A Charge Card to Keep

Preparing for a presidential inauguration requires a great deal of work. There are bleachers to build. A parade to plan. Clichs must be dusted off. Musty platitudes must be trotted out. Misinformation, new and old, must be readied. There are two pieces of nonsense you can be sure TV will trumpet on Jan. 20: (1) this election has shown us that every vote counts; and (2) the office of the president causes a man—even George W. Bush—to grow into the statesman the country needs.

If the news personalities haven't noticed that the last election proved every vote counts only if you are on the Supreme Court, they certainly can't be expected to know that George W. himself has already warned the country not to expect a presidential growth spurt. This warning can be found in Bush's largely unread—and almost unreadable —autobiography, A Charge to Keep.

In Chapter 1, Bush asserts that he could not govern “if I did not believe in a divine plan that supersedes all human plans.” This is a fairly standard claim for an American politician, but Bush goes further, explaining in detail the impact of his faith on his governing style. “My faith frees me,” he says, “frees me to try to do the right thing. . . . Frees me to enjoy life and not worry about what comes next. . . . I am spontaneous. I live in the moment, seize opportunities and try to make the most of them.” Thus, it seems that Bush's well-known laziness regarding policy matters and governing are not character flaws; they are manifestations of his core religious values.

Commentators may talk about Bush relying on Dick Cheney or Colin Powell for guidance, but Bush believes himself supernaturally guided. He has implied as much in his comments on the elections, saying that he believed the tortured crawl to the Electoral College was “meant to happen for a reason.” If you had gone as far in life as Bush has by doing as little, you would believe you were attended by God, too.

As to the particulars of this blessed life, Bush's book offers little insight. It takes grim determination to make it through A Charge to Keep. The book is a poorly written series of campaign ads packaged as a memoir. No politician on the make can afford to publish a candid memoir, least of all Bush, who managed to keep his “youthful indiscretions” going until the somewhat advanced age of 44. As to what these indiscretions were and how one can pull off the trick of keeping them “youthful” well into one's forties, the reader is not told— the introduction contains the dishonest claim that a more comprehensive account “would be far too boring.” Leaving aside that mystery—how could this book be more boring?—it must be said that the appalling dullness of A Charge to Keepdoes serve a purpose. It has allowed Bush to claim credit for writing a book (though it's no secret that his aide, Karen Hughes, actually cobbled the thing together) while discouraging anyone from actually considering what the text says.

Here again, the angels are on Bush's side because any time you check one of Bush's stories against public records or other reliable sources, the story falls apart. The only phony story that received much scrutiny is W's fantastic tale about how he was able to join the Texas Air National Guard: he simply phoned to inquire if they had any openings. They said yes, and he joined the next day. Even the laziest journalist was able to discover that the National Guard had a waiting list of 100,000 people when young George made that call at the height of the Vietnam war. And at the time of the book's publication, a court case in Austin concerning other shady Texas political deals established once and for all—under oath—that strings had been pulled to get George W. into the National Guard.

In a way, even this revelation was lucky for George W. Whether out of realism, or cynicism, people pretty much expect the sons of the wealthy and powerful to get special treatment in wartime. And once the mainstream media has defined a story for itself, new facts have a hard time finding their way to the public. The National Guard story was defined narrowly as a story about doors being opened for George because of his influential family. When the Boston Globe broke a far more important National Guard story—that once accepted into the National Guard, Bush apparently failed to report for duty from May 1972 to May 1973—it failed to make much of an impact. (The carefully researched story can be found at www.georgebush2000.com/ One_year_gap_in_Bush_s _Guard_duty+.shmtl.)

Even more disappointing is the way the mainstream media failed to question how Bush represented his handling of his most solemn responsibility as governor—the administration of the death penalty. As an abstraction, most Americans are comfortable with the death penalty; but when confronted with the facts of capital punishment, their level of comfort begins to plummet. Bush's two terms as governor have given everyone much to feel uncomfortable about. In his six years in office, he presided over more executions than occurred in all other states combined since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. “And it's not only the sheer number of executions,” writes Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center (www.deathpenaltyinfo.org). “Texas has vigorously gone forward with executions of juvenile offenders, the mentally retarded, foreign nationals not informed of their rights under international treaties, defendants with sleeping lawyers, and others with serious doubts about their guilt.”

A Charge to Keep is supposed to create the impression that Bush gives every capital case a thorough scrutiny before signing the death warrant. In fact, it has been established that he used to set aside an average of just 15 minutes to consider a case. Despite that fact, in Chapter 11, we find a judicious Bush weighing yet another life-and-death decision. He is careful. He is thoughtful. Things in the record trouble him. He is torn. Happily, he is buoyed by his faith. Even his reluctance is a kind of tribute to his humane nature—not a sign of being soft on crime. Ultimately, he knows his duty. He takes up his pen and sends one more person to the lethal-injection gurney.

Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed in Texas since 1863, was chosen as the book's best example of how Bush goes about having someone killed. A Charge to Keepwas published in September 1999, the same month that Talk magazine published a profile of Bush by Tucker Carlson. (Carlson is such a dependable member of the far-Right media that he appears as the voice of conservatism on a variety of CNN's numbing political chat programs.) The topic of Karla Faye's execution comes up during the interview, and Bush begins to mock the dead woman. He does an imitation of her appearing on Larry King Live:

“'Please,' Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, 'don't kill me.' I must look shocked—ridiculing the pleas of a condemned prisoner who has since been executed seems odd and cruel, even for someone as militantly anti-crime as Bush—because he immediately stops smirking.”

Even when discussing the most awesome responsibility entrusted to him, George W. Bush cannot stop being an overgrown frat boy. This passage also shows that neither Carlson nor Bush made it as far as Chapter 11, which contains a transcript of Larry King's interview with Karla Faye and reveals that she never said anything remotely like what Bush attributes to her.

To me, this says just about all you need to know about the character of the man. But come Jan. 20, you will get to listen to highly paid news personalities assure you that he is a fit successor to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.

A Charge to Keep by George W. Bush; Morrow. 253 pages, hardcover, $23.

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