BookExpo 2012, Los Angeles–The election four years ago, in the midst of the great financial crisis, of Barack Obama as our forty-fourth president marked the beginning of a raft of historic changes. With a black man entering the White House, America’s race-distorted psyche underwent a massive shift; the final discrediting of “market fundamentalism” led the government to implement “new New Deal” reform that has ushered in a period of unprecedented economic and social equality; and, last but hardly least, the American people were finally rid of the hideous, crippled personalities of the Bush administration. Or so we thought.
This election year, when even the Republicans seem unable to take Sarah Palin’s bid for the presidency seriously, publishers have begun trotting out the old bogeys to satisfy our appetite for politics. Some of the resulting books are interesting, some are heartbreaking and some are terrifying, but remember: these people aren’t in charge anymore.
If I Did It, by George W. Bush
Early in President Bush’s administration, when his reign seemed catastrophic merely for humanity at large and not equally so when measured by his own nominal aims, there commenced a lively debate among progressives about whether Bush was as unreflective and intellectually stunted as he appeared to be or if he was, in fact, a nefarious genius pretending to dimness to deflect attention and confuse those who might oppose his relentless arrogation of power. After eight years of his extraordinary failures, this question would seem to have been answered; but in this “hypothetical” memoir, it is reopened by Bush himself. The culmination, according to inside sources, of intensive psychoanalysis undertaken by the former president after leaving office as history’s most unpopular president–and, perhaps not incidentally, after being divorced by his wife, Laura–the book is Bush’s attempt to explain what motivated eight years of apparently willful destruction of American prestige, constitutional freedoms and human lives. The short answer is that he has no more idea than the rest of us. Judged either as journalism or as memoir, If I Did It is uninformative and singularly unilluminating; but as a psychological specimen, it achieves a kind of horrifying transcendence. Its publicity materials liken it to David Carr’s 2008 investigative memoir The Night of the Gun and Italo Svevo’s pre-postmodern novel Confessions of Zeno; these comparisons are both apt, but what it most resembles is Eichmann in Jerusalem–if Eichmann in Jerusalem had been written by Eichmann.
Good Enough for Government Work, by Dick Cheney
Cheney’s memoir–the advance for which, it is rumored, went straight into the pockets of the legal team hired after his removal to The Hague–is, unlike that of his former puppet-protégé, all too self-conscious. Bush’s book is a textbook example of how the narcissist cannot help but reveal himself even when trying hard to say nothing; Cheney’s, on the other hand, demonstrates that a sociopath can produce the coldest and most apparently honest of confessions, when it suits his purposes, without actually communicating anything of his real self. In this thousand-page tome, Cheney documents with scrupulous accuracy the arc of his career in the private and public sectors, describing frankly and often with charm how the interlocking desires for money and power motored him through the upper levels of the government and defense and oil establishments. He names names, details conspiracies and analyzes with penetrating intelligence the characters of George Bush, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and everyone else he made use of to get what he wanted. But like a logical paradox, Cheney simply cannot be resolved. It may be that by releasing some of this information before his trial concludes, he hopes to pre-empt public opinion or win sympathy from the court before his sentencing; it may be that, like many self-satisfied confidence men, he simply could not contain forever his pride in his machinations; or it may be that he really did need the money. But whatever he says, however honest he sounds, it is difficult to believe him, and maybe that is the point. It is so hard to believe this man, even when he has no reason to lie, that the very fact of his confession casts doubt on the veracity of his crimes.