A Journey: My Political Life, Tony Blair
Decision Points, George W. Bush
Obama's Wars, Bob Woodward
Why on earth should an investor read a political memoir, or political history at all?
Foremost, memoirs are often hugely useful in recalling all that might have fallen from memory through a leader's tenure. To read these books, one gets the impression it's never-ending turmoil, there's never a time or spot of surcease, of rest. Trouble lurks every-where, every-how.
Well, welcome to history. Those who read MarketMinder faithfully know we like to say there's "never a dull moment," and it remains a key lesson for stock investors. In spite of it all, economies do thrive, stocks do climb, and wealth is created. It just doesn't often feel like it. Political books remind us there will never be a time in our investing lives when the world shouts "all clear, things are great," and those who wait for it get stampeded by the bulls long-term.
Political memoirs never change anybody's mind. They just confirm. If you thought George Bush was an ineffective executive, he still is; if you thought George Bush was a courageous leader in a harrowing epoch, he still is. Same for Tony Blair, who's become something of the UK's version of George Bush—folks love or hate him and no in between.
And make no mistake: Political memoirs aren't about candor, they begin the process of legacy building for a retired leader. They're meant to set the stage for how historians will judge their tenure. A closing argument, as it were. That makes these things full of rationalization, bias, skewed perspective, and yes, political speak. The simple fact is that we've always expected too much out of our leaders—who are just as flawed as any of us and that's no different today than it was in prior eras—and that's not the ultimate ethos of democratic capitalism, which places self-reliance at its core.
The upshot is you get a more intimate sense of what kinds of politicians these folks were. These books are studies in how to build and sustain a coherent political persona. And for better or worse, these were two of the most noteworthy of the era. There is no mistaking George W. Bush in Decision Points—the confident, simple language is all him. Same for Tony Blair—in A Journey, his dapper, eloquent but principle-based words can't be mistaken for anyone else's.
Many will be surprised to hear both the Bush and Blair books are better than other recent political memoirs. True, these guys aren't Churchill or Lincoln, but theirs are better literary offerings than, say, Nixon, Carter, and Clinton's. Blair is a gifted communicator who describes circumstances and their emotional hue with great skill. Bush, of course, was never known as a communicator. But it's almost a virtue in his book. Decision Points is not a sweeping narrative; it's a pinpointed view of what Bush felt were the decisive issues of his life and presidency. There's very little tedium in his book, and that's a nice change.
I read in another prominent publication that Bush doesn't show much contrition in Decision Points. Whatever you think of him, that much isn't true. There isn't a chapter he doesn't confess some mishap. It's easy to love or hate Bush because, as his book really displays, he was stark—black and white and no gray. He didn't do the wishy-washy political thing that most do. The real false sale of Decision Points is that it was largely billed as a study in executive management, and that it is not. Instead, it's more like a series of vignettes on difficult situations and what happened rather than a schooling in the conceptual or tactical process of making executive decisions.
Blair is actually much less contrite than Bush. But he is so much more slick and eloquent in A Journey that he comes off humbler, even though the pure words he speaks are not. One can't help but note how much Blair clearly emulates his political soul-mate, Bill Clinton. Blair is a master at seeming to bare his all emotionally, empathizing, sympathizing, but appearing strong and bold nonetheless. That is, he's charismatic politically in many of the same ways Clinton was. Blair often talks in emotive tones, eschewing too much detail and tedium in favor of his personal reactions, his feelings, his perceptions, and the lessons he learned. Conversely, Bush's prose is at times like a séance to channel the ghost of Ronald Reagan. In this, Bush usually falls short, but not always.
Rounding out the Turkey Day reading was Bob Woodward's latest presidential war entry—Obama's Wars. This book is about the same in tone, breadth, and quality as all Woodward's previous works on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—a sterling and faithful work of journalism. And sure, it's a political "insider's" perspective, but one gets the sense it's all a bit too staged, a bit too clean and glossy. Even the cussing feels sanitized. There's no revelation in these books, it's more like a well-wrought, long-form narrative. That makes Woodward's books excellent for getting an education on the main political and military issues of these conflicts. But it also makes them less insightful.
Wars will continue—we'll even have more of them, and the same with presidents. Through those periods there will be highs and lows, but it'll never be dull, that much we can say. History gives investors great context and shows today is no less or more angst-ridden or turmoil-trodden than epochs of the past. But we go on.