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Ambling into History
From frat boy to president
By Steven Martinovich
Part campaign trail travelogue, part character investigation and part media critique, Frank Bruni's Ambling into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush is unfortunately too diffused to focus in on what the title promises: an investigation into how a former partying frat boy became America's 43rd president.
Bruni's primary hypothesis is that the pre-September 11 George W. Bush changed subtly, from a "timeless fraternity boy and heedless cutup, a weekday gym rat and weekend napster, and adult with an inner child" - as he describes him early on - to someone who recognized that his folksy ways would have to give way to a more composed and serious wartime leader.
Given the extraordinary access and resources available to him, it's surprising that Bruni wasn't able to conclusively prove his own theory. After covering Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign, interviewing friends and family and reporting from the White House after the inauguration, Bruni doesn't seem to know all that much more about Bush that a member of the public couldn't have gleaned simply by reading evenhanded reporting. The requisite insider stories are there, but the glimpse into Bush's soul is nowhere to be found.
Bruni's investigation of Bush is also further hampered by his continued side forays, primarily his criticism of the superficial nature of election reporting. He continually blasts his counterparts for covering extensively the pomp and pageantry that comes along with a presidential campaign and the inevitable scandals and mostly failing to figure out what Al Gore and Bush really believed, what kind of men they were and what kind of leadership could either man offer. It's an interesting criticism given that Bruni himself was guilty of the same offences - a fact that he admits at several points in his narrative.
There is also the glaring - and completely surprising - absence of any investigation into Bush's past. It can be argued that Bruni's primary focus was the 2000 campaign and the first year of Bush's presidency, but in order to explain where a man is, you have to reveal where it is that he came from. Bruni fails to delve terribly deeply into Bush's past and we are essentially given a portrait of a man who one day graduated with an MBA and another day launched his campaign for the presidency - a gap of some twenty years.
Of course, no effort is completely flawed. Bruni does win points with his observations of the Bush family, their relations with each other and the expectations each feels carrying on a legacy no less important than that of America's other royal family, the Kennedy family. At several points he wonders - without really answering - whether the family's lower expectations for George W. Bush, in contrast to those for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, prompted his sobriety and run for the presidency. His revelations - if one could call them that - of Bush's occasional loss of focus and inappropriate behavior is an interesting look at how candidates act when they aren't in front of a camera are interesting if only to solidify the perception that Bush is what he appears to be.
As disappointing as Bruni's effort is, Ambling into History does offer some interesting insights into the man currently leading the world's war against terrorism. As much as Bush allowed him, and we can't assume the campaign didn't try to spin Bruni and the rest of the media at some times, we are given a view of the man away from the grind of the campaign, one given to pranks and jokes, yet at the same time a man who enjoys quiet reflection. Bush is a dichotomy come to life to those who watch him, perhaps one of the reasons of his early successes in office. It's a shame that Bruni wasn't able to better explain one of the more unique American presidents in many years.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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