Rumsfeld Should Not Resign--Bush Should Resign!
My previous post asked whether Donald Rumsfeld should resign. I'm asking the question about the wrong guy. Rummy only does what he is told. He implements the policy decisions made by the"decider" in chief. Bush needs to go (and by extension Cheney as well). We need a restructuring of the entire executive branch. We need a new vision (hell any vision) for our country.
Rolling Stone Magazine has a powerful, take your breath away article , The Worst President in History, on Bush's competence and potential standing in history as the worst president ever. The article was writted by Sean Wilentz, a Professor of History at Princeton since 1987.
They also have an I told you so link to their previous review of Bush prior to entering office--entitled All Hat, No Cattle. Both are must read articles. I'm reposting them in their entirety below just to have for future reference should they move the links at some future time.
The Worst President in History?
One of America's leading historians assesses George W. Bush
George W. Bush's presidency appears headed for colossal historical disgrace. Barring a cataclysmic event on the order of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, after which the public might rally around the White House once again, there seems to be little the administration can do to avoid being ranked on the lowest tier of U.S. presidents. And that may be the best-case scenario. Many historians are now wondering whether Bush, in fact, will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history.
From time to time, after hours, I kick back with my colleagues at Princeton to argue idly about which president really was the worst of them all. For years, these perennial debates have largely focused on the same handful of chief executives whom national polls of historians, from across the ideological and political spectrum, routinely cite as the bottom of the presidential barrel. Was the lousiest James Buchanan, who, confronted with Southern secession in 1860, dithered to a degree that, as his most recent biographer has said, probably amounted to disloyalty -- and who handed to his successor, Abraham Lincoln, a nation already torn asunder? Was it Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, who actively sided with former Confederates and undermined Reconstruction? What about the amiably incompetent Warren G. Harding, whose administration was fabulously corrupt? Or, though he has his defenders, Herbert Hoover, who tried some reforms but remained imprisoned in his own outmoded individualist ethic and collapsed under the weight of the stock-market crash of 1929 and the Depression's onset? The younger historians always put in a word for Richard M. Nixon, the only American president forced to resign from office.
Now, though, George W. Bush is in serious contention for the title of worst ever. In early 2004, an informal survey of 415 historians conducted by the nonpartisan History News Network found that eighty-one percent considered the Bush administration a "failure." Among those who called Bush a success, many gave the president high marks only for his ability to mobilize public support and get Congress to go along with what one historian called the administration's "pursuit of disastrous policies." In fact, roughly one in ten of those who called Bush a success was being facetious, rating him only as the best president since Bill Clinton -- a category in which Bush is the only contestant.
The lopsided decision of historians should give everyone pause. Contrary to popular stereotypes, historians are generally a cautious bunch. We assess the past from widely divergent points of view and are deeply concerned about being viewed as fair and accurate by our colleagues. When we make historical judgments, we are acting not as voters or even pundits, but as scholars who must evaluate all the evidence, good, bad or indifferent. Separate surveys, conducted by those perceived as conservatives as well as liberals, show remarkable unanimity about who the best and worst presidents have been.
Historians do tend, as a group, to be far more liberal than the citizenry as a whole -- a fact the president's admirers have seized on to dismiss the poll results as transparently biased. One pro-Bush historian said the survey revealed more about "the current crop of history professors" than about Bush or about Bush's eventual standing. But if historians were simply motivated by a strong collective liberal bias, they might be expected to call Bush the worst president since his father, or Ronald Reagan, or Nixon. Instead, more than half of those polled -- and nearly three-fourths of those who gave Bush a negative rating -- reached back before Nixon to find a president they considered as miserable as Bush. The presidents most commonly linked with Bush included Hoover, Andrew Johnson and Buchanan. Twelve percent of the historians polled -- nearly as many as those who rated Bush a success -- flatly called Bush the worst president in American history. And these figures were gathered before the debacles over Hurricane Katrina, Bush's role in the Valerie Plame leak affair and the deterioration of the situation in Iraq. Were the historians polled today, that figure would certainly be higher.
Even worse for the president, the general public, having once given Bush the highest approval ratings ever recorded, now appears to be coming around to the dismal view held by most historians. To be sure, the president retains a considerable base of supporters who believe in and adore him, and who reject all criticism with a mixture of disbelief and fierce contempt -- about one-third of the electorate. (When the columnist Richard Reeves publicized the historians' poll last year and suggested it might have merit, he drew thousands of abusive replies that called him an idiot and that praised Bush as, in one writer's words, "a Christian who actually acts on his deeply held beliefs.") Yet the ranks of the true believers have thinned dramatically. A majority of voters in forty-three states now disapprove of Bush's handling of his job. Since the commencement of reliable polling in the 1940s, only one twice-elected president has seen his ratings fall as low as Bush's in his second term: Richard Nixon, during the months preceding his resignation in 1974. No two-term president since polling began has fallen from such a height of popularity as Bush's (in the neighborhood of ninety percent, during the patriotic upswell following the 2001 attacks) to such a low (now in the midthirties). No president, including Harry Truman (whose ratings sometimes dipped below Nixonian levels), has experienced such a virtually unrelieved decline as Bush has since his high point. Apart from sharp but temporary upticks that followed the commencement of the Iraq war and the capture of Saddam Hussein, and a recovery during the weeks just before and after his re-election, the Bush trend has been a profile in fairly steady disillusionment.
* * * *
How does any president's reputation sink so low? The reasons are best understood as the reverse of those that produce presidential greatness. In almost every survey of historians dating back to the 1940s, three presidents have emerged as supreme successes: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. These were the men who guided the nation through what historians consider its greatest crises: the founding era after the ratification of the Constitution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression and Second World War. Presented with arduous, at times seemingly impossible circumstances, they rallied the nation, governed brilliantly and left the republic more secure than when they entered office.
Calamitous presidents, faced with enormous difficulties -- Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Hoover and now Bush -- have divided the nation, governed erratically and left the nation worse off. In each case, different factors contributed to the failure: disastrous domestic policies, foreign-policy blunders and military setbacks, executive misconduct, crises of credibility and public trust. Bush, however, is one of the rarities in presidential history: He has not only stumbled badly in every one of these key areas, he has also displayed a weakness common among the greatest presidential failures -- an unswerving adherence to a simplistic ideology that abjures deviation from dogma as heresy, thus preventing any pragmatic adjustment to changing realities. Repeatedly, Bush has undone himself, a failing revealed in each major area of presidential performance.
* * * *
THE CREDIBILITY GAP
No previous president appears to have squandered the public's trust more than Bush has. In the 1840s, President James Polk gained a reputation for deviousness over his alleged manufacturing of the war with Mexico and his supposedly covert pro-slavery views. Abraham Lincoln, then an Illinois congressman, virtually labeled Polk a liar when he called him, from the floor of the House, "a bewildered, confounded and miserably perplexed man" and denounced the war as "from beginning to end, the sheerest deception." But the swift American victory in the war, Polk's decision to stick by his pledge to serve only one term and his sudden death shortly after leaving office spared him the ignominy over slavery that befell his successors in the 1850s. With more than two years to go in Bush's second term and no swift victory in sight, Bush's reputation will probably have no such reprieve.
The problems besetting Bush are of a more modern kind than Polk's, suited to the television age -- a crisis both in confidence and credibility. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam travails gave birth to the phrase "credibility gap," meaning the distance between a president's professions and the public's perceptions of reality. It took more than two years for Johnson's disapproval rating in the Gallup Poll to reach fifty-two percent in March 1968 -- a figure Bush long ago surpassed, but that was sufficient to persuade the proud LBJ not to seek re-election. Yet recently, just short of three years after Bush buoyantly declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq, his disapproval ratings have been running considerably higher than Johnson's, at about sixty percent. More than half the country now considers Bush dishonest and untrustworthy, and a decisive plurality consider him less trustworthy than his predecessor, Bill Clinton -- a figure still attacked by conservative zealots as "Slick Willie."
Previous modern presidents, including Truman, Reagan and Clinton, managed to reverse plummeting ratings and regain the public's trust by shifting attention away from political and policy setbacks, and by overhauling the White House's inner circles. But Bush's publicly expressed view that he has made no major mistakes, coupled with what even the conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. calls his "high-flown pronouncements" about failed policies, seems to foreclose the first option. Upping the ante in the Middle East and bombing Iranian nuclear sites, a strategy reportedly favored by some in the White House, could distract the public and gain Bush immediate political capital in advance of the 2006 midterm elections -- but in the long term might severely worsen the already dire situation in Iraq, especially among Shiite Muslims linked to the Iranians. And given Bush's ardent attachment to loyal aides, no matter how discredited, a major personnel shake-up is improbable, short of indictments. Replacing Andrew Card with Joshua Bolten as chief of staff -- a move announced by the president in March in a tone that sounded more like defiance than contrition -- represents a rededication to current policies and personnel, not a serious change. (Card, an old Bush family retainer, was widely considered more moderate than most of the men around the president and had little involvement in policy-making.) The power of Vice President Dick Cheney, meanwhile, remains uncurbed. Were Cheney to announce he is stepping down due to health problems, normally a polite pretext for a political removal, one can be reasonably certain it would be because Cheney actually did have grave health problems.
* * * *
BUSH AT WAR
Until the twentieth century, American presidents managed foreign wars well -- including those presidents who prosecuted unpopular wars. James Madison had no support from Federalist New England at the outset of the War of 1812, and the discontent grew amid mounting military setbacks in 1813. But Federalist political overreaching, combined with a reversal of America's military fortunes and the negotiation of a peace with Britain, made Madison something of a hero again and ushered in a brief so-called Era of Good Feelings in which his Jeffersonian Republican Party coalition ruled virtually unopposed. The Mexican War under Polk was even more unpopular, but its quick and victorious conclusion redounded to Polk's favor -- much as the rapid American victory in the Spanish-American War helped William McKinley overcome anti-imperialist dissent.
The twentieth century was crueler to wartime presidents. After winning re-election in 1916 with the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War," Woodrow Wilson oversaw American entry into the First World War. Yet while the doughboys returned home triumphant, Wilson's idealistic and politically disastrous campaign for American entry into the League of Nations presaged a resurgence of the opposition Republican Party along with a redoubling of American isolationism that lasted until Pearl Harbor.
Bush has more in common with post-1945 Democratic presidents Truman and Johnson, who both became bogged down in overseas military conflicts with no end, let alone victory, in sight. But Bush has become bogged down in a singularly crippling way. On September 10th, 2001, he held among the lowest ratings of any modern president for that point in a first term. (Only Gerald Ford, his popularity reeling after his pardon of Nixon, had comparable numbers.) The attacks the following day transformed Bush's presidency, giving him an extraordinary opportunity to achieve greatness. Some of the early signs were encouraging. Bush's simple, unflinching eloquence and his quick toppling of the Taliban government in Afghanistan rallied the nation. Yet even then, Bush wasted his chance by quickly choosing partisanship over leadership.
No other president -- Lincoln in the Civil War, FDR in World War II, John F. Kennedy at critical moments of the Cold War -- faced with such a monumental set of military and political circumstances failed to embrace the opposing political party to help wage a truly national struggle. But Bush shut out and even demonized the Democrats. Top military advisers and even members of the president's own Cabinet who expressed any reservations or criticisms of his policies -- including retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni and former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill -- suffered either dismissal, smear attacks from the president's supporters or investigations into their alleged breaches of national security. The wise men who counseled Bush's father, including James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, found their entreaties brusquely ignored by his son. When asked if he ever sought advice from the elder Bush, the president responded, "There is a higher Father that I appeal to."
All the while, Bush and the most powerful figures in the administration, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, were planting the seeds for the crises to come by diverting the struggle against Al Qaeda toward an all-out effort to topple their pre-existing target, Saddam Hussein. In a deliberate political decision, the administration stampeded the Congress and a traumatized citizenry into the Iraq invasion on the basis of what has now been demonstrated to be tendentious and perhaps fabricated evidence of an imminent Iraqi threat to American security, one that the White House suggested included nuclear weapons. Instead of emphasizing any political, diplomatic or humanitarian aspects of a war on Iraq -- an appeal that would have sounded too "sensitive," as Cheney once sneered -- the administration built a "Bush Doctrine" of unprovoked, preventive warfare, based on speculative threats and embracing principles previously abjured by every previous generation of U.S. foreign policy-makers, even at the height of the Cold War. The president did so with premises founded, in the case of Iraq, on wishful thinking. He did so while proclaiming an expansive Wilsonian rhetoric of making the world safe for democracy -- yet discarding the multilateralism and systems of international law (including the Geneva Conventions) that emanated from Wilson's idealism. He did so while dismissing intelligence that an American invasion could spark a long and bloody civil war among Iraq's fierce religious and ethnic rivals, reports that have since proved true. And he did so after repeated warnings by military officials such as Gen. Eric Shinseki that pacifying postwar Iraq would require hundreds of thousands of American troops -- accurate estimates that Paul Wolfowitz and other Bush policy gurus ridiculed as "wildly off the mark."
When William F. Buckley, the man whom many credit as the founder of the modern conservative movement, writes categorically, as he did in February, that "one can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed," then something terrible has happened. Even as a brash young iconoclast, Buckley always took the long view. The Bush White House seems incapable of doing so, except insofar as a tiny trusted circle around the president constantly reassures him that he is a messianic liberator and profound freedom fighter, on a par with FDR and Lincoln, and that history will vindicate his every act and utterance.
* * * *
BUSH AT HOME
Bush came to office in 2001 pledging to govern as a "compassionate conservative," more moderate on domestic policy than the dominant right wing of his party. The pledge proved hollow, as Bush tacked immediately to the hard right. Previous presidents and their parties have suffered when their actions have belied their campaign promises. Lyndon Johnson is the most conspicuous recent example, having declared in his 1964 run against the hawkish Republican Barry Goldwater that "we are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves." But no president has surpassed Bush in departing so thoroughly from his original campaign persona.
The heart of Bush's domestic policy has turned out to be nothing more than a series of massively regressive tax cuts -- a return, with a vengeance, to the discredited Reagan-era supply-side faith that Bush's father once ridiculed as "voodoo economics." Bush crowed in triumph in February 2004, "We cut taxes, which basically meant people had more money in their pocket." The claim is bogus for the majority of Americans, as are claims that tax cuts have led to impressive new private investment and job growth. While wiping out the solid Clinton-era federal surplus and raising federal deficits to staggering record levels, Bush's tax policies have necessitated hikes in federal fees, state and local taxes, and co-payment charges to needy veterans and families who rely on Medicaid, along with cuts in loan programs to small businesses and college students, and in a wide range of state services. The lion's share of benefits from the tax cuts has gone to the very richest Americans, while new business investment has increased at a historically sluggish rate since the peak of the last business cycle five years ago. Private-sector job growth since 2001 has been anemic compared to the Bush administration's original forecasts and is chiefly attributable not to the tax cuts but to increased federal spending, especially on defense. Real wages for middle-income Americans have been dropping since the end of 2003: Last year, on average, nominal wages grew by only 2.4 percent, a meager gain that was completely erased by an average inflation rate of 3.4 percent.
The monster deficits, caused by increased federal spending combined with the reduction of revenue resulting from the tax cuts, have also placed Bush's administration in a historic class of its own with respect to government borrowing. According to the Treasury Department, the forty-two presidents who held office between 1789 and 2000 borrowed a combined total of $1.01 trillion from foreign governments and financial institutions. But between 2001 and 2005 alone, the Bush White House borrowed $1.05 trillion, more than all of the previous presidencies combined. Having inherited the largest federal surplus in American history in 2001, he has turned it into the largest deficit ever -- with an even higher deficit, $423 billion, forecast for fiscal year 2006. Yet Bush -- sounding much like Herbert Hoover in 1930 predicting that "prosperity is just around the corner" -- insists that he will cut federal deficits in half by 2009, and that the best way to guarantee this would be to make permanent his tax cuts, which helped cause the deficit in the first place!
The rest of what remains of Bush's skimpy domestic agenda is either failed or failing -- a record unmatched since the presidency of Herbert Hoover. The No Child Left Behind educational-reform act has proved so unwieldy, draconian and poorly funded that several states -- including Utah, one of Bush's last remaining political strongholds -- have fought to opt out of it entirely. White House proposals for immigration reform and a guest-worker program have succeeded mainly in dividing pro-business Republicans (who want more low-wage immigrant workers) from paleo-conservatives fearful that hordes of Spanish-speaking newcomers will destroy American culture. The paleos' call for tougher anti-immigrant laws -- a return to the punitive spirit of exclusion that led to the notorious Immigration Act of 1924 that shut the door to immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe -- has in turn deeply alienated Hispanic voters from the Republican Party, badly undermining the GOP's hopes of using them to build a permanent national electoral majority. The recent pro-immigrant demonstrations, which drew millions of marchers nationwide, indicate how costly the Republican divide may prove.
The one noncorporate constituency to which Bush has consistently deferred is the Christian right, both in his selections for the federal bench and in his implications that he bases his policies on premillennialist, prophetic Christian doctrine. Previous presidents have regularly invoked the Almighty. McKinley is supposed to have fallen to his knees, seeking divine guidance about whether to take control of the Philippines in 1898, although the story may be apocryphal. But no president before Bush has allowed the press to disclose, through a close friend, his startling belief that he was ordained by God to lead the country. The White House's sectarian positions -- over stem-cell research, the teaching of pseudoscientific "intelligent design," global population control, the Terri Schiavo spectacle and more -- have led some to conclude that Bush has promoted the transformation of the GOP into what former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips calls "the first religious party in U.S. history."
Bush's faith-based conception of his mission, which stands above and beyond reasoned inquiry, jibes well with his administration's pro-business dogma on global warming and other urgent environmental issues. While forcing federally funded agencies to remove from their Web sites scientific information about reproductive health and the effectiveness of condoms in combating HIV/AIDS, and while peremptorily overruling staff scientists at the Food and Drug Administration on making emergency contraception available over the counter, Bush officials have censored and suppressed research findings they don't like by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Agriculture. Far from being the conservative he said he was, Bush has blazed a radical new path as the first American president in history who is outwardly hostile to science -- dedicated, as a distinguished, bipartisan panel of educators and scientists (including forty-nine Nobel laureates) has declared, to "the distortion of scientific knowledge for partisan political ends."
The Bush White House's indifference to domestic problems and science alike culminated in the catastrophic responses to Hurricane Katrina. Scientists had long warned that global warming was intensifying hurricanes, but Bush ignored them -- much as he and his administration sloughed off warnings from the director of the National Hurricane Center before Katrina hit. Reorganized under the Department of Homeland Security, the once efficient Federal Emergency Management Agency turned out, under Bush, to have become a nest of cronyism and incompetence. During the months immediately after the storm, Bush traveled to New Orleans eight times to promise massive rebuilding aid from the federal government. On March 30th, however, Bush's Gulf Coast recovery coordinator admitted that it could take as long as twenty-five years for the city to recover.
Karl Rove has sometimes likened Bush to the imposing, no-nonsense President Andrew Jackson. Yet Jackson took measures to prevent those he called "the rich and powerful" from bending "the acts of government to their selfish purposes." Jackson also gained eternal renown by saving New Orleans from British invasion against terrible odds. Generations of Americans sang of Jackson's famous victory. In 1959, Johnny Horton's version of "The Battle of New Orleans" won the Grammy for best country & western performance. If anyone sings about George W. Bush and New Orleans, it will be a blues number.
* * * *
Virtually every presidential administration dating back to George Washington's has faced charges of misconduct and threats of impeachment against the president or his civil officers. The alleged offenses have usually involved matters of personal misbehavior and corruption, notably the payoff scandals that plagued Cabinet officials who served presidents Harding and Ulysses S. Grant. But the charges have also included alleged usurpation of power by the president and serious criminal conduct that threatens constitutional government and the rule of law -- most notoriously, the charges that led to the impeachments of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, and to Richard Nixon's resignation.
Historians remain divided over the actual grievousness of many of these allegations and crimes. Scholars reasonably describe the graft and corruption around the Grant administration, for example, as gargantuan, including a kickback scandal that led to the resignation of Grant's secretary of war under the shadow of impeachment. Yet the scandals produced no indictments of Cabinet secretaries and only one of a White House aide, who was acquitted. By contrast, the most scandal-ridden administration in the modern era, apart from Nixon's, was Ronald Reagan's, now widely remembered through a haze of nostalgia as a paragon of virtue. A total of twenty-nine Reagan officials, including White House national security adviser Robert McFarlane and deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver, were convicted on charges stemming from the Iran-Contra affair, illegal lobbying and a looting scandal inside the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Three Cabinet officers -- HUD Secretary Samuel Pierce, Attorney General Edwin Meese and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger -- left their posts under clouds of scandal. In contrast, not a single official in the Clinton administration was even indicted over his or her White House duties, despite repeated high-profile investigations and a successful, highly partisan impeachment drive.
The full report, of course, has yet to come on the Bush administration. Because Bush, unlike Reagan or Clinton, enjoys a fiercely partisan and loyal majority in Congress, his administration has been spared scrutiny. Yet that mighty advantage has not prevented the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, on charges stemming from an alleged major security breach in the Valerie Plame matter. (The last White House official of comparable standing to be indicted while still in office was Grant's personal secretary, in 1875.) It has not headed off the unprecedented scandal involving Larry Franklin, a high-ranking Defense Department official, who has pleaded guilty to divulging classified information to a foreign power while working at the Pentagon -- a crime against national security. It has not forestalled the arrest and indictment of Bush's top federal procurement official, David Safavian, and the continuing investigations into Safavian's intrigues with the disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, recently sentenced to nearly six years in prison -- investigations in which some prominent Republicans, including former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed (and current GOP aspirant for lieutenant governor of Georgia) have already been implicated, and could well produce the largest congressional corruption scandal in American history. It has not dispelled the cloud of possible indictment that hangs over others of Bush's closest advisers.
History may ultimately hold Bush in the greatest contempt for expanding the powers of the presidency beyond the limits laid down by the U.S. Constitution. There has always been a tension over the constitutional roles of the three branches of the federal government. The Framers intended as much, as part of the system of checks and balances they expected would minimize tyranny. When Andrew Jackson took drastic measures against the nation's banking system, the Whig Senate censured him for conduct "dangerous to the liberties of the people." During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln's emergency decisions to suspend habeas corpus while Congress was out of session in 1861 and 1862 has led some Americans, to this day, to regard him as a despot. Richard Nixon's conduct of the war in Southeast Asia and his covert domestic-surveillance programs prompted Congress to pass new statutes regulating executive power.
By contrast, the Bush administration -- in seeking to restore what Cheney, a Nixon administration veteran, has called "the legitimate authority of the presidency" -- threatens to overturn the Framers' healthy tension in favor of presidential absolutism. Armed with legal findings by his attorney general (and personal lawyer) Alberto Gonzales, the Bush White House has declared that the president's powers as commander in chief in wartime are limitless. No previous wartime president has come close to making so grandiose a claim. More specifically, this administration has asserted that the president is perfectly free to violate federal laws on such matters as domestic surveillance and the torture of detainees. When Congress has passed legislation to limit those assertions, Bush has resorted to issuing constitutionally dubious "signing statements," which declare, by fiat, how he will interpret and execute the law in question, even when that interpretation flagrantly violates the will of Congress. Earlier presidents, including Jackson, raised hackles by offering their own view of the Constitution in order to justify vetoing congressional acts. Bush doesn't bother with that: He signs the legislation (eliminating any risk that Congress will overturn a veto), and then governs how he pleases -- using the signing statements as if they were line-item vetoes. In those instances when Bush's violations of federal law have come to light, as over domestic surveillance, the White House has devised a novel solution: Stonewall any investigation into the violations and bid a compliant Congress simply to rewrite the laws.
Bush's alarmingly aberrant take on the Constitution is ironic. One need go back in the record less than a decade to find prominent Republicans railing against far more minor presidential legal infractions as precursors to all-out totalitarianism. "I will have no part in the creation of a constitutional double-standard to benefit the president," Sen. Bill Frist declared of Bill Clinton's efforts to conceal an illicit sexual liaison. "No man is above the law, and no man is below the law -- that's the principle that we all hold very dear in this country," Rep. Tom DeLay asserted. "The rule of law protects you and it protects me from the midnight fire on our roof or the 3 a.m. knock on our door," warned Rep. Henry Hyde, one of Clinton's chief accusers. In the face of Bush's more definitive dismissal of federal law, the silence from these quarters is deafening.
The president's defenders stoutly contend that war-time conditions fully justify Bush's actions. And as Lincoln showed during the Civil War, there may be times of military emergency where the executive believes it imperative to take immediate, highly irregular, even unconstitutional steps. "I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful," Lincoln wrote in 1864, "by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution, through the preservation of the nation." Bush seems to think that, since 9/11, he has been placed, by the grace of God, in the same kind of situation Lincoln faced. But Lincoln, under pressure of daily combat on American soil against fellow Americans, did not operate in secret, as Bush has. He did not claim, as Bush has, that his emergency actions were wholly regular and constitutional as well as necessary; Lincoln sought and received Congressional authorization for his suspension of habeas corpus in 1863. Nor did Lincoln act under the amorphous cover of a "war on terror" -- a war against a tactic, not a specific nation or political entity, which could last as long as any president deems the tactic a threat to national security. Lincoln's exceptional measures were intended to survive only as long as the Confederacy was in rebellion. Bush's could be extended indefinitely, as the president sees fit, permanently endangering rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution to the citizenry.
* * * *
Much as Bush still enjoys support from those who believe he can do no wrong, he now suffers opposition from liberals who believe he can do no right. Many of these liberals are in the awkward position of having supported Bush in the past, while offering little coherent as an alternative to Bush's policies now. Yet it is difficult to see how this will benefit Bush's reputation in history.
The president came to office calling himself "a uniter, not a divider" and promising to soften the acrimonious tone in Washington. He has had two enormous opportunities to fulfill those pledges: first, in the noisy aftermath of his controversial election in 2000, and, even more, after the attacks of September 11th, when the nation pulled behind him as it has supported no other president in living memory. Yet under both sets of historically unprecedented circumstances, Bush has chosen to act in ways that have left the country less united and more divided, less conciliatory and more acrimonious -- much like James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson and Herbert Hoover before him. And, like those three predecessors, Bush has done so in the service of a rigid ideology that permits no deviation and refuses to adjust to changing realities. Buchanan failed the test of Southern secession, Johnson failed in the face of Reconstruction, and Hoover failed in the face of the Great Depression. Bush has failed to confront his own failures in both domestic and international affairs, above all in his ill-conceived responses to radical Islamic terrorism. Having confused steely resolve with what Ralph Waldo Emerson called "a foolish consistency . . . adored by little statesmen," Bush has become entangled in tragedies of his own making, compounding those visited upon the country by outside forces.
No historian can responsibly predict the future with absolute certainty. There are too many imponderables still to come in the two and a half years left in Bush's presidency to know exactly how it will look in 2009, let alone in 2059. There have been presidents -- Harry Truman was one -- who have left office in seeming disgrace, only to rebound in the estimates of later scholars. But so far the facts are not shaping up propitiously for George W. Bush. He still does his best to deny it. Having waved away the lessons of history in the making of his decisions, the present-minded Bush doesn't seem to be concerned about his place in history. "History. We won't know," he told the journalist Bob Woodward in 2003. "We'll all be dead."
Another president once explained that the judgments of history cannot be defied or dismissed, even by a president. "Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history," said Abraham Lincoln. "We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation."
Flashback: Bush in '99 -- We Warned You!
Posted Apr 21, 2006 12:34 PM
All Hat, No Cattle
We warned you! Look back at our 1999, pre-primary assessment of George W. Bush
As of early July, all indicators seemed to confirm that Texas Gov. George Walker Bush had wrapped up the Republican presidential nomination -- a full eight months before votes will be cast in the first primary, in New Hampshire. After months of buildup, the oldest son of former president George Bush left his home in Austin -- in a campaign plane he'd named Great Expectations -- and set out to take his message of compassionate conservatism to America.
With a Bible in one hand and a cell phone -- on which he speaks regularly to Christian Coalition leader turned political consultant Ralph Reed -- in the other, Bush sounded more like a Southern minister than a presidential contender. In Iowa, at the announcement of his candidacy, he boasted, "Some people think it is inappropriate to draw a moral line in the sand. Not me." He preached abstinence to Christian students in South Carolina. "The twin epidemics of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease are a major problem for the future of America," he warned. "It is hard for the American dream to touch a life if you've had a baby out of wedlock." Later that week, he appeared with his brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, at a church-run school in Tampa.
At these first few appearances, audiences loved George W. Bush, just as Texans have for the past four years. Much of his success lies in his ability to connect with people: He is, simply put, a masterful retail politician. "George W. has finally found his place," says Georgette Mosbacher, a longtime friend of the Bush family, whose former husband, Robert, served in the Bush Cabinet. "Even though he's Harvard-Yale, he has a real folksy quality that lets him connect with people. He's a people's politician."
No one, however, predicted that George W. Bush would ever be in this position. Until his fortieth birthday, he appeared to be a feckless rich kid, the first-born son of a powerful father. "The whole key to understanding George W.," his cousin John Ellis told Time, "is his relationship with his father," a onetime Texas oilman whose twenty-plus years of political networking landed him in the Oval Office. "Bushes had to be winners," one Bush Sr. biographer wrote.
That emphasis on winning, combined with his father's reserved and emotionally distant personality -- "We don't air our psychological laundry," Jeb once told a reporter -- made George W. the person he is today. Charming, shrewd and quick-tempered, he sometimes seems driven by the fact that, for years, he saw himself as the "Bush family black sheep" -- a phrase he's used to describe himself. "Can you imagine what it's been like to be the son of the man who has built the most impressive political resume of the twentieth century?" Mosbacher says. "No wonder it took G.W. some time to find out who he is. What about the sons of powerful men who never find their way? That could have happened to him."
But questions linger about Bush. Is it enough that the only political post he's held is governor of Texas -- a state whose constitution renders its governor a virtual figurehead with no real power? Will he be hurt by the wishy-washy stands he's taken on abortion, hate-crime legislation and Kosovo? Will he be sunk by persistent rumors of illegal drug use and carousing in his past? When one examines the fullness of his life -- and for this article, Rolling Stone interviewed some 100 people who know Bush -- a more disturbing problem emerges. What Bush is saying now, with its overtones of evangelical Christianity and a moral one-upmanship, has almost nothing to do with the way he has actually lived most of his life. Is Bush being hypocritical? Or is he, as his supporters claim, a man who has recognized the error of his ways -- the one politician who can point the country in the right moral direction?
The forty-sixth governor of Texas was born on July 6th, 1946, in New Haven, Connecticut, where his father, then a young World War II veteran, was rushing through Yale in just two and a half years. By 1948, after George Herbert Walker Bush had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale, he and his wife, Barbara, and their young son moved to Texas, to stake their claim in the oil business. The Bushes would move around some over the next few years before settling in Midland, Texas, a dusty piece of oil patch where George W. passed much of his youth.
In 1953, while Bush was creating Zapata Petroleum with his friends John Overbey and Hugh and Bill Liedtke, Georgie's younger sister, Robin, was diagnosed with leukemia; she died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York that October. During the months when Robin was sick, George and Barbara never revealed her illness to Georgie, then six and attending Sam Houston Elementary School. Following Robin's death, Georgie tried to ease his mother's grief. "One lovely breezy day, I was in our bedroom when I heard Georgie talking to a neighbor child who wanted him to come over and play," Barbara Bush later wrote in her autobiography. "Georgie said he wanted to, but he couldn't leave his mother. She needed him. That started my cure."
In 1959, after Georgie graduated to San Jacinto Junior High, Bush and his partners split up Zapata, and Bush took its offshore drilling subsidiary. Because he needed to be near the Gulf of Mexico, where Zapata's drilling took place, he relocated his family -- by then there were five kids: George, Jeb, Marvin, Neil and Dorothy -- to Houston and enrolled Georgie at the Kinkaid School, a private academy favored by Houston's wealthiest families. Two years later, George W. transferred to the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, the school his father and grandfather had attended. "He was not a goody-two-shoes," classmate Tom Seligson said, recalling a spring-break trip they took to Fort Lauderdale. "He partied as much as anybody. I don't ever remember him being depressed." Indeed, at Andover, where his nicknames were "Lip" and "Tweeds," Bush was known as an "unexceptional student," as another classmate would later remember, who "played a lot of sports, none of them particularly well." In his senior year, he became head cheerleader.
George W. may not have been as academically inclined as his father, but, according to Tom Craddick, a state representative from Midland who has known the Bushes for years, "George was strong and opinionated, like his mother. She's more of a forceful person than George W.'s father is. George W. says he got his mother's mouth." A prominent Republican is less kind: "Barbara Bush is an exceedingly vindictive, nasty individual with a very high opinion of herself. She's always been that way." Cocky, boisterous, flippant -- these were the traits George W. was developing as a young man. They were anathema to his formal father. To crush George W., his father merely had to say he was "disappointed." "Dad was shy," George W. said years later. "We never had 'the talk.' He never told me to wear a raincoat [condom] or anything. I never had any sense of what his ambitions were for me." But he and his father did have a real affection for each other. "I know George respected his father a lot," says John Kidde, a roommate of George W.'s at Andover. "I remember whenever he greeted his father, he always gave him a hug or grabbed him around the waist."
Despite his modest grades, George W. was accepted at Yale, his father's other alma mater. "He was not accepted because he was a legacy, either," says Henry Chauncey Jr., Bush's adviser at Yale's Davenport College. "It was a time in Yale's history when the admissions office was not being favorable to alumni children, since the school was trying to broaden its base. Some alumni got angry because they didn't think the school was accepting enough legacy students." Clearly, Yale was in transition -- and not just concerning admissions. More profound changes were taking place, many of them caused by the Vietnam War. "Yale was on the cusp of change," says Lanny Davis, the former special counsel to Bill Clinton, who was one year ahead of Bush at Yale. "By the end of my time at Yale, there was a light-year of change because of the antiwar and countercultural movements -- movements many Yale students joined."
George W. steered clear of the famous anti-war protests there. He majored in history, but he couldn't match his father's Phi Beta Kappa performance. One friend comments that he "didn't set the place on fire" but fell into "that broad middle." Actually, Bush was too busy partying to study. Later, more than one friend would compare him to Otter in Animal House. Not only did he join Delta Kappa Epsilon, but he was elected president. Naturally, he wasn't averse to drinking. "Let's just say, liquor was permitted in the fraternity house," says Donald Ensenat, one of Bush's friends at Yale, "and George W. had a good time." Lanny Davis concurs: "We were fraternity brothers, so we went to parties frequently. In all of the times I saw George partying -- and we were not known for bashful parties -- he was always just drinking and dancing and having lots of fun. I never saw him lose control."
Not surprisingly, Bush had the minor brushes with authority to be expected of a rambunctious frat boy. One Christmas, New Haven police arrested Bush for stealing a wreath from a fraternity house. On another occasion, Princeton University campus police seized Bush along with other Yale students -- "all of them well-lubricated," says one eyewitness -- when they rushed the football field and tore down the goal posts after Princeton defeated Yale in the Ivy League championship game. "George W. was detained out of the crowd with a few others," Ensenat recalls. "Who knows why they picked him. I have a vivid memory of him walking down the length of the football field with a campus policeman on each side, grabbing him by the arms."
After running unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1964, George W.'s father decided to get serious about politics. He sold his share of Zapata and ran for a House seat in 1966, in a state dominated by a Democratic Party that had a president, Lyndon Johnson, in the White House. Bush won, making him one of the few Republican congressmen from Texas. Then, just weeks after his father was elected to Congress, George W. saw his name in the paper. On Sunday, January 1st, 1967, the Houston Chronicle ran a wedding announcement: "Congressman's Son to Wed Cathy Wolfman." The item identified Bush as a Yale junior and Delta Kappa Epsilon president, while Wolfman was a Rice University junior -- and a member of the Elizabeth Baldwin Literary Society -- who had previously attended Smith College. In the accompanying picture, George W. is young and handsome, his hair cropped in a neat crew cut; his bride-to-be is smiling and cheerful. That year, though, the engagement was postponed.
In the late Sixties, as the United States remained mired in the Vietnam War, any young man in his twenties was at risk of being drafted. While his grandfather had served with distinction in Europe during World War I and his father had been nothing short of a war hero in the South Pacific during World War II, George W. received academic deferments. After Yale, he needed an additional deferment to avoid military service -- and Vietnam. As it happened, when he graduated, in 1968, Bush joined the National Guard, which drastically reduced the odds that he would ever see active duty. That summer, Bush and Wolfman ended their relationship for good. "We were very young," Wolfman says. "It just kind of died."
How Bush got into the Guard when its nationwide waiting list had 100,000 names is a story that illustrates his privileged position in life. Although the likelihood of his being accepted through standard channels was remote, Bush applied to the Guard during his last semester at Yale and was immediately admitted to the 147th Fighter Group of the Texas Air National Guard at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston, near the congressional district then represented by his father. He enlisted in May and was commissioned in September. Later, Bush's commanding officer, Brig. Gen. Walter Staudt, insisted that congressman Bush did nothing to get his son into the Guard, but this is contradicted by a source close to Ben Barnes, the speaker of the House in Texas in 1968, who was elected lieutenant governor that same year. According to the source, George Bush telephoned Barnes and asked him to make a phone call to facilitate George W.'s acceptance into the Texas Air National Guard. Barnes made the call.
In 1968, Houston, the business hub of the oil industry in Texas, was growing so fast, it barely resembled the cow town it had once been. As Big Oil boomed, skyscrapers appeared as if from nowhere, while sprawling two-story brick-and-shingle apartment complexes sprung up throughout a city whose limits grew to be sixty miles wide. When Bush arrived in Houston for his Guard duty, he rented an apartment in one of those complexes -- in a fashionable new "singles" building called Chateau Dijon. Advertised as "the place to live," it was described by residents as having a wild side and a sedate side, each configured around a swimming pool. Except for training periods in Georgia, Bush spent all of his time in Houston. He flew fighter jets for the Guard, but mostly he zipped around town in his sporty Triumph and partied. At the Chateau Dijon, he chose to live on the wild side. Though he never ran into her, his future wife, Laura Welch, a second-grade teacher at John F. Kennedy Elementary School, lived there, too -- on the sedate side.
Bush would call the years he spent in Houston his "nomadic period." "He's said he did some things that are bad, but what's bad? Heroin?" says a friend who has known Bush since college. "He didn't do heroin. Grass is not a big deal anymore -- is it?" But at the time, some people close to Bush believed his indulgent lifestyle was a big deal, among them his father. Sensing that his son had lost perspective in his life, Bush arranged for George W. to volunteer at an inner-city community group called Project PULL, an organization founded by former Houston Oiler John White to keep urban teenagers off the streets. "George W. volunteered to assist in the gym and the recreation area," says Otha White, White's widow. "John knew George Bush's father very well. They wanted to build his character at the time." Ernie Ladd, a former professional football player involved with the group, recalls Bush fondly: "Kids in the black community had a lot of fear of the police. George helped bridge that gap."
In 1970, at Richard Nixon's urging, Bush Sr. left the House to run against Lloyd Bentsen for the Senate. When Bush lost, Nixon named him ambassador to the United Nations, a post he held for two years before becoming chairman of the Republican National Committee. Meanwhile, George W. continued his nomadic existence -- an attempt, he later admitted, to "reconcile who I was and who my dad was, to establish my own identity in my own way." As his father realized one triumph after another, George W. suffered under what one friend calls "the overwhelming weight of being who he was": Bush's first son. Normally, Bush Sr. was understanding of George W., but one night in 1973, their relationship reached a low point. Visiting his family in Washington, where they lived while Bush chaired the RNC, George W. took his fifteen-year-old brother, Marvin, out drinking. As George W. drove home drunk, he smashed into a neighbor's trash cans, causing a loud commotion. Once the boys got inside and Bush Sr. discovered that both sons were drunk, he confronted George W., who challenged him physically. "You wanna go mano a mano right here?" George W. said to his father. It was ugly and unpleasant, the kind of confrontation with a family member Bush Sr. avoided at all costs. The scene ended peacefully, but this much was clear: George W. did not have the full respect of the man he admired most.
When his National Guard commitment ended just as the Vietnam War did in 1973, George W. was free to do whatever he wanted. Applying to graduate schools, he was rejected from the University of Texas Law School but accepted at the Harvard Business School -- a recognition, some speculated, of his father's growing success in the business and political worlds. Following his graduation from Harvard in May 1975, George W. decided to return to Midland, which had become so prosperous because of the sustained oil boom that Rolls-Royce had opened a dealership there. Midland did not have the cosmopolitan sheen of Houston; the place still had a rough, unsophisticated edge. The "in" spot to go for dinner was the Petroleum Club, a hangout for nouveau riche wildcatters, not Ivy League MBAs. "We didn't have a lot of Yale and Harvard graduates in Midland-Odessa," says Bob Barnes, a businessman who became friends with George W. "Yet he fit into the crowd. He was as down-home as you could get, which was refreshing coming from his background. Compared to his dad, he was certainly a Texan." Bush paid the rent on his garage apartment by working as a land-rights consultant.
"When George moved back to Midland," Tom Craddick said, "he bummed an office, he bummed golf clubs, bummed shoes. You were lucky if you saw him in a fresh shirt." Another friend recalled, "In the Seventies, while everyone was wearing boots and bluejeans, George was walking around town in these flimsy black Chinese slippers" -- no doubt a gift from his father, who now served as Gerald Ford's envoy to China. At the Midland Country Club, where Bush was a member, the management started to give out the George W. Bush Dress Award, a tongue-in-cheek honor presented to the club's worst-dressed golfer.
During the spring of 1977, George W. Bush, thirty years old, took stock of his life. Besides earning two Ivy League degrees with so-so academic performances, George W. had achieved little. Now he wanted to add some legitimacy to his life. So he decided to run for the House of Representatives from Midland. But there was a problem: He had no profession, no family, no home -- none of the traditional trappings every candidate has. He had to change that.
By fall, he had. In June, at a barbecue in Midland, Joe O'Neill, a childhood friend, reintroduced him to Laura Welch, "a very pretty woman" (as George W. would describe her) with whom he'd grown up in Midland in the Fifties and who had lived in the same Houston apartment complex in the late Sixties and early Seventies. After earning a bachelor's in education at Southern Methodist University and a master's in library science at the University of Texas, Laura, the only daughter of a prosperous Midland home builder, now worked in Austin as a librarian. George W. and Laura couldn't have been more different; that's why she told O'Neill, when he had tried to fix them up once before, that she "wasn't interested" because Bush was "real political." This time, however, she agreed, and they started dating right away. "I guess," Laura said, "it was because we were the only two people from that era in Midland who were still single." Barbara Bush put it more romantically: "George W. fell madly in love with her."
Bush also got busy on the job front. On June 24th, 1977, using $17,000 from his education trust fund, Bush incorporated Arbusto Energy (arbusto is Spanish for bush). Next, he bought a house and announced he would run for Congress. By November, he concluded what Laura described as their "whirlwind romance" by marrying her. Now he had everything he needed for a political career: a business, a home, a wife.
Throughout 1978, Bush campaigned, often with the help of his family. His manager was his younger brother Neil. In the primary, Bush took conservative positions on touchstone issues -- he believed the Equal Rights Amendment was "unnecessary"; he opposed the use of federal funds for abortions; he said he had "done nothing to promote homosexuality in our society" -- and he reminded Republicans that they should run him in November because he had "proven [he] can raise money." He also demonstrated that he was remarkably adept at retail politics, though his youth worked against him. "When he goes canvassing door-to-door," a New York Times reporter noted, "his boyish appearance suggests less a go-getter businessman than a nice young fellow next door, offering to help bring the grocery bags in." Despite the fact that his opponent in the Republican primary was endorsed by national GOP heavyweights like Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, Bush won his party's nomination, by a razor-thin margin. In November, Democrat Kent Hance beat him by calling him an East Coast carpetbagger.
After that failed run for Congress, Bush decided to make a serious foray into the oil business. In March 1979, he drilled his first well and thereby turned Arbusto, which up till then had existed only on paper, into a real company. "The first well I ever drilled in which I had a participatory interest was dry," he said. "And I'll never forget the feeling. Kind of, 'Oops. This is not quite as easy as we all thought it was going to be.' " That was the beginning of a string of dry wells. "I lucked out," Tom Craddick says. "I didn't get into any of George's wells." Indeed, Bush was so unlucky, friends like Craddick joked that Arbusto should have been called El Busto. "It's hard to believe George couldn't hit one well," says a Bush observer. "After all, the Oil Patch was so rich with oil -- and Midland was in the middle of the Oil Patch -- you could smell oil on the wind."
Because federal tax laws made oil companies good tax shelters, Bush had no trouble getting investors for Arbusto. Of course, he was helped by the fact that as 1979 passed, it became clear that his father was going to run for president. That year, George W. raised $565,000, based on a lackluster drilling record. He sold five percent of Arbusto for $50,000 to James R. Bath -- a friend from the Guard who, after going into business in Houston, ended up with numerous dealings that involved the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, an institution that would soon become caught up in a worldwide criminal investigation so serious that by 1991 BCCI was the very symbol of corporate corruption. Not only did James Bath have BCCI connections, but one of his clients, Sheik Khalid bin Mahfouz, the banker for the Saudi Arabian royal family, would even be indicted in the scandal. For his part, Bush would later contend that he "had never heard of BCCI" at the time.
Most of Arbusto's investors were friends and associates of George W.'s father, whose attempt to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 ended with Ronald Reagan putting him on the ticket as his vice president. One Bush friend was Philip Uzielli -- a New York businessman and friend of Bush Sr. political ally James Baker III -- who invested an undisclosed sum in Arbusto, betting on spec wells Bush was drilling in New Mexico that, not surprisingly, came up dry. In late 1981, Bush was planning to offer a public drilling partnership, something many independent oil companies were doing, but Arbusto had less than $50,000 in cash, with debts that included nearly $300,000 in bank loans and $120,000 owed to creditors. So in January 1982, Uzielli arranged for Bush to get an influx of cash when his Executive Resources bought 400 shares of Arbusto stock for $1 million in exchange for ten percent ownership of the company and a seat on its board. It has never been made clear why the sales prices of two minority positions in Arbusto -- $50,000 for five percent to Bath, $1 million for ten percent to Executive Resources -- could have varied so drastically.
In May 1982, Bush changed Arbusto's name to Bush Exploration Oil Co., a marketing move clearly intended to play off the name of his father, now vice president. Despite the new name, the public offering failed. According to Securities and Exchange Commission documents, Bush intended to raise $6 million but brought in just $1.3 million. To make matters worse, the wells he drilled either were dry or produced little oil, and investors lost seventy-five percent of their money. During one quarter, Bush Exploration operated sixteen wells that produced less than 50,000 barrels of oil, ranking it 993rd among oil companies in Texas. Bush's continued failure was offset by the fact that he was now a new father. In November 1981, Laura had given birth to twin girls, who were named for their grandmothers, Jenna and Barbara.
In 1984, Uzielli tried to keep Bush Exploration solvent by buying another 400 shares of stock, this time for $150,000 (it's hard to understand the logic of how the sales price was established.) Bush Exploration needed to merge with a profitable company, so Bush found Spectrum 7, a Cincinnati-based oil company owned by William DeWitt Jr. and Mercer Reynolds III, two GOP contributors who, in 1988, would be major donors to his father's presidential campaign. DeWitt and Reynolds named Bush CEO of Spectrum 7 Exploration, a subsidiary of Spectrum 7, with a $75,000 salary. At Bush's urging, Spectrum sank $1 million into stripper wells in Texas in 1985, just when oil prices started to drop. Indeed, Spectrum's financial performance proved to be as dismal as that of Bush's previous two companies. Finally, in January 1986, the world oil market collapsed. In a six-month period, Spectrum lost $400,000. The company's plight had become so bad that Bush and his partners were considering bankruptcy. "I never saw him depressed over the failures," says a Bush confidant. "What he became was angry."
If it hadn't been for his father's friends, in fact, Bush would have been out of business by then. In July of that year, George W. reached a turning point when he and Laura traveled with friends to Colorado Springs to celebrate his fortieth birthday. The group was staying at the Broadmoor Hotel, and on the night of his birthday, over dinner, George W., who "was not a quiet drunk," according to one friend, had too much to drink and became obnoxious. "It was a party," said Joe O'Neill. "We were all sort of loud, and George gets louder than most. You know, we were that loud table in the corner of the restaurant. And I think in my heart that it dawned on him, or Laura said to him, that he could end up doing something to embarrass his father, and that just did it."
George W. went cold turkey the next morning. "I just quit," he said. "I had had enough. And it's the best thing I've ever done in terms of seeking a more meaningful life." Naturally, Laura was elated. "I think he had been thinking for probably a couple of years before that that he was drinking too much and it was interfering with his life," Laura said. Over time, Bush replaced his drinking with a near-addiction to jogging and a new devotion to Laura's Methodist religion -- a faith much more evangelical than the Episcopal Church he'd grown up in.
In late 1986, again in need of a financial savior, Bush merged Spectrum with Harken Oil and Gas, a company headed by Alan Quasha, whose family was a major supporter of the Republican Party. Bush received 212,152 shares of Harken stock, valued at $530,130; he was not given a management position, but he was made a director and a consultant, the latter position paying him $120,000 a year. Now Bush's ability to raise money got a kickstart. In 1987, Jackson Stephens, an Arkansas investment banker and a major Bush Sr. fund-raiser, sold about five percent of Harken to Union Bank of Switzerland for $25 million. Harken officials -- including Bush, who attended a meeting in Little Rock at which this sale was discussed -- would later deny they knew that Union Bank's partner in a Geneva bank was BCCI. According to congressional hearings that were eventually held, Union Bank was even helping BCCI avoid money-laundering laws in Panama by flying cash out of that country in jets. In time, Swiss banking rules forced Union to divest its Harken stock, so Stephens sold Union's shares to Abdullah Bakhsh, a Saudi Arabian investor with his own BCCI connections -- he was a co-investor in various deals with BCCI frontman Ghaith Pharaon and used Khalid bin Mahfouz, a principal BCCI shareholder, to handle his investments. As for whether it was odd for a Texas businessman to have BCCI connections, "it's not that unusual," says Peter Truell, the author of False Profits: The Inside Story of BCCI, the World's Most Corrupt Financial Empire, since there was frequent overlap between "big Saudi oil money and big Texas oil money."
In mid-1987, Bush moved to Washington to work for his father's presidential campaign. By this time, George's brother Jeb, seven years his junior, was already the secretary of commerce in Florida. Now, Bush Sr., not entirely happy with the way George W. had lived his life, was giving him a chance to prove himself. "Mrs. Bush didn't trust Lee Atwater [Bush's brilliant but erratic campaign manager] as much as the president did, so they brought in G.W. to watch Lee," says Ed Rollins, who worked as White House political director from 1981 until 1986. "Of course, Lee needed watching. He needed adult supervision, and G.W. provided that supervision. It was awkward for G.W. being first son, but in the end people came to respect his judgment and political instincts." Republican adviser Roger Stone says that "G.W. didn't have a title, but he was listened to because he was the candidate's son. He was a hothead with a very short fuse who was always looking for a fight, but ultimately G.W. and Atwater got along well."
Following the election, which ended in Bush's victory over Michael Dukakis, George W. stayed on in Washington "long enough," Stone says, "to make sure the people who were for Bush got rewarded and the people who were against him got fucked." Another Bush intimate says, "They did this by rewarding their supporters through patronage and freezing out people who didn't support Bush. The Bushes have long memories, and they keep lists."
Finally, George W. got something out of the campaign he might not have expected. "He earned his spurs in that campaign," Rollins says. "His father certainly had greater respect for him afterward. My sense is, he grew in stature and became one of the intimates to his father. He was now more than just a son."
In December 1988, Bush returned to Texas, settling in Dallas, and encouraged by the role he had played in the campaign, set his sights on trying politics again himself by running for the Texas governorship. Bush needed one significant business achievement, so, with the help of Bill DeWitt (whose family had owned the Cincinnati Reds), he started to assemble an investor group to buy the Texas Rangers, the baseball team located in Arlington.
Since baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth insisted that the new owners be from Texas, Bush's group decided he'd be a managing partner, to increase public awareness that a Texan was buying the Rangers -- even though Bush could afford to invest only $606,000, which gave him a mere 1.8 percent of the team. Ueberroth thought that Bush's investor group needed more Texans, so he approached Richard Rainwater, a man who had become wealthy as the financial adviser to the Bass family of Fort Worth. Suspicious of Bush's lousy business reputation, Rainwater agreed to invest only if the club made his friend Edward "Rusty" Rose a managing partner along with Bush. When this was agreed to, the Bush-DeWitt-Rainwater group bought the Rangers, on April 21st, 1989, for $86 million. When Barbara nixed George W.'s plans to run for governor in 1990 because she thought it would be unseemly for the son of a president to run for such a conspicuous public office, Bush became a Rangers managing partner, for which he was paid $200,000 a year.
At once, the new owners told the city of Arlington they wanted a new stadium or they would move the team to another Texas city. Under this threat, Arlington officials devised a plan. They would give the owners not only a new stadium but a facility that included parks, restaurants, shopping malls, an amphitheater, a learning center and a Little League baseball field. The cost of what became known as the Ballpark at Arlington was $191 million, out of which the owners would contribute $30 million, which would be raised through a loan and a "seat option bond" (a one-time fee that box-seat season-ticket holders would pay to keep their tickets). The other $161 million would be raised by implementing a half-cent sales tax in Arlington.
As if this deal wasn't good enough, the owners could buy the Ballpark at Arlington from the city for $60 million by applying their $5 million annual rent to the purchase price. In twelve years, then, the Rangers organization could own the stadium and never have to produce any upfront money. (In the end, to avoid paying property taxes, the owners deferred outright purchase of the stadium, though the option remains open.) George W. had found himself a deal that was unquestionably good for him and his partners, if not the taxpayers of Arlington. "You might call this politics as usual," says Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist, a leading expert on public financing in the sports industry. "You might call this politics as usual with an exclamation point. But it doesn't appear that anything expressly illegal happened."
In April 1989, Yousuf Shirawi, the oil minister for the Persian Gulf emirate of Bahrain, called Michael Ameen, a Houston oil consultant who worked as a consultant to the State Department, to ask him to recommend a company for an offshore drilling project in Bahrain. Perhaps because he was friends with Abdullah Bakhsh, the Saudi investor and major Harken shareholder, Ameen picked Harken -- a company that had never drilled a single well offshore, much less overseas. Even so, Bahraini officials were so impressed that the president's son sat on Harken's board that they gave the contract to Harken in January 1990, even after Harken officials admitted they didn't have enough money to finance the project. "[George W.] was the son of a big muckety-muck," says BCCI expert Peter Truell. "They were using the son to cozy up to the dad." With a contract in hand, Harken got the capital from Bass Enterprises Production, a company whose assets were managed by Richard Rainwater, Bush's Rangers partner.
On June 22nd, 1990, when Harken's stock price was unusually strong because of the Bahraini deal, Bush sold 212,140 shares of Harken stock at $4 a share, for $848,560. On August 2nd, Iraq invaded Kuwait and Harken's stock dropped to $3 a share. On June 30th, Harken had released a quarterly report disclosing a $23.2 million loss for the second quarter, which Bush had known about before he sold his stock, since he was on Harken's audit committee. On news of the loss, Harken's stock dropped to $2.38 a share. Finally, Bush waited until March 1991 -- eight months later -- to file the required insider-trader forms with the SEC. When he was subsequently accused of insider trading, Bush justified his lateness by saying that the proper paperwork had been filed on time but lost by the SEC. An SEC investigation found Bush guilty of no wrongdoing, but skeptics note that the SEC's chairman had been nominated by Bush's father in August 1989 and that the SEC's general counsel had actually represented George W. in the Texas Rangers negotiations. As it happened, the Bahraini project turned out to be a bust, since every well Harken drilled came up dry. "Can you believe it?" says a Texas political insider. "G.W. goes to the Middle East and he can't even hit oil there! Midas he is not."
While the Harken deal developed in 1991, George W. moved to Washington again, to work as an adviser in his father's re-election campaign. He came out throwing punches. "G.W. played a key role in the ousting of John Sununu," Ed Rollins says. "John was too high-profile to be Bush's chief of staff. He saw himself almost as a deputy president. The reality was, John had to go -- and G.W. knew it. Others in the Bush administration did not want to take on Sununu, even though they shared G.W.'s view. So G.W. became the messenger who told his father this had to happen. I'm sure G.W. volunteered to fire Sununu himself. There's a hard-ass side to G.W. that he enjoys." Because of the Sununu firing, George W. was often asked to do the more unpleasant duties his father wanted to avoid. "That's how he got the nicknames the Hatchetman and the Enforcer," says a Bush White House insider. "George W. was the one who carried out the trash." As a result, when the Bush campaign needed a tough-guy spokesman, George W. was trotted out. It was he, for example, who met with reporters to deny charges that his father had had an affair with longtime Bush staffer Jennifer Fitzgerald, a rumor that had become so widespread that the Washington Post once described Fitzgerald as a government worker "who has served president-elect Bush in a variety of positions," to the great hilarity of the Beltway crowd. The line George W. gave to reporters that day would become infamous: "The answer to the Big A question," he said, "is N-O."
Like other Bush advisers, George W. thought his father was waging a losing campaign in 1992. "Bush Sr. didn't believe the country would throw out the commander of the Gulf War for this cracker governor from Arkansas," Ed Rollins says. "He actually told people that. I'm sure G.W. told his father he was in trouble, but, right up to the closing days of the campaign, the only person in America who didn't know Bush was going down in flames was George Bush." Roger Stone adds, "He simply didn't think voters would turn down a war hero for a draft dodger." They did, of course, and in November 1992, Clinton defeated Bush. Despite the loss, some good came out of the experience for George W. If Bush had been unhappy with periods of George W.'s life in the past, he had grown to respect his son in ways he never did before. Indeed, had he listened to George W.'s warnings, the election might have turned out differently. Beyond this, "The '92 defeat, as hard as it was on George and Jebby," Laura Bush said, "in a lot of ways was the first time in their lives they were liberated from the shadow of their dad." As evidence of this, when George W. moved back to Dallas to resume his job with the Rangers, he started to make plans for something else: a run for governor against Ann Richards in 1994.
The first person Bush called was Karl Rove. A college dropout who had attended five different schools before he finally gave up, a Denver native who moved to his wife's home state of Texas in 1977, Rove was a ruthless political operator in the tradition of his close friend Lee Atwater. During the Eighties and early Nineties, Rove handled so many successful Republican campaigns, one Democrat quips, "Texas didn't become a Republican state, it became a Rove state, and Rove can run Texas as well as anybody." Rove does this through sheer force of will. "He reminds me of [loyal Nixon aide] Charles Colson," says Tom Pauken, a former Texas Republican Party chairman who worked in the Nixon White House. "Colson would run over his own grandmother to help Nixon. With Rove, you're either on the team or you're on the enemy list. It's very Nixonian. He's a control freak who runs roughshod over anyone in his way."
Rove signed with Bush, who relished the idea of running against Richards, the crusty grandmother turned politician who had hit the big time when, in her keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 1988, she dismissed George W.'s father by sneering, "Poor George, he was born with a silver foot in his mouth!" Rove put together a winning strategy: Bush would campaign on four issues -- reform of the education, welfare, tort and juvenile-justice systems -- and nothing else. From the start, Bush stuck with these four issues, or at least he did after Rove made it clear to him that he'd lose if he didn't. "Bush almost lost to Richards early on because he was out there saying this incredible shit," says one political observer. "Rove's people woodshedded him. They took him out to Bush's weekend place in Athens for three days. Man, when he came back, he was the most disciplined candidate you'd ever seen. He talked about his four little issues and that was it." The only time he did go off-message was to highlight a personal achievement he felt qualified him to be governor, such as what he claimed was his success as a businessman. He was "an unabashed capitalist," he said at one campaign stop.
Soon, Bush's private life become an issue. In early May 1994, a Houston Chronicle reporter asked Bush whether he'd ever used illegal drugs. "Maybe I did, maybe I didn't," Bush said. "What's the difference?" The day after the Chronicle story broke, Bush held a news conference in Lubbock. "What I did as a kid? I don't think it's relevant," he said. "I just don't . . . don't think it matters. I think what matters is my view on prisons, welfare reform and education."
In the coming weeks, the Ballpark at Arlington opened, and Bush pointed to the stadium as his greatest achievement. In September, Richards challenged Bush's record as a businessman when Caterair, an airline catering company on whose board Bush had sat for five years, announced it was near bankruptcy. "I'm proud of my business record," Bush said. "And what I hope that Ann Richards does is focus on issues that matter to Texans and lay off of personalities." Instead, Richards aired a television commercial charging that the various businesses Bush had been involved in, either as director or owner, had lost $371.6 million. Richards continued her attack in October in the campaign's one debate, but the exchange that created the biggest dispute that night was Bush's answer to the moderator's question about his National Guard duty. "Putting an F-102 jet in afterburner in a single-seat, single-engine aircraft was a thrill, but it also wasn't trying to avoid duty," Bush said. "Had that engine failed, I could have been killed. So I was at risk." In the days after the debate, veterans groups angrily criticized Bush for comparing the risk he faced flying jets on practice runs over Texas to the risk American soldiers faced in live combat in Vietnam.
In late October, Richards suggested that Bush was guilty of insider trading when he sold his Harken stock -- a criminal act. Now Bush's camp had to fight back in a way that would end the controversy about his business dealings for good. So, only days before the election, Rove fired his big gun: Barbara Bush. "It makes me pretty darn mad," the former first lady said in a speech picked up widely by the press, "to see these ads that just plain aren't true. . . . [George has] been a good, successful, decent, honest businessman. Why doesn't Ann Richards talk about the issues? That's what George is doing. She should be so lucky as to have a son like George."
Texas voters agreed. On November 8th, Bush won with fifty-four percent of the vote. At the time, Richards still had a nearly sixty percent approval rating. On the night of Bush's stunning victory, Jeb lost his gubernatorial race in Florida, so the Old Man, as George W. had taken to calling his father, was tempered when he called from his home in Houston to congratulate George W. in his hotel room in Austin. Even so, George W. knew what he had done. "You've made me proud," Bush reportedly said that night to his son.
"This is what happened," Roger Stone says. "George W. used to be more like his mother, but over time he became more like his father. He matured."
What few outside the state understand about Texas politics is that the governor has little statutory power. "Texas has a restrictive constitution," says Earl Black, political-science professor at Rice University, in Houston, "that has historically made the governor of Texas a weak executive position. The lieutenant governor has the real power, since he presides over the Senate and appoints the legislative committees. The only real strength the governor has is power of the bully pulpit."
In the days following his victory, Bush made a concerted effort to become friends with Pete Laney, the speaker of the House, and Bob Bullock, the lieutenant governor -- both Democrats. (Bullock died this June.) "Mr. Bush, we can make you a good governor," Laney said at the trio's very first meeting, "if you let us." Bush did. In the 1995 session, he also met informally with almost every representative and senator by showing up unannounced at their offices -- something Richards never did during her term as governor. "The ultimate defining moment for me was when he was first elected governor," says Georgette Mosbacher, "and he was able to bring together his enemies. He did it quickly and quietly. I had never seen that done in Texas politics. It was at that point that I knew he was a winner."
While Bush politicked, he let Laney and Bullock push through previously proposed reform bills on education, crime, welfare and tort -- Bush's "four little issues." Rove had picked those issues, as it turned out, because he knew bills on each were already in the legislature's pipeline. Now Bush could take credit for the bills, even though he had nothing to do with creating them. "Bullock was really the governor during Bush's first term," says Tom Pauken, the former Texas Republican Party chair. Columnist Molly Ivins agrees: Most of the time, "W. was bright enough to do what Bullock told him to do for four years, but as a result we have no evidence W. really knows how to govern."
In June 1995, Bush made one of his most controversial moves as governor. The Patient Protection Act, which was approved by the Texas legislature, would have instituted major HMO reforms by requiring companies to be more open about their benefits, allowing customers dropped from a plan to appeal and instituting reviews by the Texas Department of Insurance. Bush vetoed it. He argued that the act "imposes too much government regulation and unfairly impacts some health-care providers." The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association released a statement applauding Bush's veto. In the coming years, Bush would receive some $1 million in campaign contributions from insurance companies for his re-election bid.
In 1997, Bush again broke free of Laney and Bullock, proposing a plan to overhaul Texas' tax system by cutting local property taxes by $2.8 billion; new business and sales taxes would offset the reduction, so public schools would continue to be fully funded. Laney killed the plan in committee, and the eventual property-tax-reform bill the House passed didn't resemble Bush's. Once that bill left the House, Senate Republicans, who feared it was merely a guise to invent new taxes, voted it down. Instead, the legislature passed a one-time referendum that saved Texas homeowners $1 billion over two years. "We had a major problem with George the Second's tax bill, which had more than seventy new taxes," Pauken says. "He even wanted to tax haircuts. I led the fight to defeat it, and then we got a billion-dollar property-tax cut. Bush fought against the billion-dollar cut, but eventually he took credit for it." Says Senfronia Thompson, a Democratic state representative from Houston, "The governor has been able to benefit greatly from the hard work of the Texas legislature."
When Bush ran for re-election against Gary Mauro in 1998, Laney and Bullock were back on his side. Bullock even endorsed him, despite the fact that he was godfather to one of Mauro's daughters. Other Democrats, among them Lyndon Johnson press secretary George Christian, supported Bush, too. "LBJ would've had a problem with that," Christian admits. "Mrs. Johnson sure did. Liz Carpenter [Lady Bird Johnson's press secretary] jumped all over me." Carpenter says, "G.W. is extremely likable. The Bushes all have good manners and great civility. But they don't have a lot of vision. Anyway, I'm a Bible-thumping, foot-washing, full-immersion Democrat who can never bring myself to vote for a Republican."
With even some major Democrats supporting Bush, Rove had little to do, although controversies did crop up. Bush angered many Christians when he ignored appeals by Pope John Paul II and Pat Robertson to stop the February 1998 execution of pickax murderer Karla Faye Tucker -- she had found religion in prison -- only to commute confessed serial killer Henry Lee Lucas' death sentence six months later. That same year, Bush had to answer the charge that he got rich off the public when Dallas businessman Tom Hicks bought the Texas Rangers and the Ballpark at Arlington, which had been paid for with taxpayers' money, for $250 million. Bush made $14.9 million on the sale -- an astonishing profit on an initial investment of $606,000. That's not the only way Bush made money off the public, either. During much of his first term, he held interest in Crescent Real Estate Equities, a company owned by Richard Rainwater. As governor, Bush approved Crescent Equities' purchase of two office buildings from the state's Teachers Retirement System. The state lost $44 million on one building, and wrote off $7 million in principal and $19.4 million in interest on the other, while Crescent profited handsomely.
The Crescent deal angered some voters, but it was Bush's theme of abstinence before marriage (which continues into his presidential campaign) that made many snicker. Bush proposed spending more than $9 million on a statewide effort to "encourage young people to save sex for marriage." When reporters asked him about his own behavior before marrying Laura at thirty-one, he said only that he had been "irresponsible." "Do as I say and not as I did," he told his young audiences.
Throughout 1998, Bush also had to deal with claims that he was soft on crime. In 1994, he'd attacked Richards on the issue of criminals being released from prison early, saying Texas was "the third most dangerous state in the nation [because] in the last three years, 7,700 criminals have been released early." But during Bush's first term, more than 60,000 prisoners were released early. One was even involved in the racially motivated dragging death of James Byrd Jr., in Jasper. "That should have been his Willie Horton," says one Democrat, "but the public didn't care." Why? "There's a cult of personality with George W.," says a Republican. "The public loves him." Apparently. On November 3rd, the night Jeb succeeded in being elected governor of Florida, George W. won, too, getting sixty-nine percent of the vote to Mauro's thirty-one.
After George W. was re-elected governor, he began to take serious steps toward a presidential run, again emulating his father. "It doesn't take a genius to see there's something Freudian going on here," says John Calvin Batchelor, a Republican historian. "Or Shakespearean." Rove started to systematically court potential Bush supporters. Almost every weekday, late in the morning, buses and vans would line up in front of the governor's mansion and state politicians, party officials and businessmen from all over the country would pile out to have lunch with Bush. By having them come to Bush, Rove was able to limit the national press corps' access to the governor. Many of these visitors have ended up contributing money to Bush's campaign, which is one reason why Bush had raised a phenomenal $36 million by the end of the second quarter of this year. Rove also instituted what became known as the "front porch" strategy, which had Bush ensconced in the relative safety of Austin (where local reporters have been unusually lenient on him), until the biannual legislative session was over at the end of May.
During this time, Bush -- with the help of Rove -- was also honing his theme of compassionate conservatism. He began to mention Myron Magnet, the neoconservative pundit at the Manhattan Institute, as his "guru." In his 1993 book, The Dream and the Nightmare, Magnet made an argument that appealed to Bush: It was the overall decline of morals in America, prompted by the counterculture movement and sexual revolution of the 1960s, that had led to the rapid growth of the underclass. This idea fits in neatly with Bush's belief that the "if it feels good, do it" mentality inaugurated in the Sixties had begun a widespread moral decline in this country.
With his party's overwhelming support and his message ready to be sold to the public, Bush finally hit the campaign trail in June, playing to wildly cheering audiences eager to hear his message of moral righteousness and reform. His rhetoric is perfectly tuned to the times -- compassionate conservatism being a finely wrought catch phrase that allows him to come across on the one hand as a rock-ribbed right winger and on the other hand as an everybody-wins pork slopper. But when one looks beyond the slogan and examines the life of the man, George W. Bush seems less like a moral visionary and more like a man who, above all else, knows how to work the inside game -- a consummate opportunist. His entire life has been the pursuit of accommodating himself to power -- to his father, to his father's wealthy and influential friends, and, in his current incarnation as politician, to the Democratic leaders who controlled the Texas state legislature.
In the end, what Bush really seems to stand for is business as usual. His greatest achievements all seem to involve an almost magical ability to position himself in the channels where the money flows, from the oil bailouts of the 1980s to the fortune he made off of the sale of the Texas Rangers and lastly to the staggering amount of money he has already raised for his presidential campaign.
The shadows of his father's successes are never far from George W. What ultimately doomed George Sr.'s presidency was the perception that he had no vision for America and that he broke his promise not to raise taxes. Now comes the son, a man who wants to be president because it will bring him not just more power and prestige but also personal vindication. Should he achieve this goal, he will finally be able to say that he is just as successful as his father.
Posted Aug 05, 1999 12:00 AM