Bush is back – and he has 1.5 million books to shift
Busy tour begins with signings in Texas and an hour on Oprah's couch
He started gently enough, travelling all of one-and-a-half miles from his house in North Dallas early yesterday to sign copies of his memoir, Decision Points, at a branch of Borders bookshop. Was he allowed to go home afterwards and finish his breakfast? Hardly. There will be no rest for George W Bush for many days to come.
It is not exactly a comeback tour – returning to politics is not in his future, he says – but there is no shirking the promotional duties that befall every author, even if he is a former president. Crown Books, the publisher, has ordered a first print-run of 1.5 million copies. That's a lot of hardback copies to shift, and they want him out there.
Some of the blitz was cooked in advance. Over 24 hours, kicking off on Monday night, Americans got to glimpse their former leader conversing with NBC at his childhood home in Texas, tramping the fields of his ranch in Crawford with Fox News and showing Oprah Winfrey around the Bush family home in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Most critics agree that the book itself, which runs to fewer than 500 pages, contains little that will shock or surprise the public. "Competent, readable and flat" was the headline on The Washington Post's review. The moments in his life and presidency that get particular attention include his abandonment of alcohol, the 9/11 attacks, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Hurricane Katrina disaster and the economic meltdown and elections of 2008.
If the idea of the book and tour is to repackage and rehabilitate Mr Bush, who left office with such low ratings, then his hour on The Oprah Winfrey Show last night was the ticket. He was alternately self-deprecating, jokey and reflective. "Alcohol at times made me a fool," Mr Bush told her, for instance, recalling giving it up at 40 and telling a story from the book about turning drunk to a "lovely woman" at a dinner table and asking what sex was like after 50. As for people saying he was "stupid" as president, it didn't hurt him, he said, but it did his daughters and wife.
When probed by Winfrey about the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was toppled, Mr Bush said: "I felt terrible about it and sick about it and still do." He insisted, however, that the world was a better place with Saddam gone. Would he have invaded had he known the weapons did not exist? "That is a question I cannot answer," he added.
The sometimes syrupy tone changed when the discussion turned to Hurricane Katrina and allegations at the time that the government was slow to help because the victims were mostly black. "To accuse me of being a racist is disgusting," Mr Bush said, leaning forward and fixing Winfrey with a glare.
That the book will be a bestseller hardly seems in doubt. Six presidents (one still sitting) have managed to get to No 1 on the New York Times non-fiction list. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did it after leaving office; Dwight D Eisenhower and Barack Obama made the grade before reaching the highest office in the land. Two presidents – Ronald Reagan and John F Kennedy – also had No 1 sellers, both posthumously. On the other hand, Richard Nixon wrote no fewer than 12 books after leaving office in disgrace, but never made it to No 1. The man who replaced him, Gerald Ford, was a bit of a dud on the author front, though he tried. They write them, of course, to make sure they get to tell their story before less friendly historians have a crack.
A first sign that that there enough Americans still fond enough of Mr Bush to buy the book was right there at Borders in Dallas. Several hundred snaked around the mall where the shop is located; some had begun queueing on Monday and camped out all night.
"Many things happened during his presidency," said Patti Woodward, who drove to the store at 6am in hope of getting in to obtain a signed copy and shake Mr Bush's hand. "I'm thankful he was president at that time."
Borders said that by 11am it had sold virtually all of the copies of Decision Points it ordered for the event. Mr Bush signed books for 1,300 customers – 500 more than planned – and 500 bookplates for those still queueing when he left.
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