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book review

Former president George W. Bush in a photograph taken during an infamous moment of his term, as he declares a victory in Iraq, onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003.STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP / Getty Images

In the last year of his administration, George W. Bush was bailing out the auto and financial sectors – and also performing wonders for the publishing industry. Book after book chronicled his disastrous two terms in office: the squandering of international goodwill following the 9/11 attacks, his $3-trillion (U.S.) misadventure in Iraq, an economy left devastated by a kind of frat-boy abandon.

Since leaving office in 2009, the man once known as Shrub disappeared into the Texan sunset. No longer the target of limitless print and unending footage, he was largely dismissed but almost never forgiven. It's into this political twilight that biographer Jean Edward Smith (Eisenhower in War and Peace, FDR) has published Bush. With a decade's worth of hindsight, the biography either could be brimming with fresh and scathing detail about his eight years in office, or offer a dramatic revision of one of the United States's most pilloried presidents: George W. Bush, Misunderstood Prophet.

Alas, it is neither. Instead Bush sets out to be the stately and scathing final word on one of the darkest tenures in U.S. history. "Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush," is the book's opening line, betraying the accurate if not shopworn theory that pervades it. Despite a few tics and a heavy-handed cover that makes Bush resemble Alfred E. Neuman of What, Me Worry fame, the biography largely succeeds.

Professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and lauded author (columnist and recent Republican Party defector George Will called him "America's greatest living biographer"), Smith has woven a compelling examination of George W. Bush's unlikely ascent to the White House and his calamitous administration of it. It is not a book of revelation, but a masterful retelling.

Most of us already know the arc of Bush's story: the affable rogue and – as Smith deftly reminds us – extremely productive Texas governor whose early success was based on a profound contradiction: the more effortless he made his job look, the more he succeeded. It was a formula that also helped him slip into the White House. "In a sense, Bush won the debate by not losing it," Smith writes about one of Bush's presidential debates with Democratic Party candidate Al Gore. But once "43" becomes Commander-in-Chief and starts making big decisions on his own, or with his echo chamber aides and foreign-policy Vulcans, the results are catastrophic.

To his credit, Smith takes complicated problems – books in and of themselves – such as the Florida presidential recount, toxic mortgages, unlawful detention of terrorist suspects, and makes them accessible and compelling. There is also some careful recalibration the benefit of hindsight has afforded him.

Some vilified characters receive a softer focus. Donald Rumsfeld, for example, comes off far less severe and dogmatic than in Bob Woodward's telling; here, he is warning his president about the potential dangers of firing Baathist officials in Iraq and leaving a power vacuum. Bush's senior adviser Karl Rove is presented as more an incidental sideshow than the star architect of Bush's power edifice.

Smith also revisits some of the smaller excesses and footnotes of the era with economy and aplomb: the anthrax scare, Freedom Fries, the self-named Vulcans who advised Bush on his foreign policy, the ways that Dubya always managed to wriggle out of firing his cabinet secretaries, his apocalyptic language of good and bad. And remember a Jon Snow who spelled his first name with an H and ran the Treasury Department?

One of the book's weaknesses, however, is Smith's own hyperbole. There are many sniffy and predictable zingers that undermine the author's considerable authority: the president depicted as a strutting cowboy, hot-headed Sonny Corleone, J.R. Ewing of the American League West. A preeminent military scholar, Smith sounds more like angry post-graduate student or tipsy French boulevardier.

The author is preaching to the converted, no doubt, but the converted have heard some of this fire and brimstone."Like Big Brother in 1984, the president launched the nation on a never-ending struggle," he writes, recalling the president's message of war to the joint session of Congress a week after the 9/11 attacks. Or take this screed toward the first third of the book: "The arrogance in asserting that the United States was undertaking a struggle to rid the world of evil is breathtaking," he notes. "It provided an umbrella for two costly and futile wars and a wholesale assault on American civil liberty."

Wedded to chronology, the book softens on Bush toward the end when, Smith implicitly argues, the president belatedly grew into his role. A renegade for the better, "43" was pushing for a surge in U.S. troops to secure Iraq, a gamble that paid off. Eschewing his own ideologies of self-reliance, he also urges bailouts for the automotive and financial sectors, staving off his country's financial ruin.

Smith also praises out the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, which is undeservedly presented as a footnote of his foreign policy and launched in 2003. Bush's fetish for rapid, CEO decisiveness led to the fathomless misery of millions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in this instance, the $15-billion, five-year-plan did help avert over a million deaths in Africa.

This is all part of an implicit argument that Bush circles back to the idea of compassionate conservatism. This arguably becomes the most tragic and forgotten aspect of the personal Bush narrative, and where Smith distinguishes himself most from foam-mouthed hordes of critics. By the time Bush was leading with political maturity, it was too late. By the time he was expressing regret for his chronic mismanagement, most Americans had written him off.

Given everything that happened before 2007, Barack Obama's historic election a year later, and the GOP's lurch toward demagoguery, one could almost be forgiven for not remembering that this was the same George W. Bush who repeatedly said, "Family values don't stop at the Rio Grande."

Forgive Bush or not, it already feels like a long time since any leading Republican has expressed that kind of humanity.

Craig Offman is a Globe and Mail feature writer.