Presidential memoirs are a tricky genre.
They are rarely (except in the case of Ulysses S. Grant who was helped by Mark Twain) notable for their literary merit. Usually they are little more than efforts by the former chief executive to influence his historical reputation.
Against that backdrop and given George W. Bush's (not always fair) reputation for not being articulate, it is not surprising that this writer wasn't looking forward to reading Decision Points.
Fortunately, I was wrong and, to use a Bushism, I misunderestimated the author.
The memoir, which takes a thematic rather than a chronological approach, is an engaging and occasionally insightful revisiting of the good, bad and ugly highlights of Bush's life and presidency.
Not surprisingly, given what happened during his eight years in office, the bulk of the book focuses on the aftermath of 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, those who follow financial issues won't be disappointed. While he only spends a chapter on the financial crisis, the discussion is quite thorough and he doesn't sugarcoat.
Bush isn't afraid to blame himself and his administration for failures, such as not detecting earlier on that some of Wall Street's practices had the potential to wreak havoc on the economy. But once the meltdown began, Bush put aside his devotion to free markets.
"In a normal environment, the free market would render its judgment and they [troubled financial institutions] could fail. I would have been happy to let them do so," he writes. "I wished there were some way to hold individual firms to account while sparing the rest of the country."
He pats himself on the back by noting that he was an early supporter of reforming mortgage buyers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but faults Congress for not going along. He doesn't, however, examine the impact on the housing crisis of the government's programs to encourage home ownership. To be fair, the blame for those problems is bipartisan as creating an "ownership," society was a key goal of both Bush and his predecessor President Clinton.
His treatment of the events during the tumultuous days of the Wall Street meltdown is, by necessity, selective. He doesn't, for example, discuss the efforts of banking regulators, such as the FDIC and the NCUA. Also, when discussing the role of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in solving the crisis he doesn't comment on how well the Fed did or didn't do its job as a regulator in the pre crisis period.
Someone once asked Richard Nixon how he will be remembered by history, and Nixon replied, "It depends who is writing it."