Friday, January 15, 2016

Part II Book Review: Destiny and Power - The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, By Jon Meacham

The 1988 campaign saw a different George Bush.  Meacham argues that the Newsweek cover-story citing "The Wimp Factor" so infuriated Bush that it contributed to his harsh tone in the '88 campaign.
One of the more famous examples of the "angry" Bush was the Dan Rather interview in late-January 1988.  While CBS had told Bush that it would be a political profile, Roger Ailes got wind that it was going to be a Dan Rather 60 Minutes-era ambush interview on Iran-Contra.  Ailes reminded Bush that - if it got too heated - he could refer to Rather's walking off the air the previous September when the news was delayed for a tennis match. As soon as Rather went in on Iran-Contra, Bush fired back, "I don't think it's fair to judge a whole career, it's not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York? Would you like that? [Rather had actually walked off a temporary set in Miami]." It was a success for Bush. As Meacham notes, "Rather came off as rude. Bush came off heroic. Reagan agreed, saying that Rather had 'stepped on his own dick'."

By Memorial Day Bush had secured the nomination but was trailing Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in the national polls. In the Bush camp, the numbers made Roger Ailes determined that they had to go after Dukakis now before they went into a permanent fall. The Willie Horton case actually came about from a reading of the transcript of an earlier Democratic debate in which then-candidate Al Gore asked Dukakis about the furlough program that let Horton out.  In the debate, Gore had said, "Eleven of [the furloughed prisoners] decided their two week passes were not long enough and left. Two of them… Two of them committed other murders while they were on their passes." The Bush team couldn't believe that this hadn't become a major national issue at the time. While it had been a huge story in Massachusetts, it for some reason had not gone national.

The story of the man, Willie Horton is a horror.  As Meacham recalls, "Horton was a convicted first-degree murderer in Massachusetts who had received a weekend pass in April 1987 and fled to Maryland, where, over the course of a horrific twelve hours, he raped a woman twice at knife point after pistol whipping stabbing and tying up her fianc√©. In Maryland, Horton was convicted of rape and kidnapping and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences plus 80 years." Newspaper publicity in Massachusetts about the story did in fact help to get the furlough law changed. Meacham writes, "While the [original furlough] program had been signed into law under a Republican governor, the Horton disaster occurred on Dukakis' watch, and Dukakis had vetoed a bill that would've kept first-degree murderers from benefiting from the furlough."

As controversial as the "Willie Horton ad" would be [more on that shortly], the decision to choose Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle as his running mate was the most talked-about aspect of the campaign. Meacham says the call on Dan Quayle was Bush's and Bush's alone. Bush had gotten to know Quayle during the Reagan years, when Quayle had moved from the House into the Senate in 1980.  Indeed, he was one of the few members of the 1980 class of Republican senators to have won reelection in 1986. Quayle was decidedly conservative, and Ailes - who had worked on Quayle's campaign was a big fan of the Indiana Republican.  As Meacham writes, "Bush liked the idea of a Vice President Quayle on the grounds of novelty and generational change." In the end it came down to Quayle or Bob Dole.

Almost all of Bush's people figured it would be Dole. When Quayle was announced, then, the new candidate had had almost no advance work done for him to prepare for his joint press conference with Bush. Indeed, Quayle had only one hour's notice from the time Bush called to offer him the job to his press conference. When Meacham asked Bush why he didn't tell anyone about Quayle, why the secrecy, "Bush was candid. This had been his first opportunity in eight years to make a call on his own, he said, and he was eager to do it just that way: on his own. 'Sometimes, you just get tired of having people tell you what to do all the time,' Bush recalled."

Not as much discussed at the time, but of longer impact than Quayle, was another development from the Republican Convention.  Bush's "Read My Lips" promise on not raising taxes. The phrase - part of Bush's acceptance speech - had been controversial with aides ahead of time. It came from Ailes. Campaign aide Dick Darman tried to get it out of the speech but speechwriter Peggy Noonan kept putting it back in. That would come back to haunt him. But that was down the road. For the time being, Meacham called Bush's speech fantastic.  "Bush had done something he did not often do, something he had found difficult since absorbing his mother's injunctions to focus on others....he had spoken eloquently about himself and his own view of the world. [He had said] 'I am that man' [for the White House]. For him it was a bold statement."

With the campaign underway, Willie Horton was introduced to the nation. Ironically,
the famous commercial was produced not by Bush but by an independent group, the National Security Political Action Committee.  It was called "Weekend Passes" and ran for only 28 days on cable television, ending October 4, 1988. James Baker publicly denounced the ad on behalf of the Bush campaign [but did so only after there was only three days left of it's run on TV]. Plus, the Bush campaign aides flaunted Horton around in off-the-record sit-downs with the press. Lee Atwater had said in June, "If I can make Willie Horton a household name, we'll win the election." And Ailes joked to a reporter "The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it." Ailes, Atwater, Baker and Bush all claimed that there was no collusion between the campaign and NSPSAC on the ad, although the Bush team did air a generic ad showing prisoners moving through a revolving door [some were white, some Hispanic, some African American].

Why did the American people choose Bush? Meacham answers, "The American voters turned to [Bush] in 1988 for many of the same reasons so many others had turned to him in smaller ways for so many years across so many different assignments: because experience and intuition suggested to them that things would be safe in his hands....There were few others...who so convincingly conveyed the ineffable sense that they were fit for command."

And, in looking at the Bush presidency, Meacham astutely sums up what transpired over the next four years: "Bush came to the Presidency a decent and caring man whose experience in life and in government had taught him that there were few simple problems and even fewer perfect answers...The political tragedy of George Bush came in the last eighteen months or so of his presidency, when he seemed a caretaker at a time when voters were in the market for a dreamer. His White House years are a story of the rise and decline of a president who reached an unprecedented pinnacle of popularity only to fall, dizzyingly, to defeat at the polls."

Those four Bush years included the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. When the Wall came down, Bush was determined not to gloat over it, lest it antagonize hard-liners in Russia or East Germany. Meacham writes, "As the Wall fell, Bush was pragmatic. He kept his options open and resisted alienating rhetoric or sweeping declarations. He led by checking here and balancing there, understanding that a world in convulsion was inherently unstable, and everything in him was about bringing stability, or a semblance of stability, to the unruliness of reality."

By his second year in office, domestic issues - namely, the deficit and the economy - were center-stage. By May 1990, Bush realized that he would have to go back on his "Read My Lips" pledge if he was to get an agreement with Congress that would right the country's economic ship, particularly to counter soaring deficits.  The first indication of Bush's willingness to move away from "Read My Lips" came on May 9, 1990, when the White House released a statement saying that there would be no preconditions to the budget talks. Conservatives rightly interpreted that to mean that new taxes were on the table. By the next day, as Bush told his diary,  "the shit hit the fan."

The actual decision to raise taxes was Bush's and it came in a meeting with Congressional leaders on June 26, 1990.  At the meeting, House Speaker Tom Foley came right out and asked the President if he would he agree to increased taxes. Bush said,  "OK, if I can say you agreed [too]." Meacham says, "with those seven words, George H.W. Bush reversed himself on the key domestic pledge of the 1988 campaign." Bush told Meacham,  "It did destroy me.... The problem with the tax pledge was the rhetoric was so hot. Peggy Noonan, you know 'I'm the man' and that kind of stuff. I felt uncomfortable with some of that. But it was persuasive - the convention loved it. When people ask me as they do now 'Did you make any mistakes?', I say 'Yeah, one was to say no more taxes, period - I won't raise taxes.' It was a mistake, but I meant it at the time, and I meant it all through my presidency. But when you're faced with the reality, the practical reality, of shutting down the government or dealing with a hostile Congress, you get something done."

Meacham is critical of how Bush handled the communication of this change to the American people.  While Bush's immediate task was clearly to explain this shift to the American people, "for three days - an eternity in politics in the modern age - the president did not appear in public to talk about what was going on, or why he had done what he had done." One of the problems is that the original plan was to only release the news about the new taxes only after a new budget deal was done - so that both pieces of information would be released at the same time. Instead, only the 'no taxes promise-break' was before the public, and Bush didn't hold a press conference until June 29th.

Again, Meacham is hard on Bush - not for going back on the tax pledge - but for his clumsy handling of how it was rolled out. Meacham suggested that Bush could have said, "Because of existing law, [government] spending, if left unchecked, could one day lead to draconian automatic cuts or ruinously higher taxes or both that might damage an economy and culture accustomed to a larger federal role in the life of the nation. So why not say so, explicitly and dramatically, to the American people, beyond the context of a hastily called news conference at 9:30 on a Friday morning in summer just before the Fourth of July holiday?" Meacham said that one of the reasons had to do with a habit of Bush's that often served him poorly, " [In the budget announcement], the president fell prey to a tendency to assume that other people were living inside his head with him and understood what he was doing and why he was doing it. He governed by making the decisions he felt were right and then moving onto the next item of business. He was no [Calvin] Coolidge, to be sure, but neither was he an FDR, who used the radio to educate the public, or Reagan, who believed speeches matter. Bush really did not - at his peril."

The budget deal marked the beginning of the end of Bush's reelection chances - and this was before the height of his popularity after the Gulf War. Politics changed in the Republican Party in the late-1980s and the budget deal became a rallying cry for forces on the right. As Meacham notes, "[Newt] Gingrich represented a conservative worldview in which Ronald Reagan, the rightful king, had been replaced by Bush, a pale usurper who was now betraying the tax-cutting principles on which the Republican presidential ascendancy of the 1980s had been built....The shifting means of politics helped make the [Right's] break with Bush possible. Because of talk radio and cable TV and sophisticated direct mail, Gingrich and his allies no longer needed the classic party apparatus in the way they once had. They could reach conservatives on their own, and many conservatives were responsive to populist messaging, even if that populist messaging targeted not just Democrats but establishment Republicans - including the most establishment Republican of them all, the president of the United States."

Bush's attention soon turned back overseas again with Saddam Hussein's invasion and occupation of Kuwait, with his troops poised on the border of Saudi Arabia.  If Hussein had been permitted to keep Kuwait, he would've been in possession of 20% of the world's oil reserves. If he managed to take Saudi Arabia, he then would control over 45%. Despite this, Bush at first ran into Arab reluctance when it came to forcibly removing Hussein. Bush particularly feared the Saudis would try to buy themselves out by paying off Hussein to leave Kuwait.  According to Meacham, "had Saddam chosen to do so, he most likely could have moved into [Saudi Arabia] in this period and seize control over at least some Saudi territory."

One of Meacham's most surprising revelations is that Bush was prepared to risk impeachment over removing Hussein from Kuwait. According to Meacham, Bush had determined that - if he went to Congress with a war proposition - and it was vetoed, "[Bush] would still, he thought, go to war, and he would take the consequences. To a degree he kept hidden from many of his closest advisers, before whom he largely maintained the mask of command, Bush in private fretted the Congress might impeach him if he launched a full-scale military operation in the absence of congressional approval and if the ensuing war went badly. Bush alluded to this possibility in his presidential diary on five different occasions, ranging from Wednesday, December 12, 1990, to Sunday, January 13, 1991." Indeed Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii told him, "If you're wrong about this, you are going to be impeached by the Congress."

Of course, Congress did support the resolution as did the U.N. Security Council. The war went exceptionally well. Hussein was removed from Kuwait - which was the aim of the resolutions. The long-since debated question of whether Bush should have pursued Hussein into Baghdad is addressed by Meacham, and the perspective of the 2003 Iraq invasion points out the great complexity of the question that were not as clear before 2003 - when it was assumed that invading Iraq and capturing Hussein would have been relatively easy.

Seven years after the Gulf War, Bush wrote about his reasons for stopping at Kuwait. "To occupy Iraq would instantly shatter our coalition, turning the whole Arab world against us, and make a broken tyrant into a latter-day Arab hero. It would have taken us way beyond the imprimatur of international law of bestowed by the resolutions of the Security Council, assigning young soldiers to a fruitless hunt for a securely entrenched dictator and condemning them to fight in what would be an unwinnable urban guerrilla war. It could only plunge that part of the world into ever greater instability and destroy the credibility we were working so hard to establish." That reads like the argument used by opponents of George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq.

When Bush declared victory on February 27, 1991,  "Bush had done something virtually no one would have thought possible only two years before. He had risen further in the eyes of the American public than Ronald Reagan ever had - further, in fact, than any other president in the history of public opinion surveys. 89% of Americans polled by Gallup approved of Bush's performance in these weeks.

Here Meacham again unlocks a never-before-known story: in the weeks after the war's conclusion, Bush descended into an unprecedented [for him] depression, leaving him often despondent. Meacham says it stemmed from a gnawing feeling that the popularity was ephemeral and impossible to sustain, but also because he hated leaving Hussein in power. While he didn't want to invade Iraq, Bush had hoped the Iraqis themselves would overthrow Hussein after the war. Leaving Hussein in power, for Bush,  felt incomplete. Indeed, Bush actually said in his diary that if the victory had come six months later he might've retired and not sought a second term.  "Confession: I wish that this were six months later, because what I think I do is say 'I'm getting a little old or a little tired; somebody else ought to have a shot now'." Bush was gloomy and emotionally adrift.

There was also a medical reason for Bush's malaise. He was suffering fro Graves' disease, diagnosed in late-spring 1991. Meacham writes, "For a time in 1991, America had a president who struggled to present a steady face to the world even as he contemplated standing down from the 1992 campaign." Meacham argues that the thyroid condition contributed heavily to Bush's appearing more lethargic over the last 18 months of his presidency.

For Bush, the 1992 campaign was one long paper cut. Bush considered Bill Clinton a draft-dodger and untrustworthy; he was certain that Ross Perot was clinically insane; and he believed Pat Buchanan to be borderline insane. His disdain for his opponents posed a quandary: he didn't really want to run again in 1992. But he felt he was more qualified than any of the others. It wasn't bravado, or ego alone: he truly believed he was the best option and that it was his duty to keep these men from becoming president.

Of course, he failed. Bill Clinton won 43% to Bush's 37% and Perot's 19%. Clinton won in the Electoral College 370-168.  Bush told Meacham that the loss - even though he didn't really want to run in the first place - caused a pain that never went completely away. "It was terrible. God, it was ghastly. Your whole life is based on trying to accomplish stuff, and losing hurts. It hurt a lot. My problem was the feeling of letting people down, letting the people around you down. You know, who really believed in what we were doing. And you let them down. That was the sad part for me, and I felt very strongly about that. I still do."

That hurt was abated somewhat by George W. Bush's election in 2000. At his son's request, Bush #41 worked closely with Clinton on fundraising for victims of a southeastern tsunami and then Hurricane Katrina.  Amazingly, the two men developed a close friendship. The rapprochement between Clinton and Bush #41 didn't, however, extend to Hillary. "I don't feel close to Hillary at all," Bush said. "But I do to Bill, and I can't read their relationship even today."

Meacham directly addressed Bush's feelings about the administration of his son.  The senior Bush told Meacham that he did feel that his son's White House had a public tone that was harsher than it needed to be. He questioned his son's use of the term "axis of evil" [made up of North Korea, Iraq and Iran] - Bush #41 felt the rhetoric was too hot. The senior Bush put the primary blame on the tone on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney.  The senior Bush doesn't believe those who say that Bush #43 wasn't in charge making the final decisions, but he believed Cheney in particular had a disproportionate amount of influence. Meacham writes, "To the elder Bush, the Cheney with whom he had served from 1989 to 1993 seemed a changed man."

In conclusion, President Obama has the final word on Bush.  During a conversation with Meacham, Obama said, "I would argue that [Bush] helped usher in the post-Cold War era in a way that gave the world it's best opportunity for stability and peace and openness. The template he laid in a peaceful and unified Europe and in what for at least twenty-five years was a constructive relationship with Russia and the former Soviet satellites, and the trajectory away from nuclear brinksmanship at a time when things were still up in the air, was an extraordinary legacy."

Extraordinary indeed....I stand corrected.

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