George W. Bush Vs. Jay-Z

Both men have written memoirs. But who has the more interesting story?

It’s the advent of the holiday season, the time of year when books get bought and gift-wrapped.

That’s why we saw so much of George Bush in recent days out hustling his memoirs, and why we’re seeing and hearing from music impresario Jay-Z, who has written a book that tells how he went from street hustler to one of the most financially successful hip hop artists and entrepreneurs in the country.

Is there any doubt which of these men has the better story to tell?

In TV interview after TV interview, Bush seemed a wee version of his old stubbornly block-headed self. He actually appeared evenhanded at times, like the way he refused to knock Obama because he didn’t think it was his place. You could, for a minute or two, almost forget.

But then, inevitably, there came that moment in every interview when Bush would flash that smug look, the one that made us recoil with revulsion so many times over that endless eight-year stretch of desolation.

He’d be sitting back, being gracious and appearing damn near thoughtful, and then it would come: the inevitable subject of Iraq. And with that the old monkey-brained defense would be trotted out and the smug smile would appear right on cue. Saddam was an evil guy, he would say, as he always did, and it was my job to keep America safe. And by the way [insert smug smile here], the terrorists didn’t hit us again, did they?

Bush ended his book tour by breaking ground at the site of his presidential library alongside shovel-toting compatriots Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney — thus creating the ultimate flashback photo op from hell.

In the end, nothing new, nothing learned, just the same old Bush-Cheney whitewash, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Jay-Z, conversely, is hustling a book about change, reinvention and the new capitalism.

His book — Decoded, priced at a no-nonsense 35 bucks — is fresh even in its design. The layout, typography and artwork are bold, of the moment—hardly surprising, given his previous always-on-the-edge work.

Jay-Z came from the housing projects in Bed Stuy, was abandoned by his father at age 12 and went on to make the worst of it: hustling crack, beefing with rappers and even stabbing a record executive. By rights, he should be dead.

But the strong survive, especially those that change, and Jay-Z went on to create his own record company, and clothing and beauty lines; he also became part owner of the New Jersey Nets, the owner of a popular upscale NYC city sports bar and part of a group that acquired a $66 million parcel of land in Chelsea, where he’s planning high rises and art galleries. His portfolio spilleth over.

So does his luck. He’s also married to Beyonce.

In Decoded, he writes about the music he made and what he was thinking about at the time as a literary device. What you see is how his thinking changed, and how it keeps changing. (In this interview with Terry Gross, you get to hear that thinking.)

A lot of what Jay-Z has done in his life isn’t very pretty. But he’s thought about it all, a lot, and he still is.

Consider this passage from Decoded:

“There is a knee-jerk fear in America that someone—especially someone young and black—is coming to take your shit, fuck up your brand, destroy the quality of your life, tarnish the things you love. But in hip-hop, despite all the brand shout-outs, the truth is, we don’t want your shit. We came out of the generation of black people who finally got the point. No one’s going to help us. So we went for self, for family, for block, for crew—which sounds selfish; it’s one of the criticisms hustlers and rappers both get: that we’re hypercapitalists, concerned only with bottom line and enriching ourselves. But it’s just a rational response to the reality we faced. No one was going to help us. Not even our fathers stuck around. People who looked just like us were gunning for us. Weakness and dependence made you a mark., like a dope fiend. Success could only mean self-sufficiency, being a boss, not a dependent. The competition wasn’t just about greed—or not just about greed. It was about survival.”

Any doubt which of these two authors will keep you turning the pages to see what comes next?

Tim Whitaker (, a writer and editor, is the executive director of Mighty Writers, a nonprofit program that inspires city kids to write.