Frank Bruni possesses the gift of pithiness. His White House bio – Ambling Into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush – weighs in at less than 300 pages, but it’s packed with revealing details. As a journalist (Bruni writes for The New York Times), the author can summarize a subject in a single well-phrased sentence. Bruni limns the pre?Sept. 11 Bush: ”He projected affability more easily than authority, levity more readily than gravity.”
Bruni is a pointillist who admits his book is ”dedicated primarily to what Bush looked and acted like on the edges of what was usually considered news.” Thus, we see Dubya during his ample downtime, goofing with the journalists aboard the campaign plane. But what are we to make of his habit of putting his pinkie to his mouth à la ”Austin Powers”’ Dr. Evil? Bruni declines to draw any conclusions.
Bush emerges as a complex, often paradoxical character. Bruni pegs Bush as a studied anti-intellectual who uses his redneck image as a hedge against criticism of his blue-blood breeding. The chief exec’s personality comes through most clearly in the discussion of his administration’s defining crisis: so far, Sept. 11. Bruni raps Bush for what he portrays as a tentative initial response to the terrorist attacks, then charts his growing sense of gravitas during the aftermath.
At times, Bruni seems to know his subject too well, relating an incident of chumminess that is disturbing in its intimacy. Bruni, whom the nickname-happy Bush dubbed Frankie Boy, relates anecdotes about the candidate pinching his cheeks and sticking fingers in his ears to indicate a quote was off the record. With a politician this accessible, it was perhaps inevitable that the writer would insert himself into the narrative. Bruni takes too-frequent detours into ”Boys on the Bus”-style tales of life on the road. It’s interesting that the pop-culture-impaired Bush didn’t know what ”Sex and the City” was; it’s less interesting that Bruni and his journo buddies formed a ”Sex and the City” club, crowding into a hotel room every Sunday night to watch the HBO sitcom.
In passages like this, Bruni’s book seems to live up to his fear that without the ”hindsight of history” he ”was left with a motley and inconclusive collection of stray details.” But to borrow a George W. Bushism, Bruni may have ”misunderestimated” himself. If it’s true that journalism is the first draft of history, books about incumbent presidents are second drafts, and as such, ”Ambling” is impressive in its observations, but the Bush Administration’s most telling chapters may still be unwritten.