The Chameleon President: The Curious Case of George W. Bush

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The Chameleon President: The Curious Case of George W. Bush. By Clarke Rountree. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2012. 287 pp.

In this often puzzling book, Clarke Rountree seeks to place President George W. Bush, "one of the most confounding politicians in modern times" (p. ix), into a more accurate and appropriate scholarly frame. A reflexive anti-Bushism has disabled too much of the scholarship about the Texan. The author appears to want to correct this trend and to get beyond simple categories by using them to construct a more integrated and complex picture of the former president. Bush is thus considered against several caricatures (as "Not the Sharpest Tool in the Shed," as "The Callow Frat Boy," as "Born-Again," as "Evil," as "Cheney's Puppet," and so forth--afforded a chapter each) in an effort to transcend these. This interrogation of caricature (and, too often, by caricature) concludes by asking, "Would the Real George W. Bush Please Stand Up?--a question to which Rountree ultimately does not provide an answer, preferring to let his readers decide.

Rountree, a professor of Communication Arts, is keen throughout to keep his own position mysterious. This goal would be tenable--if not especially interesting had he not begun the book with an introductory chapter that makes rather plain his distaste for its subject: "the ugly body of work known as George W. Bush's presidency" (p. xi). Later, readers are told that Bush "is callous, greedy, deceptive, heartless, uncaring, a traitor to the public interest, a liar who covers up his true motives, a Machiavelli willing to do anything to get his way.... This bad man was able to do great evil and is rightly characterized an evil president" (p. 173). Elsewhere, Rountree seems to accept the stereotypes of Bush as "just not very bright" (p. 20), as "an old but immature frat boy" (p. 41), and as a "Southern oligarch" (p. 80) who was "raised to be a prince" (p. 99). Bush's "insufferable arrogance and his patent incompetence" (p. 99) are colorfully illustrated and condemned--though hardly proven--throughout.

One appreciates that the author is attempting to assume the bias of each construction as a kind of role-play exercise. But one wonders why the author considers this method to be more revealing than simply interrogating each construction on its merits. Instead, the book presents a series of black and white portraits, and compares, contrasts, and analyzes them only minimally. The truism that "people disagree about the facts" (p. 239) is an insufficient excuse for avoiding the judgments that would make Rountree's work potentially very interesting.

There are other weaknesses undermining the text. It relies, for example, too much on exclamation marks, while exhibiting a frequent recourse to humor. …