The presidency of Donald Trump has been a godsend for George W. Bush. Starting with Bush’s bemused and pitch-perfect reaction to Trump’s “American carnage” inaugural speech—“That was some weird shit,” he allegedly said—the 43rd president has re-emerged in the national consciousness as a beacon of Republican sanity. Watching Bush make oil portraits, weep at funerals, condemn police brutality, and slip mints to Michelle Obama, it’s easy to forget why Bush left office in 2009 as the least popular president since Richard Nixon. Robert Draper’s marvelous new book, To Start a War, brings it all rushing back.
Draper’s focus is the 18-month interval between the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the U.S.’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. Drawing on declassified documents and hundreds of hours of interviews with key insiders—though not Bush himself—Draper delivers a scathing portrait of a “star-studded but tragically dysfunctional administration” run by the country’s first M.B.A. president. In the Bush White House, jackets and ties were mandatory and punctuality rigorously enforced; meetings “started and concluded earlier than scheduled, as if leading the free world amounted to a series of daily sprints.” To outsiders, the president’s insistence on brisk, orderly efficiency “created an illusion of extraordinary competence and engagement.”