In today’s Boston Globe, I’ve got a review of George W. Bush’s Decision Points. The presidential memoir has become a very odd and very unique media event — an event where the book’s release matters more than the book itself. So the question I kept returning to was this: How does Bush’s book work as a book? That is, does it offer something as a narrative, linear reading experience that the hype does not? The short answer is, yes, it does (Bush’s book is much better than most presidential memoirs); but, no, it’s not always for the best (one reason it’s better is that it captures Bush’s voice and mien, which will turn off plenty of readers).
Anyway, I’ve been making the release vs. book point a lot in the last few weeks — writing about presidential memoirs and TV and, on CBC’s Q radio show, talking about Mark Twain’s autobiography. But I did want to single out one example from Bush’s book. Other than the Kanye West kerfuffle, which I won’t even dignify with a post, the juiciest Decision Points item has been that Barbara Bush showed a young George her miscarried fetus. This story began to circulate even before Bush’s first author interview with Matt Lauer — the New York Post ran a story based on a DVD of the pre-taped interview that it had “exclusively obtained” — but Lauer’s interview really got the ball rolling. MSNBC gave the story the following headline: “Bush: Mother’s miscarriage shaped pro-life views.” The Huffington Post went with: “Bush’s Opposition to Abortion Grew After Mother Showed Him Dead Fetus in a Jar.” The Daily Beast assembled a team of psychoanalytic experts to parse the revelation. The New York Times promised Bush had “started a national conversation — both about his mother, Barbara Bush, and about the complex psychological fallout from miscarriage.”
But the Times did so in a story that was making every effort to prop up this “national conversation.” And that’s how this stuff works. The Bush headlines and absurdist post ops share a tenuous relationship with reality — and no relationship to the former president’s book. First, Lauer was the one who kept pushing the abortion angle. (Bush’s exasperated response: “The purpose of the story really wasn’t to try to show the beginning of a pro-life point of view. It was really to show how my mom and I developed a relationship.”) Second, the Decision Points version says nothing about abortion or the brandishing of a fetus. Here’s the entire (and entirely mild) episode from the book:
One day, shortly after I learned to drive and while Dad was away on a business trip, Mother called me into her bedroom. There was urgency in her voice. She told me to drive her to the hospital immediately. I asked what was wrong. She said she would tell me in the car.
As I pulled out of the driveway, she told me to drive steadily and avoid bumps. Then she said she had just had a miscarriage. I was taken aback. This was a subject I never expected to be discussing with Mother. I also never expected to see the remains of a fetus, which she had saved in a jar to bring to the hospital. I remember thinking: There was a human life, a little brother or sister. [Bush’s emphasis]
In Bush’s book, this is a genuinely affecting moment — not only on its own, but also because Bush describes the death of his younger sister Robin a few pages earlier. In our media ecosystem, however, it has become a perfect example of how the reaction to presidential memoirs plays out — very little initial substance, followed by a string of stories offering diminishing returns, often in the form of metacoverage (reaction about the interview which was about the book, etc.). Like I said, very odd, though maybe not very unique.