.

In retrospect, these patterns underlie recent complaints from more than half a dozen retired generals that civilian policymakers at the Pentagon ignored the advice of military officers, and new charges by two C.I.A. veterans that the Bush administration selectively ignored crucial intelligence assessments about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The administration's proclivity for broad-stroke, out-of-channels, even improvisatory policymaking is partly a function of the personalities of key administration figures beginning with Mr. Bush, a self-proclaimed gut player who prizes "the vision thing" over detailed analysis and continuing debate. And it's partly a reflection of an ideological outlook: a determination, in the wake of 9/11, to amp up presidential power, which many conservatives believe was diminished after Watergate; and a relativistic view of experts as bean counters beholden to the liberal establishment and status quo, a perspective linked with this White House's inclination to characterize everyone from reporters to members of the uniformed military to global-warming scientists as agenda-driven interest groups.
Read the rest of the piece. I haven't read any of these books, but this overview of recent work seems like a pretty fair and evenhanded analysis. The book's authors, though I'm not familiar with all of them, are mostly journalists, analysts, or former government or military officials (with the exception Douglas Brinkley). Clark, Hersh, and Risen's books are either bestsellers, award-winners, or both -- though I would suspect these to be highly partisan (and perhaps not to be fully trusted), which is certainly the case with Clark's Against All Enemies, of which I read a number of reviews upon its publication in 2004. Fred Barnes's book is likely to be less critical, but he did have access to the president, which will make it a valuable addition to the literature on this administration.

I wish I had time to read them all. That's why we have these useful reveiws, in any case, and there's always summer!

Here's the link to the list of all the books reviewed in this article.

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