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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Principle Over Politics?: The Domestic Policy of the George H. W. Bush Presidency by Richard Himelfarb (Praeger Publishers) Cabinet members, journalists who covered Washington, and scholars who have been reassessing the George H. W. Bush presidency detail his domestic policy. The key areas covered include the economy, the budget, the disabled, civil rights, health, science and technology. In addition, the volume examines his emphasis on volunteerism.

President George Herbert Walker Bush's domestic policy stands in vivid contrast to his foreign policy. While Bush's stewardship in the latter area won him praise and popularity, many of his decisions in the domestic sphere brought criticism from both the left and right and proved politically disastrous, playing a key role in his 1992 election defeat.

Although some accuse Bush of disengagement and disinterest in domestic af­fairs, the prevailing opinion voiced by conference participants in this volume (many of whom served in his administration) is that the president's policies here were characterized by a deep commitment to principle and pursuit of the public in­terest, even at the expense of political considerations. Indeed, many argue that the Bush administration pursued policies that were both well intentioned and ulti­mately successful, but failed to communicate them successfully to the public. While some of the blame for this lies with a hostile news media and simple bad luck (especially the economic downturn beginning in 1991), much of the responsi­bility appears to rest with President Bush himself, a man reluctant to tout his suc­cesses and sully himself in partisan political combat. Thus, the picture that emerges of George Bush is that of a decent, principled man whose accomplish­ments in the domestic arena were unfairly devalued and widely misunderstood.

The first two parts of this volume concern the most significant domestic contro­versies of the Bush administration, those involving the federal budget and econ­omy. In each of these areas the central issue concerns the degree to which Bush was a victim of unfortunate circumstances (including a Democratic Congress, a sizable structural budget deficit, and economic recession) or politically inept (as in his decision to renege on his "no new taxes" pledge). In addition, chapters 1—5 and

panelists address the question of whether Bush's policies in these areas, although politically painful in the short run, proved successful in the long term.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is the topic of Part III. Much of the discus­sion here deals with the origins of the legislation and President Bush's central role in its passage. Parts IV and V focus on a collection of other social policies of the Bush administration, including civil rights, drugs, education, and health care. While panelists address each of these substantive issues in detail, much of the de-bate concerns one major question: Were Bush's achievements in these areas mostly rhetorical and symbolic or were they substantively important but misun­derstood and/or misinterpreted by the public and the media?

President Bush's effort to promote volunteerism through his "Points of Light" program is discussed in Part VI. Chapters and panelists examine the origins of Bush's efforts here, placing particular emphasis on his Yankee upbringing, his commitment to public service, and his desire to engage in less-partisan political discourse than his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. In addition to examining the oper­ation of the Points of Light program and its significance, panelists also address why media reporting on the program was scant and largely derisive.

The final two parts address the Bush administration's record in a pair of policy areas that receive relatively little public attention: science and technology and en­ergy and the environment. Again, these panels are notable for the presence of for­mer administration officials and supporters who argue that President Bush's accomplishments in these areas were significant and beneficial, if also overlooked and unappreciated.

In sum, much (though certainly not all) of this volume is dominated by the efforts of Bush admirers to argue that his tenure be seen as more than simply a "third Reagan administration" or that of a one-term presidency sandwiched between a pair of more dominant and significant men. Stated another way, it is the hope of many of President George Bush's defenders that history will judge his domestic accomplishments more favorably than did the 1992 electorate.

The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush by Peter Singer (Dutton) From provocative ethicist and author Peter Singer, whose books have sold more than 700,000 copies: a chilling exposé of George W. Bush’s moral failure on dozens of hot-button issues.
More than any president in recent memory, George W. Bush invokes the language of good versus evil and right versus wrong. Controversial professor of ethics Peter Singer has put his spotlight on President Bush’s moral claims. The results are required reading.
Examining public pronouncements that have rarely been subjected to ethical analysis, on topics from stem-cell research and tax cuts to
Iraq and the drive for American preeminence, The President of Good and Evil reveals the president’s pattern of ethical confusion and self-contradiction. Delivering his charges in accessible, logical, and lively chapters, Singer asks whether Bush has lived up to the values so often touted in current presidential prose. Singer's timely and searching new book, is in effect an ethics tutorial directed toward the leader of the "free world." Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University , gives Bush a D, if not an outright fail. The bulk of the book is a litany of moral inconsistencies and failures, of persistent hypocrisy and doublethink. Singer's method is to contrast Bush's enunciations of principle with the realities of his policies, finding repeatedly that political expediency triumphs over declarations of principle. The list is by now familiar, but worth assembling. Bush began his presidency lamenting the injustice of children born to poverty and disadvantage: "And this is my solemn pledge: I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity." Yet his enormous cuts in taxation clearly entail the withdrawal of resources from social programs that would help ameliorate such problems.

His position on stem cell research, which stressed the absolute sanctity of life, even in the form of frozen embryos, sits ill with his cavalier attitude toward capital punishment, in which innocent people are not infrequently sent to their death, and with his ready acceptance of "collateral" civilian casualties in time of war. The protection of the legal rights of American citizens abroad who are accused of crimes, even to the point of rejecting the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court, is flatly inconsistent with the policy of detaining terrorist suspects for long periods without access to a lawyer and without being charged -- not to mention the use of coercive techniques of interrogation (i.e., torture). Free trade is extolled, but then massive subsidies are handed out to the farming industry, with catastrophic effects on struggling farmers in the developing world, and prohibitive tariffs slapped on the import of foreign steel. States' rights are to be respected, except when gay marriage is at issue. America is hymned for its personal freedom, but people are not free to engage in physician-assisted suicide in cases of terminal illness, and the medical use of marijuana is prohibited. Lying about your sex life is excoriated, but systematic dishonesty about the reasons for going to war is taken to be morally above board -- as, notoriously, with the now discredited claim that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa , about which Singer has a particularly acute discussion.

Singer makes these points carefully and effectively, with full documentation. None of this, however, is particularly new or rises above the level of conscientious journalism; indeed, most of it is based on newspaper reports. Where the book strikes a fresh note is in the last chapter, which tries to penetrate to the heart of the Bush moral outlook. His policies show that he is neither a believer in the inviolability of individual rights nor a consistent utilitarian. Nor can the teachings of Christianity be used to support his various positions, since these can be interpreted in several ways, and many of his policies have no biblical basis. Singer suggests, plausibly and scarily, that a brand of Manichaeism best represents his religious outlook -- the idea of a force of evil in the world, with an apocalyptic Second Coming imminent and America as the divinely appointed nation set to destroy the forces of Satan.

But when it comes to his actual moral views, it seems to be a matter of what the Bush gut has to report today, as the president himself admits. Hence his tendency to adopt conflicting moral positions and an unwillingness to consider how the conflicts might be resolved; he finds it hard to see why he can't have it both ways. Singer speculates that the president might well be stuck at what the developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg called the level of conventional morality, characteristic of teenagers, in which simple moral rules constitute one's moral outlook, and the idea that such rules might conflict hasn't sunk in (as the rules "Don't lie" and "Don't cause harm" can conflict if a murderer asks you the whereabouts of his next victim). Bush does seem sincere enough in his moral opinions, contrary to an entirely cynical interpretation of his words and actions, but there is an impression of callow simple-mindedness in his moral sentiments; at the least, he has not thought through the complexities of the issues he is called upon to deal with.
The conventional view of George W. Bush is that, while he is a man of marked intellectual limitations, he is governed by a consistent set of deeply held moral convictions. Singer's book refutes this comforting myth. Bush is a man of sporadically good moral instincts, perhaps, as with his AIDS initiative, but he sways inconsistently and opportunistically in the political breeze, and has no idea how to make his beliefs fit coherently together.

The President of Good and Evil follows in the bestselling traditions of Stupid White Men and Lies . Singer has never shied away from controversy, and now enters the most visible arena of his life, with powerful arguments that throw new light on
America under Bush.

Excerpt: Whether he really believes in the fine phrases and lofty rhetoric that he uses, or is consciously using it to win public support, it is clear that Bush has no real interest in the policy details needed to achieve the aspirations he has voiced. He has failed to follow through on most of the commitments he has made to work for a better, more just society. He has said that deep, persistent poverty is unworthy of America 's promise, but the number of Americans liv­ing in poverty increased in both 2001 and 2002. Instead of com­bating that increase, he has pressed for tax cuts that hobble the government's capacity to do anything about it. Rather than ensure that the nation he leads is a good global citizen, Bush has spurned institutions for global cooperation and set back the task of making the rule of law, rather than force, the determining factor in world affairs. He has launched an unnecessary war, costly in human lives and in dollars, with a final outcome that is still uncertain. His pro­tection of the steel industry and his signature on a law authorizing the largest-ever subsidies to American farmers shows his strong rhetoric about free trade to be a brutal hypocrisy that is driving millions of impoverished farmers in other countries deeper into poverty. A comparison between the size of these subsidies and Bush's proposed increase in foreign aid makes his compassion look stingy.

Nor has Bush's own moral character stood up well to the test ofhigh office. Handicapped by a naive idea of ethics as conformity to a small number of fixed rules, he has been unable to handle ade­quately the difficult choices that any chief executive of a major na­tion must face. A person of good moral character who takes a false step will admit it, seek to understand what went wrong, and try to prevent something similar from happening again. When Bush's use of misleading intelligence about Iraq was exposed, however, he blocked an open investigation into how he and his staff came to mislead the American public and the world about the basis on which he went to war. Instead, he made further inaccurate state­ments about when the intelligence was first known to be unsub­stantiated and about the events that led to the decision to go to war. This may be the kind of behavior we expect from a politician more concerned about protecting his reputation than doing what is right. They are not the actions of a person of good moral character.

In the end, it is impossible to be sure how genuine Bush and those who advise him are about the ethics that he advocates. This book can therefore be seen as an attempt to cover all the possibili­ties. When Bush speaks about his ethics, he is either sincere or he is insincere. If he is insincere, he stands condemned for that alone. I have started with the opposite, more generous assumption: that Bush is sincere, and we should take his ethic seriously, assessing it on its own terms, and asking how well he has done by his own standards. Even if that assumption should be false, the task has been worth undertaking, for we now know that, sincerely held or not, Bush's ethic is woefully inadequate. He now trails behind him a string of broken promises and reversed policies, from his claim that he would champion the rights of states against the power of the federal government, to his pledge to bring the American dream to the poor, and his opposition to "nation-building." Instead of ushering in "the responsibility era" of which he often spoke, his tax cuts have pushed the budget further into the red, piling up problems for future generations. If what's needed in a president is, as Bush himself said in November 2000, a consistent message, then George W. Bush is a conspicuous failure.

Howard Dean: A Citizen's Guide to the Man Who Would Be President by Dirk Van Susteren (Steerforth Press) Evenhanded reportage makes these essays by home-state journalists politically savvy generally useful for getting an idea about who Dean is and what his main take on the policies are.

Less than a year ago, Howard Dean was the most obscure candidate in a crowded field of aspirants for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States . Today he is widely regarded as the one to beat. Dean burst onto the national stage at the Democratic National Committee’s 2003 winter meeting. A few months after the Democrats had failed to keep control of the Senate or win back the House of Representatives with the 2002 mid-term elections, the former governor of Vermont strode to the podium at the DNC’s worried gathering and blurted out, "What I want to know is why so many Democrats in Washington aren’t standing up against Bush’s unilateral war in Iraq. My name is Howard Dean, and I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." The effect was electric. Dean had seized the moment, and he has followed it up with aggressive campaigning and a record-setting fund-raising effort.

Howard Dean: A Citizen's Guide to the Man Who Would Be President sets out to answer "Who is Howard Dean?" What do his life experiences and, maybe more importantly, his performance as Vermont’s governor for nearly twelve years tell us about what he believes, how he operates, his strengths and weaknesses as a chief executive and campaigner, and what kind of a president he might be? And what do those who really know him really think?

Reported by nine journalists whose experiences range from the Vermont Statehouse to past presidential campaigns, Howard Dean: A Citizen's Guide is filled with fresh information and keen new insights. Separate chapters cover Dean’s boyhood and college years, his time as a doctor and legislator, his record on the environment, health care, and budgets, and his revolutionary use of the Internet as a grass-roots organizing tool. For readers looking to determine whether Dean can go the distance and how to cast their votes in 2004, this book is indispensable.

Made In Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics by Michael Lind (Basic Books) A scathing expose of the political and cultural legacy of Texas , which tells us all we need to know--and fear--about George W. Bush.

Everyone knows that President George W. Bush is from Texas . But few of us know the role his home state plays in his presidency, and our country. In this vivid dual biography of man and state, Michael Lind confronts the signal crises facing Bush--the economy, the Middle East, and religious fundamentalism--and traces their roots back to Texas, a state, Lind argues, that yields salient clues to the future course of our country.

Widely praised as an iconoclastic and brilliant political observer, Lind, a fifth generation Texan, chronicles the unique ethnic clash that produced modern Texas, the well-known plundering of the state's natural resources at the hands of the elites, and finally the deep strain of "Old Testament religiosity" which, having originated in Texas, now reaches all over the globe in the form of Bush's foreign policy.

Lind delves deep into the president's home state, and his record in office, provoking us to consider the history of the state of Texas as a kind of morality tale for the political and cultural legacy of Bush's presidency. In the tradition of Gary Wills's Reagan's America, The Texan Mind of George W. Bush will provide both authoritative biography and wholly original cultural history which will change the way we understand not just our president, but our country.



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