Jason Zengerle in The New York Times:
It’s an axiom of American politics that presidents become more popular once they are ex-presidents. Admittedly, George W. Bush had nowhere to go but up. With two months left in his second term, Bush’s approval rating sat at an abysmal 25 percent, just one point higher than Richard Nixon’s during Watergate. On the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, when a Marine helicopter ferried the outgoing president away from the United States Capitol, many in the crowd serenaded him with chants of “Bye-bye Bush!” and “Go home to Texas!” Then the predictable happened. Bush’s absence from public life made Americans’ hearts for him grow fonder. Out of the spotlight, he busied himself painting oil portraits of family pets and world leaders; when he did dip his toe into political waters, it was for laudable and uncontroversial causes like fighting AIDS and malaria in Africa. His poll numbers began their inexorable climb. By June of last year, Bush’s favorability rating was 52 percent — higher than Obama’s at the time. His younger brother, Jeb, started his ill-fated 2016 presidential run with the declaration, “I am my own man.” But by the end of Jeb’s run, he was appearing alongside Dubya at rallies. Although Jeb’s fraternal Hail Mary ultimately fell short, his older brother’s re-emergence on the campaign trail only served to confirm that, fewer than eight years after being hounded from the White House, George W. Bush had become a less polarizing, fairly popular, at times even lovable figure.
Readers of the presidential historian Jean Edward Smith’s mammoth new biography, “Bush,” will surely be cured of this political amnesia. Smith — who has written biographies of Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower — is unsparing in his verdict on our 43rd president. “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush,” Smith writes in the first sentence of the preface. And then he gets harsh. In Smith’s clipped retelling of his subject’s early years, Bush was an unaccomplished, callow son of privilege who cashed in on his family’s connections for everything from his admission to Yale to his avoidance of Vietnam. Quoting Bush’s tautological explanation of his wasted youth — “When I was young and irresponsible, I behaved young and irresponsibly” — Smith concludes, “That pretty well says it all.” Being Texas governor “was scarcely a full-time job,” and his 2000 victory in the presidential race owed as much to the ineptness of his Democratic opponent, Al Gore — who “came across as wooden and self-important” — as it did to Bush’s “ease on the campaign trail.” None of this prepared Bush for the gravity of the responsibilities he would face as president, Smith argues, and time and again Bush failed to meet the challenges of the office.