George W. Bush and the Question of Authorship

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by Sara Mayeux

I've noticed a funny thing in reading reviews of Decision Points: a wide variance in how far the reviewers go in treating the book as though it were actually written by George W. Bush.


At one extreme, we have Michael Kinsley, who takes the book as the result of writerly decisions made by Bush himself—decisions about what "tone" to "adopt," and so forth:

There is something very modern, almost New Agey, and endearingly insecure, about the tone and posture the son adopts in "Decision Points." Even as he's bombing Baghdad back to the Stone Age, he's very much in touch with his feelings. 

Then there's Michiko Kakutani, who takes much the same tack:

A dogged work of reminiscence by an author not naturally given to introspection, "Decision Points" lacks the emotional precision and evocative power of his wife Laura's book, "Spoken From the Heart," published earlier this year ... The prose in "Decision Points" is utilitarian, the language staccato and blunt.         

George Packer basically talks about the book as though Bush wrote it but at times slides into a curiously impersonal syntax—the book writes itself: "it leaves out facts, large and small, whose absence draws more attention than their inclusion would have." Only with Joseph Lelyveld's review in the New York Review of Books are we reminded that Bush had help from his speechwriter, though Bush is still named as the "author," as in, "the book is given, like its author, to humorous asides." 

And finally at the other extreme, there's my favorite review, Eliot Weinberger's Foucauldian reading in the London Review of Books:

Decision Points holds the same relation to George W. Bush as a line of fashion accessories or a perfume does to the movie star that bears its name; he no doubt served in some advisory capacity. The words themselves have been assembled by Chris Michel (the young speechwriter and devoted acolyte who went to Yale with Bush's daughter Barbara); a freelance editor, Sean Desmond; the staff at Crown Publishing (who reportedly paid $7 million for the book); a team of a dozen researchers; and scores of 'trusted friends'. Foucault: 'What difference does it make who is speaking?' 'The mark of the writer is ... nothing more than the singularity of his absence.'

I guess what I find interesting about this set of reviews has less to do with George W. Bush per se, and more to do with the conventions of reviewing. Whenever we read a book by a public figure we can generally assume that it was a collective endeavor. And even non-celebrity writers who don't have ghostwriters or assistants necessarily write in conversation with friends, colleagues, family, other writers. But reviews almost always talk of authors as singular. Maybe this is just for ease of pronoun selection. In the case of George W. Bush, though, with all the questions of authority and accountability swirling around his legacy, what's the import of adopting the reviewer's fiction that he wrote his own book? Might it represent, in this special case, a final insistence on the part of the reviewers that Bush must be held accountable for what goes out under his name? Is a review like Weinberger's that takes more literally the conditions of the book's production a case of exposing the naked emperor or protesting too much? Does it really matter who wrote the book?
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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