Jean Edward Smith’s Burning Bush

Smith Bush copyI’m not going to read Jean Edward Smith’s new biography of George W. Bush for three reasons, one of them coming directly from Smith himself. Smith, the acclaimed biographer of John Marshall, Lucius Clay, and Dwight Eisenhower, once advised me: “Never write a biography of a living person.” He gave lots of good reasons for this counsel, many of which can be easily surmised. I was a little surprised, therefore, when I heard he had signed on with Simon & Schuster to write one of the first full scale biographies of George W. Bush. But only a little surprised, for a reason I’ll come to in due course.

The second reason I won’t waste my time with his Bush biography is William Inboden’s thorough takedown in Foreign Policy. After reading Inboden, I would think Simon & Schuster ought to withdraw the book in embarrassment. The extraordinary length of Inboden’s critique is captured in his extraordinary title: “It’s Impossible to Count the Things Wrong With the Negligent, Spurious, Distorted New Biography of George W. Bush.”

Do read the whole thing, but here are a couple of delicious samples:

Readers should be forewarned that this essay is longer than the customary book review. I beg their indulgence, because Smith’s biography, Bush, is so replete with factual errors and specious judgments that an extended set of corrections and remonstrances seems warranted for the sake of the historical record. All the more so because I am not aware of any other reviews to date that have identified the many flaws in the book. . .

As a historian who admires Smith’s previous works, I found the ineptitude of the research perhaps the most surprising and disappointing aspect of the book. Take one of the most egregious examples: an anecdote, which Smith relates with great relish, and upon which he bases much of his depiction of Bush as a warmongering religious zealot. According to Smith, in a January 2003 phone call between Bush and Frech President Jacques Chirac, during which Bush urged the French president to support a United Nations Security Council resolution on Iraq, Bush allegedly told his counterpart, “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East. Biblical prophecies are being fulfilled. This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase His people’s enemies before a new age begins” (339). Smith then goes on at some length describing the obscure Old and New Testament prophecies concerning Gog and Magog (complex passages about which biblical scholars differ upon the meanings) and asserts, “biblical writings were determining Bush’s decision about war in the Middle East.” Moreover, in Smith’s account, this alleged presidential application of biblical prophecies to Iraq had a tremendous consequence in that it caused Chirac to decide to oppose the war: “Bush’s religious certitude and his invocation of Gog and Magog scuttled the possibility of French support for military action” (339). The conversation is utterly and completely false. Bush never said these words to Chirac or anything of the sort to any other world leader. I have checked with multiple senior people with firsthand knowledge of the call Bush had with Chirac, and all confirmed that Bush never said anything remotely resembling those words. . . That Smith never did the research necessary to verify this scurrilous story bespeaks a larger interpretive failure on his part.

This particular episode is what journalists call “a story too good to check,” but there’s no excuse for it in an historian. It doesn’t get any better for Smith from here, and Imboden concludes that Smith wrote this “disgraceful book” (Inboden’s words) with a partisan vendetta against Bush: “It seems that Smith’s partisan contempt for Bush so distorted his perceptions that he became willing to believe even the most outlandish fabrications about Bush — as long as they were negative and conformed to Smith’s biases.”

This brings me to my third reason for not reading Smith’s Bush bio. I can corroborate firsthand Smith’s Bush hatred that ought to have made any reputable publisher hesitate before commissioning a biography. Several years ago I team-taught a one-week course with Smith on modern presidents for the Ashbrook Center’s terrific summer master’s degree program for high school history and government teachers. He was covering Franklin Roosevelt (the subject of his most recent biography at the time), and I naturally covered Reagan. Smith’s FDR biography is pretty good in the ordinary sense of being well-written and holding the reader’s interest, though it is very light on FDR’s political ideas, which should be the first big clue that something is amiss about Smith. This is typical of many historians who are very good at capturing the texture and character of leading political figures, but often fail to grasp fully the originality and importance of their political ideas.

But the real signal that Smith suffers from Bush Derangement Syndrome was exhibited from the fact that although his segment for the course was about FDR, he couldn’t resist taking partisan cheap shots at Bush and the Republican Party today, with utterly no connection whatsoever to the subject matter. It was obvious that Smith is simply a deep-in-the-tank liberal ideologue, and his partisan remarks were relentless. It was equally obvious that many of the teachers in the class—many of whom were not necessarily conservatives—found it tedious and inappropriate. Especially for a concentrated class that met for a total of six hours each day. (Some complained to me outside of class: “What’s wrong with that guy?”)

I refused to rise to the bait and blow up the class into a current events opinion-fest, and instead decided to upstage Smith by occasionally weighing in, usually at the end of each session so I had the last word, with some points about FDR where I thought Smith was superficial or unperceptive (such as FDR’s seminal Commonwealth Club address of 1932, which Smith writes off as merely an uninteresting “campaign speech” with little theoretical or ideological significance). I’m sure the nature and intention of my encroachments on his turf were not lost on him, but I also think I communicated that “If you really want a throw down on first principles of politics, bring it on dude.”

I came away from the encounter wondering: What is it about liberals that they can’t help themselves in the classroom? Are they that insecure about their biases and opinions? Apparently so. The Ashbrook Center sensibly never invited him back. In any case, read the Inboden review and skip the Smith book.

UPDATE: Reminder—there is a corrective available, from Steve Knott: Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics.

Responses