George W Bush breaks silence with memoir media blitz
Published 08/11/2010 | 10:52
The former American president George W Bush will discuss 9/11, Iraq and Katina and offer insights on leaders from Tony Blair to Vladimir Putin in a new memoir and publicity tour of television studios
He was the president who led America and its allies into two wars that still shape the world, and served for eight years as one of the most controversial leaders in US history.
For almost two years since he left the White House, George W Bush has remained in self-imposed purdah in retirement in Texas.
But this week, the former president will for the first time provide his own account of those historic years - and his verdict on some of the people he dealt with - in Decision Points, a 497-page memoir to be published on Tuesday, and an accompanying blitz of television interviews.
The book begins in striking personal terms with a chapter entitled Quitting about his well-known battle with alcohol. "It was a simple question, 'Can you remember the last day you didn't have a drink?'" is the opening line.
But it is his insights into and asides about the political and military battles of his presidency - and the friends and enemies he made along the way - that are likely to make the book a bestseller.
Mr Bush is unstinting in his praise of Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and the only major Western ally to stand by him resolutely during the darkest days of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But when Mr Blair was facing intense political pressure at home over his support for Mr Bush before the invasion of Iraq, the US leader offered him an escape route. "I called Tony and expressed my concern," he writes. "I told him I'd rather have him drop out of the coalition and keep his government than try to stay in and lose it."
But Mr Blair replied: "I absolutely believe in this. I will take it up to the very last."
Of that response, Mr Bush says: "I heard an echo of Winston Churchill in my friend's voice. It was a moment of courage that will stay with me forever."
And after a summit between the two men at Camp David in September 2002, he recalls telling Alastair Campbell, "Your man has got cojones," deploying a Spanish vulgarity that denotes courage. "I'm not sure how that translated to the refined ears of 10 Downing Street. But to anyone from Texas, its meaning was clear," he notes.
The former president reveals that the relationship survived one lively disagreement - he and Cherie Blair, a human rights lawyer, argued heatedly about the death penalty over dinner at Chequers, the prime minister's retreat.
Mr Bush recalls: “About halfway through the meal, the death penalty came up. Cherie made clear she didn’t agree with my position. Tony looked a little uncomfortable.
“I listened to her views and then defended mine. I told her I believed the death penalty, when properly administered, could save lives by deterring crime. A talented lawyer whom I grew to respect, Cherie rebutted my arguments. At one point, Laura and I overheard Euan, the Blairs’ bright 17-year-old son, say, 'Give the man a break, Mother.’”
Mr Bush discloses that he considered dropping Dick Cheney as his running mate for the 2004 election because of the widely-held belief that it was the vice-president who was really running the country.
The president considered his options for several weeks after Mr Cheney made the proposal. "Accepting Dick's offer would be one way to demonstrate that I was in charge," he writes.
But while noting his vice-president's political downside - "he was seen as dark and heartless, the Darth Vader of the administration" - Mr Bush decided to stick with him for the re-election campaign.
He throws light on the intense internal debates about intelligence on Iraq's alleged weapons programmes and the handling of the invasion and its aftermath. "Nothing worked," he notes ruefully, to cool the "squabbling within the national security team".
These turf wars pitched Mr Cheney and his fellow hawk, Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, against secretary of state Colin Powell, with Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, often seeking compromise from the middle.
Mr Bush confesses he had "a sickening feeling" when he learned there no banned chemical or biological weapons in Iraq - undercutting the major pre-war argument for invasion. But he insists that he has no regrets about removing the "homicidal dictator" Saddam Hussein.
There is heavy focus on the Sept 11 2001 terror attacks on the US. After authorising US fighter jets to shoot down suspicious planes - "my first decision as wartime commander-in-chief" - he initially thought that Flight 103 that crashed en route to Washington had been brought down by his order. Only later did he learn that a passenger revolt had forced down the fourth hijacked plane.
Mr Bush says he authorised the waterboarding of a senior al-Qaeda captive - an interrogation technique viewed as torture by many. Asked by the CIA for approval to waterboard the prisoner, he said: "Damn right."
But he also admits to some major mistakes, including his slow response to Hurricane Katrina and his approval of a reduction in US troop numbers in Iraq after the invasion - "the most important failure of execution in the war".
Amid the high politics are some telling asides about world leaders. Vladimir Putin, then president of Russia, even indulged in the ultimate "mine-is-bigger-than-yours" boast about the two men's dogs.
Mr Bush had introduced Mr Putin to his Scottish terrier, Barney, on a visit to Camp David, the presidential retreat. On a later trip to Russia, Mr Bush recalls an episode at the Russian leader's dacha.
"A big black Labrador came charging across the lawn," he writes. "With a twinkle in his eye, Vladimir said, 'Bigger, stronger, faster than Barney'." He later related the story to the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, who commented: "You're lucky he only showed you his dog."
Mr Bush this week begins a high-profile publicity tour, including a pre-recorded interview with television talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, in his first major foray back into the public arena since he left office nearly two years ago.
But he has made clear that, as in the book, he will stick to his pledge not to get involved with current US politics and not comment on President Barack Obama or potential Republican successors, such as Sarah Palin. As he tells Miss Winfrey: "I'm through with politics."