All the president's enables: in the second year of Bush's second term, former officials and journalists are already writing the history of his administration. The story isn't pretty.
Kevin Drum on The Impostor
There was a period stretching roughly from August 2003 through November 2004 when it was nearly impossible to walk through a branch of Barnes & Noble without tripping over half a dozen sucks of books explaining why George Bush was the most disastrous president in US. history Al Franken had a book. Eric Alterman and Mark Green had a book. Arianna Huffington had a book. So did Molly Ivins, Joe Conason, and David Corn.
I read two or three of these tomes before I got bored and stopped. It turned out the bill of particulars was pretty much the same from book to book, and since I already agreed that Bush was an unusually bad president--in fact, my daily job at The Washington Monthly was frequently dedicated to illustrating just that point--there hardly seemed much sense in proving the law of diminishing returns by continuing to read every new screed that came out.
In any case, America finally held its presidential election in 2004 and the market for Bush-bashing books promptly ebbed for a time while shell-shocked liberals tried to figure out just what had hit them. It was, once again, safe to stroll leisurely through your local bookstore.
Predictably, it didn't take much time for the tide to mm back, and in early 2006, another Bush-bashing book hit the stands. The charges leveled against the president were familiar: reckless spending increases, out-of-control deficits, relentless pandering to business interests, and a deliberate and willful contempt for policy analysis. The Bush White House, it argued, judges legislation not by whether it's conservative or liberal, but solely by whether it will gain the Republican Party a couple of percentage points of support among some voting bloc or other. Principle is nothing. Politics is everything.
In other words, more of the same, Except for one thing: The author of Impostor (Doubleday, $26.00) is Bruce Bartlett, a former Reagan-era official and longtime conservative columnist. In fact, until last year--when he was fired for writing this book--he was a senior fellow at the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis, a right-wing think tank dedicated to fiat taxes, Social Security privatization, and a host of other conservative hot buttons.
Put in plain terms, Bartlett's charge is simple. George W. Bush, he says on page one, is a "pretend conservative." Philosophically, Bush actually has more in common with liberals than he does with true conservatives.
Now, there's not much question that this is overstated. Bush won't be getting an invitation to join The New York Times editorial board any time soon. Among other things, he's appointed hundreds of conservative judges, cut taxes repeatedly and dramatically, signed into law a ban on partial-birth abortions, and committed America to its biggest and costliest war of choice since Vietnam.
And yet, in a narrower but still provocative way, Bartlett makes a persuasive case. I'm a pretty conventional FDR liberal myself, but several years ago, I came to the same conclusion Bartlett did: Bush may be a Republican--boy howdy, is he a Republican--but he's not the fire-breathing ideologue of liberal legend.
Don't believe it? Consider Bartlett's review of Bush's major domestic legislative accomplishments. He teamed up with Ted Kennedy to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, which increased education spending by over $20 billion and legislated a massive new federal intrusion into local schools. He co-opted Joe Lieberman's proposal to create a gigantic new federal bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security. He has mostly abandoned free trade in favor of a hodgepodge of interest-group-pleasing tariffs. And after initially opposing it, Bush signed the Sarbanes-Oxley bill with almost pathetic eagerness in the wake of the Enron debacle, putting in place a phonebook-sized suck of new business regulations.
Want more? He signed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, a bete noir of conservatives for years. His Medicare prescription-drug bill was the biggest new entitlement program since the Great Society. He initially put a hold on a wide range of last-minute executive orders from the Clinton administration, but after a few months of "study" allowed nearly all of them to stand. And he has increased domestic discretionary spending at a higher Pate than any president since LBJ.
Bartlett even has a bone to pick with the most prominent feature of Bush's record that's incontestably conservative, his almost religious dedication to tax cuts. Yes, Bush has cut taxes. Yes, that's generally a good, conservative thing to do. But as Bartlett correctly points out, cutting taxes without cutting spending doesn't do the conservative cause any good. Bush and the modern Republican Party plainly have no interest in cutting federal spending, and the resulting massive deficits will eventually force "the largest tax increase in American history "--one that will be entirely Bush's fault. Some conservative.
To be sure, there are plenty of counterarguments to these charges that Bartlett doesn't address. NCLB may increase education funding, but it also contains stealth provisions designed to increase support for school vouchers in furore years. Bush may have signed DHS into existence, but only after using it as an excuse for a bitterly partisan round of union bashing and traitor mongering. The Medicare bill may have been an entitlement increase, but it also contained plenty of business-friendly provisions that made liberals--and conscientious conservatives--gag. And a tax cutis a tax cut, even if it's not the precise kind of tax cut Bartlett would prefer.
Still, open-minded liberals who want to understand the nature of contemporary American politics should give serious consideration to Bartlett's argument: Despite five years of seething anger at George Bush's supposed hardcore conservatism, the fact is that he's not really a hardcore conservative.
So what is Bush, then? This is where things get a little more confusing. As it turns out, Bartlett has about half the answer right, but there's more to the story than he seems willing to acknowledge.
For starters, it's worth conceding that there is more than one legitimate definition of "conservative." I've long viewed George Bush as a temperamental conservative, the kind of guy you meet in a bar who slams down his drink and asks belligerently, "You know what this country needs?"--and then proceeds to tell you. He's a conservative who is defined by a visceral loathing of '60s-era "moral decay," not one who's read the collected works of Russell Kirk and Milton Friedman or who has been inhaling National Review since he was a teenager. Still, even if the guy in the bar is indeed one particular type of conservative, Bartlett makes the reasonable point that a conservative president needs to have at least a few vague guiding conservative principles, and those are hard to find in Bush. If you raise spending, increase tariffs, and create new entitlements without blinking an eye, even belligerence doesn't make you into a genuine conservative
This, then, is the half of the answer that Bartlett gets right: Bush, he says, is not so much a conservative ideologue as he is simply a politician who has taken tribal partisanship to levels not seen since the 19th century. Bush is relentless at fighting for what he wants, but it mms out that what he mainly wants is to increase the Republican majority and kick some Democratic ass. If that means he's "perfectly willing to jettison conservative principles at a moment's notice to achieve that goal"--which he obviously is--well, that's the price you pay for electoral victory isn't it?
In other words, Bush is another Richard Nixon, a comparison that Bartlett spends an entire chapter on.
The first person to draw a parallel between Bush and Nixon was someone who knew Nixon well: then-New York Times columnist William Safire, who had been a speechwriter for Nixon. In a July 2003 column, Safire imagined a conversation with the late president, who spoke approvingly about Bush's strategy of moving left domestically while keeping the Republican base preoccupied with an external threat. Nixon had done this successfully with Vietnam and Bush was doing it with Iraq.
Although the popular perception of Nixon is still that of an archconservative who infuriated liberals, Bartlett reminds us that on domestic policy Nixon routinely caved in to public opinion and betrayed his conservative principles--for example, by creating the EPA, supporting enormous increases in Social Security and proposing a guaranteed-incomes policy. Likewise, Bush spent nearly his entire first term talking tough but then caving in with barely a whimper to any interest group that might help him win a few more precious votes in 2004. Tariffs were enacted in order to appeal to steelworkers; the Medicare bill was designed to buy the votes of the elderly; and McCain-Feingold was signed in the hope that it would provide a temporary fundraising advantage for the Republican Party. If all of these actions were precisely the opposite of what a real conservative would do, so what? As Nixon might have said, don't you know there's an election coming up?
As far as all this goes, Bartlett's argument is a good one, and the Nixon comparison even provides a neat and underappreciated explanation for why liberals hate Bush so much. After all, it's possible to respect someone with whom you have a principled disagreement, but not so easy to respect someone whose only real principle is to crush anybody who gets in his way. (Bush's alter-ego, Karl Rove, summed up this philosophy within earshot of journalist Ron Suskind when he yelled to an aide about someone who had displeased him, "We will fuck him. Do you hear me? We will luck him. We will ruin him. Like no one has ever fucked him!') As with Nixon, it's not really Bush's conservatism that gets liberals seething. In fact, it's just the opposite. It's precisely his lack of political principle, combined with a vengeful ruthlessness so dark it's scary, that makes liberals break out in hives.
But this is where the second half of the story kicks in, and it's a part of the story that Bartlett avoids. Like many a true believer on both tight and left, he's convinced that Bush's opportunism has all been for nought. He didn't need to pander to all those special interests. He could have stayed faithful to the conservative creed and still won reelection.
In this, Bartlett is almost certainly wrong. Genuine conservatives have a grim electoral history; after all. Robert Taft lost to Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater got crushed by LBJ, and Bob Dole was never even a serious contender against Bill Clinton. Newt Gingrich was certain that conservatism had finally won the day in 1994, but five years later he left office a defeated man. And does anyone even remember Phil Gramm?
That leaves only Ronald Reagan, and it's true that Reagan campaigned and won as an unapologetic conservative. Unfortunately, this single example simply doesn't do the analytic heavy lifting that Bartlett thinks it does. The reality is that Reagan came along at a unique moment in history, a time when the country was exhausted from the perceived liberal excesses of the '60s and 70s and ready for a short breather, especially one delivered with Reagan's trademark optimism and sunniness. Reagan was a reaction to an era, not the father of a movement.
What's more, as Bartlett tacitly acknowledges, Reagan in practice wasn't as conservative as his supporters remember him being. Sure, he famously cut taxes in 1981, but he raised taxes in nearly every year after that--including corporate taxes. He took a stab at cutting Social Security, but backed off after losing seats in the 1982 election and ended up endorsing a conventional liberal solution that increased payroll taxes and created a massive trust fund. He reduced the growth of domestic spending, but he never eliminated the cabinet departments he had promised to eliminate. In fact, he even added a new one. And he supported expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, an important anti-poverty measure. The reason that even liberals look back on Reagan a little more fondly today than they did at the time is that, in the end, he turned out to be a fairly pragmatic guy. (For more on this, see "Reagan's Liberal Legacy," by Joshua Green, January/February 2003.)
This is the reality that true-believer conservatives--Bartlett among them--don't want to believe. For all the trash talking from right-wing leaders like Grover Norquist and Tom DeLay, the fact is that America is only a moderately conservative country. And despite the electoral success of conservatives over the past decade, that hasn't changed much. Although party affiliations have shifted as Southern conservatives have migrated to the GOP, Harris polls since the early 1970s show that Americans self-identify as about 20 percent liberal, 35 percent conservative, and the rest in between, and those numbers have been rock- steady for decades. So where's the conservative revolution?
The answer is that it almost certainly never existed. Americans may not be ready for European-style soft socialism, but poll after poll demonstrates that they like Social Security and Medicare, they support iconic liberal programs in areas like environmentalism and worker safety, and they're pretty tolerant on social issues--and getting more tolerant over time, not less. George Bush couldn't have bucked these trends even if he'd wanted to, which is why he campaigned as a "compassionate conservative" and frequently gave speeches in which observers could have been forgiven for thinking they were hearing the reincarnation of FDR. Even at that, though, he only bareyl won. Hardcore conservatism simply doesn't sell in America.
What's more, it's never really been the governing philosophy of the Republican Party anyway. Bartlett usefully points out, for example, that Bush is "incapable of telling the difference between being pro-business and being for the free market," and he's right that this is a distinction that's seldom acknowledged. As Bartlett puts it, "Genuine supporters of free markets ... denounced just as strongly government policies that subsidize businesses as those that unfairly penalize them." In other words, they believe in real competition. But Bush's Medicare bill didn't promote free-market competition; it simply tossed benefits at pharmaceutical companies. Likewise, his energy bill was stuffed with giveaways for utilities and oil companies, his transportation bill was a pork fest that would have made Boss Tweed blush, and his bankruptcy bill was little more than an out-and-out payoff to the credit card industry.
This is far from being an aberration. The current incarnation of the GOP may have taken interest-group pandering to new levels, but Bartlett fails to acknowledge that the Republican Party has long been more faithful to the pro-business creed than the pro-market one. Ronald Reagan's 1986 tax-reform bill may indeed have been a rare instance of high-minded, bipartisan tax policy--and a surprisingly progressive one--but the very reason it's so celebrated is because such things are so rare. After all, didn't Reagan also preside over the savings-and-loan debacle, surely the largest giveaway of all time to the wealthy business class that funds the Republican Party?
Like it or not, the pay-to-play machine built by Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff--and enthusiastically supported by George Bush--is the apotheosis of what the Republican Party has always been about, not a betrayal of its principles. There is no primitive conservatism to go back to, and no messiah to lead the Republican Party out of its corporate welfare wilderness.
In the end, this is what Bartlett doesn't--or can't--get. Ideological activists may be loath to acknowledge this, but the truth is that today both major political parties are largely stuck. On the left, the problem is that liberals have achieved the bulk of what they set out to achieve 75 years ago, and the country is pretty happy with it. In the arena of economic security, they've given us Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, subsidized public education, welfare, and the minimum wage. Equal rights? We've got the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, affirmative action, gender discrimination laws, the Violence Against Women Act, and the ADA. Abortion is legal, forced prayer is gone from public schools, and criminal defendants are guaranteed a lawyer. In the area of protection from corporate predation, we've got OSHA, workers comp, loads of environmental regulations, consumer-protection laws by the bushel, and capital markets that am more transparent than ever in history. Sure, there's more to do, but that's not bad. There just aren't very many big-ticket items left with the potential to generate a lot of voter excitement.
In the same vein, the problem on the right is that conservatives have failed miserably whenever they've tried to take a serious chainsaw to modern liberalism. Cutting taxes is just about all they have left, and as Bartlett concedes, taxes can't be cut forever. This has mostly reduced conservatives to nibbling modestly around the edges of the contemporary liberal edifice while simultaneously passing out enough goodies to keep their supporters happy and the rubes, if not happy, at least scared enough to keep voting for them. This means that unlike the '30s or the '60s, when politics was vitriolic because the stakes were high and society was undergoing dramatic changes, the source of today's vitriol is precisely the opposite. As with World War I trench warfare, it's the result of two evenly matched sides beating each other bloody year after year but neither being able to claim victory. Bill Clinton couldn't get national health cam passed, but George Bush couldn't gut Social Security either.
Although the heat of battle often obscures this, the unhappy reality is that modern American polities is mostly played at the margins. In practical terms, we're no longer fighting seriously over grand principle, we're just fighting over who gets the most toys. The fact that Impostor--perhaps unwittinly--lays this so bare makes it a worthwhile read not just for its intended conservative audience, but for liberals as well. If progressives ever want to break our current political stalemate, they're going to have to open a new front.
Ronald Reagan was no George W. Bush
Carl Cannon on President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination
Richard Reeves is a throwback, a journalist who unabashedly calls himself a liberal (most of us are--we just deny it) and who counts on two things from his readers. The first is that this disclaimer fulfills its exculpatory purpose. Reeves volunteers in the introduction to this book that Ronald Reagan "did not change my liberal mind, and I did not dent his conservatism" This admission leaves Reagan-lovers free to factor that caveat into their assessment of Reeves's writing. The second understanding Reeves has with his audience is that we are supposed to know that, whatever his politics, his real loyalty is to his craft, to getting the story right.
That this tacit agreement can be serf-serving is self-evident. That it may be a dated and doomed pre-blogosphere convention is the subject of another essay. For the purposes of this review, suffice to say that there are enough of us out there who know Reeves's previous work, who respect him, and who know that saying a few good things about the 40th president of the United States does not make a guy a neocon.
In President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination (Simon & Schuster, $30.00), Reeves has plenty of good things to say about the great champion of conservatism, although a better way to put it is that Reeves lets the story of Reagan's eight years in the White House unfold organically. Sometimes the old actor comes across as insightful and uncommonly effective, the best of American idealism. Sometimes he comes across as antediluvian and inflexible--the embodiment of that "tired old man" whom, as Don Henley sang, "we elected king" In other words, this book reads like an honest portrait of an important president of whom liberals were not fond in his time, but who looks better with each passing year.
Why? For starters, Ronald Reagan never took his suit coat off in the Oval Office, let alone his pants. Nor did he indulge himself with serf-serving observations about his own style of leadership, or perhaps more significantly, launch a preemptive war--unless one counts the invasion of the little island of Grenada. And Reagan definitely did not boast of using his "political capital," although he certainly could have.
Reagan ran in a three-man race in 1980--and earned 51 percent of the vote. In a two-man race in his reelection effort, Reagan won 59 percent of the votes. Bill Clinton, by contrast, captured the presidency with 43.5 percent of the vote in a three-man race, and garnered 49 percent of the vote in his reelection bid four years later against Bob Dole and Ross Perot. George W. Bush? Don't get me started. He took office in 2000 as a 48-percent president without winning a plurality of the vote, and in 2005, he treated his 51-48 reelection margin as some kind of landslide. Reagan never promised to be a "uniter" instead of a "divider," and he was neither. He did, however, court Democrats assiduously on his tax-cutting budget bill, and kept his word not to campaign against Democrats who supported it.
Reeves's narrative style does not lend itself to such contrasts--I don't believe George W. Bush is mentioned in this book once--but those who wonder where Reeves would come down in a comparison between the 40th and 43rd presidents have not been reading the author's syndicated column. (Recent samples: "President Bush: I am the Law!" or "Is George Bush the Worst President Ever?")
Lest we get too nostalgic, however, Reaganomics remains a difficult dish to swallow whole. Reagan ran in 1980 on a promise to balance the cut taxes, build up the military, and balance the federal budget. Those goals were incompatible, and Reagan's priorities became clear when he blew a hole in the federal deficit, leaving literally trillions of dollars in national debt to future generations.
Other Reagan priorities were rambling to liberals then and remain so today. Classifying catsup as a "vegetable" for purposes of complying with school lunch nutritional programs, as the Reagan administration did, was little more than a public relations gaffe, but the media seized on it because it was a symbol for something real: Reagan's proposed (and in some cases effectuated) spending cuts in inner -city housing, poverty-intervention plans, mass transit, legal services and other programs that benefit the neediest among us--most especially AIDS patients, whom Reagan didn't acknowledge publicly for years.
And while Reagan always bristled when adversaries suggested a racist motive to any of his policies or statements, he exhibited insensitivity about racial and ethnic imagery in several high-profile instances. The Cadillac-driving "welfare queen" invoked in Reagan's stump speeches was a real person, but launching his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss.--where three civil rights workers were slain in 1964--at a time Barry Goldwater was championing states rights (and Reagan was championing Goldwater) was obtuse in the extreme. So was his decision, recounted meticulously in Reeves's book, to put German chancellor Helmut Kohl's feelings ahead of those of Holocaust survivors at a wreath laying "reconciliation event" in Bitburg, at a West German cemetery that included Nazi soldiers who'd served in units of the murderous Waffen SS.
"My Dreyfus case," Reagan wrote in his diary. "The press is still chewing on this Bitburg business. I'll just keep praying."
Two years later, on a another visit to Germany on the occasion of Berlin's 750th anniversary, Reagan was hoping to provide a worthy encore to John E Kennedy's famous 1963 Ich bin ein Berliner speech. The communist bloc's response to that speech had been to build the Berlin Wall, and Reagan now wanted to call on Mikhail Gorbachev to dismantle it. Conventional thinkers on the White House payroll, including chief of staff Howard Baker, deemed this impulse counterproductive and argued against it. Reeves recreates the final prep session between Reagan and speechwriter Peter Robinson.
Reagan: Now, I'm the president, aren't I?
Robinson: Yes sir!
Reagan: So I get to decide?
Robinson: Yes sir!
Reagan: Well, then, the line stays in.
Good thing, too. "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" was one of the most memorable utterances of the Reagan presidency, and hardly ineffectual.
Reeves's book relates another example of Reagan's superior political instincts involving his fateful negotiations with Gorbachev--but from the other ideological direction. This came in 1985, in Geneva, at the end of their first summit. Top White House foreign-policy aides Jack E Martlock Jr. and Robert C. "Bud" McFarlane stayed up until 4:30 a.m. on the last day trying to wait out their more conservative colleagues from the communications shop, Peggy Noonan and Patrick Buchanan. Matlock and McFarlane couldn't quite outlast them, so Noonan and Buchanan slipped three Gorbybashing sentences into the final draft of Reagan's closing remarks. Reagan returned the rough copy to Buchanan with the three offending sentences crossed out.
"Pat, this has been a good meeting," he said. "I think I can work with this guy. I can't keep poking him in the eye."
Here's another story of Reagan's interaction with his aides, from the second term: Prior to his fifth State of the Union address, the White House staff was divided over what the president should say about AIDS. This was January of 1986, and though his budgets had begun to reflect the debt of the health crisis facing the nation, Reagan had discussed the crisis only once in a September 1985 news conference. The medical profession, leaders in the gay community, and health officials in Reagan's own administration wanted the president to speak out.
A battle raged inside the White House, not just over what the president should say about AIDS, but over the speech itself. Mostly this was a turf battle pitting the speechwriting shop, which wanted to do its thing, against White House chief of staff Don Regan and those loyal to him, who wanted to assert their prerogative (and not have the president mention the disease at all). The spat was interrupted by tragedy: The morning it was scheduled, the space shuttle Challenger blew up, killing all aboard. Reagan spoke that day, but only about the six astronauts and a schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe.
The following week, Reagan gave his State of the Union, and it did not have the word AIDS in it. To consolidate his authority, Regan then fired longtime chief speechwriter, Bendy Elliot, a talented and self-effacing Reaganaut who has never been given his proper due. But Reagan, who had not been apprised of Elliot's sacking, circumvented "the mice" (the nickname for Regan's minions) by emphasizing the fight against AIDS the next day during a presentation on his budget.
"One of our highest public health priorities is going to be continuing to find a cure for AIDS," Reagan said in a surprise visit to Health and Human Services headquarters. "I'm asking the Surgeon General to prepare a major report to the American people on AIDS."
Thus did Reagan manage, albeit belatedly to outflank his own staff. Sometimes, however, the staff outfoxed him, and not always to bad results.
The same week as the AIDS remarks, voting began in the Philippines "snap" elections that would force the Reagan administration's hand on the festering problem of Ferdinand Mareos. A consensus had developed at the State Department, the Pentagon, in Congress, and even among top National Security Council staff in Reagan's own White House, that continuing to prop up Marcos was unprincipled--and unwise. Contrary to the myths that Marcos perpetuated about himself, the Filipino strongman was in reality a shirker (he hadn't fought the Japanese during World War II as he claimed), a master thief (he and his wife stole $1 billion, much of it U.S. aid), and a despot (he routinely rigged elections) who provided the rallying cry for a communist insurgency raging in the outlying islands of the archipelago.
Reagan was slow to accept this view, even in the face of abundant evidence. But advisers such as Richard Armitage at the Pentagon, George Shultz and Michael Armacost at State, and Republican senators Richard Lugar and Paul Laxalt kept a steady drumbeat of gentle pressure on the president. The aging autocrat moved up the timetable for elections to placate Washington, but Marcos outsmarted himself: The 1986 elections were so rife with corruption that even Reagan, after days of balking, was nudged by his staff into tacitly acknowledging Corazon Aquino's rightful claim to power.
It was Laxalt who gave Marcos the bad news: Reagan was pulling the plug, and the United States would airlift Marcos and his family to safety, but that was all.
If you were writing a Reagan book and had dwelt on these case studies of Reagan's leadership, as Dick Reeves did, you might have been tempted to make the following observation: When Reagan got bad advice from his staff, he ignored it; and when he got good advice, he followed it. Perhaps there's another pattern at work, but Reeves engages in little of this kind of analysis. So little, that at times some readers might wonder why they are reading this book. Reeves did not cover Reagan. Nor does he have any peculiar pet theories to peddle (Reagan was gay! Reagan was manic-depressive! Reagan believed blacks were inferior to whites!) the way revisionists go on about Lincoln.
So what is Reeves doing?
The cynical answer might be that, despite being in his late 60s, Reeves still likes to make money and see his name in print. Why not? He's still got his fastball, and with Social Security facing bankruptcy with the prospect of 75 million baby boomers approaching their golden years, he's an inspiration--and a foreshadowing to all our futures. The less flippant answer is that Reeves has a formula for chronicling presidents that has worked in the past. "I am interested," Reeves says, "in what he knew and when he knew it, what he actually saw and did--sometimes day by day, sometimes hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute." Reeves is talking here about Reagan, but this was his approach to two previous acclaimed books, President Kennedy: Profile of Power (1993) and President Nixon: Alone in the White House (2001).
It's a method that works less well with this book. For one thing, Reagan was president nearly as long as Kennedy and Nixon combined, and Reeves has to pick his spots--he can't simply write a day-to-day account for eight tumultuous years. Also, this narrative approach doesn't always catch the drama of the events Reeves is describing.
Reeves correctly identifies Reagan as a man of ideas, but Reagan was also a master storyteller who consciously made up soaring anecdotes to illustrate his ideas--the main one being that American exceptionalism is alive and well and a good thing. As such, Reagan demands biographers who will take a step back and try to tell grand truths along with him. Except in the introduction and the afterword, Reeves is hesitant to do that.
To be sure, he has reasons to be reticent: Official biographer Edmund Morris (handpicked by Nancy Reagan) tried the dramatic approach, and it ran off with him. Morris produced a deeply weird fictionalized account with himself as a contemporary of Reagan's. New Fork Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, who panned Reeves's Reagan book as a "sorry disappointment," believes the mystery of the Gipper simply eluded Reeves's grasp, just as he did Morris's. That is too harsh, in my judgment, but it is fair to say that Reeves's fly-on-the-wall style contrasts with the sweet mood music, scripted plot points, spectacular falls from grace, character arcs, grand denouements, comic hero bravery, and low cowardice of the epic movie that was the Reagan presidency.
To be sure, there are villains in Reeves's piece. Heroes, too, some of them unlikely. Many Americans know that after being shot by a would-be assassin, Reagan quipped to the operating surgeon, "I hope you're a Republican." But the line that produces a lump in the reader's throat is the rejoinder from Dr. Joseph Giordano, a Democrat: "Mr. President, we're all Republicans today."
Speaking of everyday heroes--Reagan himself couldn't make this stuff up--to the answer to the great question of who ended the Cold War, add the name Duke Zeibert. Reeves sets the scene nicely: It is mid-December, 1987, and Gorbachev, in Washington for the third of his momentous summits with Reagan, is in a limo with Vice President George Bush, who says, "It's too bad you don't have time to go into one of these stores or greet people."
"Stop the car!" shouts Gorbachev. Then, before Bush or the Secret Service can do a thing about it, Gorby is mingling with Christmas shoppers on Connecticut Avenue, shaking hands like a rock star, and waving to Zeibert, who stands on the balcony of his second-floor restaurant, shouting down to the Russian to come up to his place for a bowl of borscht.
This is the kind of detail Reeves specializes in. He was not there, but he availed himself of everything from White House pool reports to now-unclassified notes of the U.S.-Soviet summits. Reeves also interviewed participants from both governments, talked to numerous White House officials, and cites an impressive number of the 900-odd Reagan books that have been published. But if this is not President Reagan for Dummies, it is not a book for presidential scholars, either. Reeves has no real first-person experiences with Reagan; nor can he explore any one subject in detail, the way, say, Jack Matlock does in Reagan and Gorbachev.
In the end, though, Reeves's straightforward, nearly chronological narrative succeeds. The reason this is so is that the author has retreated to his original craft, reporting, and the detail in The Triumph of Imagination, large and small, makes itself compelling. In 1981 (Chapter 5), we chuckle as Reeves relates how House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr., on his Cape Cod vacation, watched news clips of Reagan clearing brush at his ranch in California. O'Neill, two years younger than Reagan, tried it himself--and found that after 15 minutes he "could barely breathe or walk." In 1983 (Chapter 7), we smile along with the 72-year-old president as he subtly suggests during a speech on physical fitness that he is still sexually active. And in 2004 (the Afterword), we sigh as Nancy Reagan confides in Reeves that her husband did not once open his eyes in the last four years of his life.
In these days of excess partisanship, we readers, we citizens, are well-reminded to keep our own eyes open when it comes to our presidents, regardless of whether we voted for them or not. Much rides on it, and the truth lies somewhere in between the success of their grand visions and the day-to-day details of their lives.
Paul Bremer was just following instructions
Michael Hirsh on My Year in Iraq
Paul Bremer III inspires fierce loyalty and affection in many of the people who have worked for him. It's no surprise why. Bremer is, by all accounts, a truly decent man: a devoted husband and father, a devout Catholic who kept framed on his desk in Baghdad the Latin inscription non sum dignus, or "I am not worthy." During his 13-month tenure as America's viceroy in Iraq, Bremer was good-humored and cool under fire, venturing out more than many other U.S. officials from the Green Zone, always nattily attired in his blue blazer (no flak jacket for him) and Timberland boots. Despite a reputation for hauteur in some quarters--especially at the United Nations--he possessed all the lineaments of the classic American diplomat, with that winning combination of brilliance and self-effacement--not to mention lean good looks and Kennedy-esque thatch of hair--that is so much a part of the patrician tradition going back to Dean Acheson, Henry Stimson, and John McCloy. "He's a man of extraordinarily high intelligence and integrity," Henry Kissinger, whose international consulting business Bremer once managed, told me in January 2004. "I've never met anyone with higher sense of public service."
All of which raises an important question: How did a guy of Bremer's obvious talents screw up so badly in Iraq?
Or did he?
It is now conventional wisdom among the chattering classes that Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq was a "disastrous" affair, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich, in one of his weekly rants, termed it. Republicans and neocons disavow Bremer because they believe his incompetence may have cost the president his legacy; Democrats and liberals demean Bremer because they think he drank the Bush Kool-Aid about democracy without knowing much about Iraq. Most of all, Bremer is condemned for making a pair of catastrophic decisions fight out of the box: calling for blanket de-Baathification of the Sunnis as his first order of business, then disbanding the Sunni-led Iraqi army as his second order, thus setting in motion the Sunni insurgency. Indeed, these criticisms today seem programmed into every journalist's keyboard (just press "Fl"). Bremer is an especially easy target in Washington because, unlike, say, Donald Rumsfeld, he rarely responds publicly.
Now, at last, we have Bremer's response, his memoir My Year in Iraq (Simon & Schuster, $27.00). It is well worth reading. As this fast-moving, if rather dry, narrative makes clear, the picture of Bremer's brief turn as a latter-day MacArthur (though Bremer casts himself more in the mold of the quiet McCloy; postwar administrator of Germany) is more complicated than the Beltway conventional wisdom has it. Far from being another Bush ideologue--though he firmly believed in the Iraq mission and is still loyal to the president--Bremer is better seen as the advance guard of the Bush II damage control team. These are the pragmatic second-term officials--like Gordon England at Defense, and Robert Zoellick, Nicholas Bums, and the passel of career diplomats Condoleezza Rice has hired for senior positions at State--who are now trying to clean up the mess left by the first-term ideologues. Led by Rice, who, while she was part of the problem in the first term, has blossomed as secretary of state, the damage control team has dispersed the neocons, who have been forced out, indicted, or isolated in stress positions (for example, Defenses William Luti, once of the Office of Special Plans cabal, is now kept under wraps at Stephen Hadley's National Security Council).And in their sheer numbers, the new pragmatists have blunted the power of Vice President Dick Cheney, once the fulcrum of foreign policy, and turned the tetchy Rumsfeld into a "potted plant," as my Newsweek colleague Fareed Zakaria aptly called him.
Bremer was, in retrospect, probably the early harbinger of these fixer-uppers. "Baghdad was burning" is the opening line of his book, describing his flight under fire into Iraq on May 12, 2003--a little over a month after the fall of the capital city--and he makes it clear that his principal job was to rescue something successful and enduring out of the Pentagon's pitiably poor planning as the Iraqi insurgency took off.
Bremer's book is a pure narrative from start to finish--the last page has him stepping onto his helicopter to depart for good on June 28, 2004--with almost no effort at self-reflection. He simply chooses not to directly address many of the criticisms one hears lodged against him: that the CPA was largely staffed by young Republican ideologues with little expertise; or that the occupation authority made little effort to stem rampant corruption in the contracting process (as the CPA's own former inspector general, Stuart Bowen, concluded in a withering critique). Still, it is clear that some of the criticism clearly stung more than others: for example, the charge that he was arrogant and unilateralist and did not understand the importance of figures like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. To rebut that perception Bremer peppers the text with the many mediated contacts he had with al- Sistani.
It's also clear that one of his principal goals is to shift some of the blame--especially to Donald Rumsfeld. Along the way we learn just how disengaged Rumsfeld's Pentagon was from "Phase IV" Iraq--everything that was supposed to happen after US. forces took Baghdad. Bremer's book will do lasting damage to Rummy's already crumbling reputation. In the first pages, before he even left for Iraq, Bremer writes of his shock at reading a RAND study that had recommended an occupation force of 500,000 troops, then leaving a copy of it for Rumsfeld with a cover note urging him to consider it. "I never heard anything back from him," Bremer writes. As things grow worse, Rumsfeld continues to ignore his requests for more troops, and top generals such as Rick Sanchez are simply too cowed--or too worried about their next star--to confront the bullying defense secretary with their real needs. Bremer writes about a private meeting he has with Sanchez, then the top commander in Iraq, in May 2004, in which it is clear that the general has thought long and hard about the security problem. '"What would you do if you had two more divisions, Rick?' I asked him. He was a practical soldier who didn't normally speculate about the hypothetical when there were so many concrete problems to address each day. But he answered immediately. 'I'd control Baghdad."'
Bremer makes much of his persistent warnings to everybody who would listen about the Pentagon's reckless tendency to overstate the readiness of Iraqi security forces; his constant demands that the Pentagon take out the meddlesome Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr early (the Army meekly refused); and his regular admonitions that political progress would not be enough to stop the insurgency. If taken at his word, this account should help to restore some of his reputation. The book also shows, beyond any doubt, that some of the blame so routinely heaped on Bremer needs to be spread far more widely. His book makes plain--and this has been confirmed elsewhere--that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary Douglas Feith both signed off on his troop decision; that the president wanted de-Baathification; and that both Bush and Rice failed to act on Bremer's concerns about the paucity of troops. They simply never give Bremer a clear answer, and he must return to the fight and make do with what he has.
The biggest disappointment of My Year in Iraq is that only very rarely does Bremer acknowledge any errors he might have made himself--and he clearly made plenty. (As with all the God-invoking Bnshies, one sometimes wants to grab Bremer by the shoulders and quote Oliver Cromwell to him: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.") Indeed, the central question hanging over his tenure as Iraq's civil administrator is not so much about those early mistakes he is blamed for, at least taken individually. It is whether he should have understood sooner that Rumsfeld was just not going to commit the resources that he, Bremer, knew were needed to achieve Bush's mission: a top-to-bottom transformation of Iraq that included de-Baathification and a brand-new Iraqi security force.
Rumsfeld wanted a brief in-and-out occupation; Bush wanted a new model for the Mideast. The remit is a tragic mismatch: an excess of vision paired with a scarcity of commitment, with Bremer left to arbitrate between the two. Perhaps he thought that Bush would do what presidents are supposed to do, which is take charge and remember that their defense secretaries work for them, not the other way around. But Bush wasn't engaged enough in the details to realize what was happening, ignoring the numerous hints about troops that Bremer dropped in his direction (at one point, Bremer writes, it becomes clear that Bush has misunderstood Rummy's troop withdrawal plans, thinking more soldiers would be sent in, but Bremer genteelly notes that "neither Rumsfeld nor I chose to correct the President in this forum.")
This was the moment, if there ever were one, for second thoughts. Bremer does in fact change course once In the first months of his tenure, in the summer of 2003, he doggedly follows the protocol in postwar Germany--a new constitution guaranteeing rights first, then voting, and only after that sovereignty. But the bloody autumn of 2003 prods him to adopt an accelerated schedule--instead of a full-blown constitution, the occupation would now create an interim "transitional administrative law," then hand over sovereignty. It is not enough of a shift. And there is no evidence that, as the insurgency raged on and the troops were not forth coming, Bremer ever had a real Kissingerian reckoning with himself, drawing the obvious conclusion: If we can't occupy this country satisfactorily, then we need to hand it over quickly. Instead he stubbornly proceeds with his long-term, paternalistic plans as if Rumsfeld has actually secured Iraq and he, Bremer, is actually John McCloy. These plans include an 18-month scheme for transferring sovereignty, a giant bureaucratic occupation authority planted in the middle of Baghdad, and a feckless handoff to US. multinationals such as Bechtel that lumbered blindly ahead, taking months to draw up environmental impact statements while the country's power supply foundered.
The problem, in other words, was not so much the separate decisions Bremer made: disbanding the army, blanket de-Baathification, and a smothering occupation. It was the cumulative impact that all these moves had in setting conditions for an angry insurgency in such a poor security environment. Bremer knew the old Iraqi army had largely dissolved (it is also clear, after two years of frustrating training efforts, that it was mostly incompetent). Yet Bremer also must have known--since his predecessor Jay Garner had told him--that some Iraqi units were beginning to drift back, identifying themselves to the Americans and looking for work (Garner had wanted to put them on reconstruction). Bremer must have known as well that the Pentagon had spent months before the war identifying Iraqi officers it could try to work with. Did it require such an act of imagination to realize that if Rumsfeld wasn't going to give him the troops, he needed to adjust on this issue and reach out to the Iraqis?
Bremer's myopia is also evident in his handling of one early opportunity for a fast transfer of sovereignty: the formation of the Iraqi Governing Council (GC). Bremer fights hard, rightly in my view, against the early Pentagon plan to install Ahmed Chalabi and a small group of exiles in charge. Instead he creates the GC by painstakingly and eloquently appealing to a broader group of Iraqis to come together. Yet after going to great lengths to form the GC, he makes clear he is giving it no real powers. And then he proceeds to disown and demean it, complaining of its "inertia" and short working hours. (Why should they work when they know he's the one in charge?) He ignores Chalabi when the latter warns him--with what now looks like prescience--that "by slowing down this political process, you risk giving the impression that America intends to stay a long time in Iraq." As the scholar Larry Diamond, one of Bremer's former subordinates, says in his 2005 book Squandered Victory, Bremer was too quick to dismiss Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sisrani's call for early elections, saying the country needed a new census and other formalities. But it may well have been practical, Diamond says, and taken some of the edge off Iraqi anger at the occupation. In his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in December, Bush himself also acknowledged, implicitly, that Bremer's occupation had botched things by being too top-heavily American, especially in its use of contractors. After the speech, Bremer privately admitted this to friends. But such mea culpae do not appear in his book.
To give Bremer some credit, he was trying to reverse a rout--desperately seeking to leave something lasting behind in Iraq. Whether or not he had the resources, that goal could only be achieved by extirpating the Baath Party and giving Iraq a brand-new politics, rather than relying on the likes of Chalabi. Unfortunately for Bremer, de-Baathification got out of hand, and this, too, was hardly his fault entirely. Thanks to Chalahi's Pentagon-aided early arrival in post-Saddam Iraq--he actually was flown in before Garner was--his Iraqi National Congress got hold of the Baath Party files and the de-Baathification committee. The result was that, for too long, Chalabi was allowed to conduct a McCarthyite purge of any public official he pleased, including hundreds of lower-level officials whose only sin was to adhere to a Saddam-era requirement to join the only party in town. These excesses also dearly helped to generate Sunni support for the insurgents. Even so, in his book Bremer does not adequately address the issue of why he did not do more to rein in Chalabi.
For all the mistakes he made, however, it is also clear that Bremer eventually scaled his steep learning curve. By early 2004 he is beginning to focus intently on the permanent structures he could leave behind, especially a new constitution. Bremer's stubbornness serves him in good stead in this period as well. Especially during the crisis of March and April 2004--when everything seems to fall apart at once--he brilliantly juggles US. military demands to (at last) crush Moqtada al-Sadr, who has occupied Najaf, and to invade Fallujah, where four contractors have been brutally murdered, with political threats by the Governing Council to resign if these U.S. military efforts go too far. In the end, he negotiates a middle course, adopting an 'Anaconda Plan" to squeeze al-Sadr's forces in Najaf while staying out of the mosques and deftly winning over the GC to his plan for an interim government. It is Bremer at his very best.
And whatever his portion of the blame, it must now be conceded that Bremer's political legacy--the new Iraqi government--is probably the main thing standing between the managed quagmire that is Iraq today and full-blown failed state status. Indeed Bremer's number one legacy, the interim constitution or Transitional Administrative Law, became the basic DNA of the new Iraq. It has determined the balance of power, created many of the parameters for the new constitution (except, most dangerously, for the autonomous powers given to separate regions), and set the deadlines for elections and constitutional referenda that, for better or worse, the administration has religiously adhered to in an effort to wind down Bush's Big Adventure. If Iraq falls apart or becomes a failed state, Bremer will undoubtedly get much of the blame. But if Bush--or his successors--ever can claim an acceptable outcome in Iraq, Bremer's achievements should get some of the credit.
George Tenet chose appeasement
Spencer Ackerman on State of War
It's a testimony to James Risen's ability as a reporter that his exposure of the most controversial national-security program in a generation is a relatively minor part of his explosive new book. Risen, along with his New York Times colleague Eric Lichtblau, broke the story in December that President Bush authorized widespread domestic surveillance, including the communications of American citizens, without court-issued warrants. If the surveillance program is legal--a dubious proposition, according to most constitutional lawyers--it is only barely so. Senators of both parties, alarmed by an initiative most of them knew nothing about, planned to hold hearings. Conservatives furious at the disclosure assailed the Times for jeopardizing national security to sell Risen's book--following the lead of Bush, who blasted Risen's expose as a "shameful act."
But there isn't much more in State of War (Free Press, $26.00) about the warrantless eavesdropping program than what the Times has already published. Instead, there is a wealth of information and insight into how the intelligence community has been pushed by the Bush administration--and, in many cases, willingly jumped--into its own shameful acts. Far from being a narrowly focused depiction of a particular scandal, Risen documents how most of the fateful national-security decisions of the Bush administration--from the invasion of Iraq to the botched occupation to the maintenance of secret detention facilities overseas--can be traced to the hostile relationship between Bush and the intelligence community. In particular, it excoriates the CIA under George Tenet's leadership for sacrificing the agency's independence and what Risen calls its "gravitational force"--its ability to draw policy-makers away from mistaken or dangerous ideas and towards the agency's presumably more accurate view of the world--by yielding to the relentless pressure that the administration placed on it.
When the administration began centering its case for war against Saddam Hussein in 2002 on his phantom weapons of mass destruction, intelligence officials whispered to reporters that the administration pressured them to come up with information that supported the decision to invade Iraq. Administration officials have vociferously denied the charges for years, and you can understand why: The accusation suggests, at the very least, that the war's architects were more interested in selling the decision to invade than in assessing the actual threat from Saddam. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley blasted "the notion that somehow this administration manipulated the intelligence" on Iraq and countered that "those people who have looked at that issue, some committees on the Hill in Congress, and also the Silberman-Robb Commission have concluded it did not happen."
It's true that the 2005 Silberman-Robb Commission report concluded that no analyst changed his assessment based on administration pressure. (The Senate Intelligence Committee report in June 2004, which did not look at how policymakers interacted with the intelligence community, nevertheless stated baldly that no one was pressured, a conclusion Democrats on the panel dispute.) But, like the Senate report, the story presented in the commission's conclusion casts doubt on that assertion. For instance, Paul Pillar, the National Intelligence Council's Middle East analyst, told the commission that "permeat[ing] the analytic atmosphere ... [was] the gathering conviction among analysts that war with Iraq was inevitable by the time the [National Intelligence Esthnate] was being prepared." The commission neither elaborates nor explains how that "analytic atmosphere" came to be, or what its effect was on the intelligence justifying the war.
Risen does. His book portrays pressure on the intelligence community from the administration as ranging from explicit to subtle and readily translated from senior CIA officials to their subordinates. It reaches far beyond Iraqi WMD. It traces back to what future intelligence historians may regard as among the most monumental bureaucratic blunders ever made by an intelligence chief.
That blunder was George Tenet's. Tenet, the head of both the CIA and the entire 15-agency, $40-billion intelligence community, attempted in 2000 to solve a structural problem with a personal maneuver. The structural problem was that the CIA, frequently assaulted from both the left and the right for much of its history, had lost its reason for being when the Cold War ended--and, as a result, lost much of its bureaucratic influence in the '90s. After Bush's victory in 2000, Tenet saw his chance. Risen vividly details how, in the hope of restoring the CIA to prominence, Tenet bound himself to Bush. Charmed by Tenet's gregariousness and towel-snapping machismo, Bush asked him to stay on as Director of Central Intelligence, thus denying Donald Rumsfeld the job.
Tenet made a Faustian bargain. Risen observes that in national security debates, the intelligence community, like the bureaucracy as a whole, "does serve one purpose: It tends to weed out really stupid or dangerous ideas, unethical and even immoral ideas, ideas that could get people killed or could even start wars?' But with Tenet betting the agency's status in the Bush administration on appeasing Bush, its independence--and therefore its potential to mitigate the self-deceptions to which any administration is vulnerable--was completely compromised. What's more, Tenet's pandering to Bush was actually counterproductive to maintaining the CIA, s bureaucratic status: The CIA would quickly learn that in the hands of a radical administration, no amount of appeasement would ever suffice.
The effects manifested quickly. Risen charges that Tenet caved to Bush entirely on the torture of al-Qaeda detainees. After the 2002 capture of Abu Zubaydah, a bin Laden deputy, failed to yield much information due to his drowsiness from medical treatment, Bush allegedly told Tenet, "Who authorized putting him on pain medication?" Not only did Tenet get the message--brutality while questioning an enemy prisoner was no problem--but Tenet also never sought explicit White House approval for permissible interrogation techniques, contributing to what Risen speculates is an effort by senior officials "to insulate Bush and give him deniability" on torture. CIA operatives watched apprehensively, remembering the long history of presidents who authorize covert actions only to leave low-level field agents holding the bag when scandals surface.
Once Tenet supplicated himself to Bush--one of Tenet's former aides terms his old boss "a pussy"--the CIA was in no position to exert its influence on the policy toward Iraq. Pressure to ratify the invasion took a variety of forms, and Risen details them richly. When Hadley, now the national security adviser, instructed Tenet's deputy, John McLaughlin, "that the agency had to get over its dislike of [Ahmed] Chalabi," the Iraqi exile politician and neoconservative favorite who provided dubious Iraq intelligence to policymakers, "McLaughlin made it clear to Hadley that the CIA wouldn't stand in the way and passed the White House message back to CIA management" Similarly, when Paul Wolfowitz complained about the CIA's rejection of the debunked "connection" between Saddam and al Qaeda, an ex-Pentagon official tells Risen, "George would say that he would fix it."
In Risen's telling, Tenet "fixed it" vigorously. When senior CIA officials, fearful that invading Iraq would jeopardize the war on terror, took their concerns to Tenet, "He would just come back from the White House and say they are going to do it" no matter what, one ex-official tells Risen. As he writes, "Agency officials who appeared to be unenthusiastic about Iraq soon mysteriously found themselves sidelined, while their more eager and ambitious colleagues began to rise" A 2002 CIA meeting became a "pep rally" for the war: "The pressure from the Bush administration was being transmitted directly into the ranks of the nation's intelligence community."
CIA appeasement only emboldened its enemies. Here lies the difference between previous administrations and Bush's. While no policymaker accepts the CIA's judgments uncritically, neither did any of Bush's predecessors seek to cripple the agency outright. In an incident detailed in the Senate report, Jami Miscik, head of CIA analysis, pulled the agency's Mideast experts, who were dubious of an Iraq-al Qaeda connection, off an assessment of those ties entirely, leaving it to the more credulous terrorism analysts. But when even those analysts were constrained by the facts--the paper was sub-headlined "Assessing a Murky Relationship"--the Pentagon's Douglas Feith had his analysts prepare a briefing for senior officials arguing that CIA skepticism should be ignored. The briefing, which sought to highlight "Fundamental Problems with How Intelligence Community is Assessing Information," suggested that the administration should shunt the CIA to the side on any issue in which it expressed inconvenient doubts.
Risen mines journalistic gold about the CIA's recent history with Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other flashpoints. But in his justifiable outrage at Tenet's pliability, he occasionally lets Bush off easy. About Iraq's WMD, he writes, "If someone had spoken up clearly and forcefully [to Bush], the entire house of cards might have collapsed" Risen qualifies this, suggesting that Bush might have still have "ignored the warnings" But it's hard to see how there's any doubt that he would have. The pressure Risen details existed for a reason: not just to enable the Iraq War, but to permanently neutralize the "gravitational force" that the CIA represents. No wonder that under the Bush administration the country drifts from one disaster to another.
Torie Clarke advised "candor"
Margaret Sullivan on Lipstick on a Pig
Torie Clarke, the former Pentagon communications chief who dreamed up and carried out the idea of embedding journalists with the American military in Iraq, has this to say about the current state of public relations: Spin is out. Truth is in. In her new book, Lipstick on a Pig (Free Press, $26.00), which is part memoir, part how-to, Clarke says that pulling the wool over people's eyes is no longer an option. With an increasingly skeptical press and an increasingly sophisticated public, transparency is the only way for politicians and corporations to get by. In short: The truth will get out, so stop trying to manage it. "I've learned over and over that sunshine trumps spin every time," she writes. "I return to that old aphorism: You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig. If you've got a pig on your hands--which is to say, a tough story--no lipstick can be laid on thick enough to cover up that fact."
Clarke's "spin is dead" theory is a little like Madonnas recent effort to convince the world she's really settling down now, and leaving the house only to go to kabbalah yoga class or pick up organic produce for the kids. It sounds semi-plausible, vaguely admirable, and may help to sell the product. But it strains credulity just a bit.
Certainly her message didn't seem to linger among her former employers (she left the Pentagon in 2003, citing personal reasons). Transparency and the Pentagon are just not words that go together, certainly not now. This is the same outfit, after all, that's been selling positive news stories in Iraq, and then stonewalling until it became impossible to deny. It may well be Clarke's personal belief that the truth--fast, straightforward, and no holds barred--is the way to handle every sticky situation. But it doesn't seem to have sunk in very far to the organization she served in such a high-profile way. Nor does such transparency seem to be the modus operandi of the boss, Donald Rumsfeld, she speaks so glowingly about. (Her admiration, by the way, is so incandescent that it reminds me of Peggy Noonan's rhapsodies over Ronald Reagan. Please, ladies. Let's leave our father complexes at the therapist's office.) And "openness" does not describe the way the larger Bush administration does business. With its efforts to subpoena reporters, narrow the Freedom of Information Act, and stamp "classified" on everything but the kitchen sink, this is probably the most secretive crowd that's been around in decades. One gets the feeling they'd just as soon forget the First Amendment and skip right on down to the Second.
Clarke herself, though, is a skillful PR practitioner who uses truth as her weapon of mass communication. Consider her big brainstorm: embedding American journalists with the troops in Iraq, a program that her bio says she "conceived, designed, and ran" From the administration's point of view, it's been a solid, if not perfect, public relations win. It looks like transparency and has resulted largely in extraordinarily positive press. For television reporters, particularly, there was a big Going Native factor. Guardian columnist Zoe Heller once described the fawning coverage as "reports delivered while riding shotgun on tanks, with the wind in their tousled locks, [accompanied by] cute conversations with the anchors about whether they're remembering to use their sunscreen or not."
But in addition to positive press, Clarke's brainstorm may have had another, more devious effect. One Washington print journalist of my acquaintance has come to believe that the embedding program so distracted reporters and news organizations with preparations to cover the fighting that it kept them from aggressively questioning the run-up to the war, particularly the reasons and justifications for it. Was that the Pentagon's intent? Perhaps that's too subversive a take on the whole thing. But then again, in the light of all things Valerie Plame, maybe it's not.
Either way, it was top-notch publicity for the Pentagon, proving that, as a communications wizard, Clarke is about as good as they get. As Sen. John McCain's press secretary in 1989, she helped him survive the potentially lethal Keating Five scandal, using a potent brew of forthrightness and political acumen. Her book, though, is less brilliant. Richly studded with war stories (literal and figurative), it is--at its best--an insightful glimpse inside the federal bureaucracy in extraordinary times. At its worst, though, it is superficial, verging on cutesy. She writes: "Since you've paid good money for this book--or at least I hope you have--I'll let you in on a little trade secret. Just don't tell any of my fellow communications consultants that I spilled the beans. Telling you what I'm about to tell you is like breaking the magicians' code. OK, dim the lights. Pull the shades. Listen carefully. Working with the media is not rocket science" Clarke goes on to offer the platitudes that the keys to good public relations are to be responsive, accurate, and truthful.
The book's strongest moments come in Clarke's compelling tale of being in the center of the action at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Here, her theory of "get the truth out and get it out fast" worked admirably as a government and a nation struggled to understand an earth-shaking event. As the Pentagon's communications chief, with the Pentagon itself under attack, she was in the eye of the storm. "Within an hour of the attack, we began responding to the thousands of media inquiries with what information we had--which wasn't much. My instructions to our team were direct: They were to say nothing of which we weren't absolutely sure. At the same time, I was convinced we had to get as much information out there as possible.... The best antidote to panic was information."
Her approach was the right way to go--one that helped make the defense secretary (and his boss) appear competent and in control. It's unfortunate--sad, even--that Clarke's message hasn't penetrated deeper. And it's no surprise, perhaps, that she decided to leave an administration that so often does exactly what she says never to do. Clarke, meanwhile, is far too savvy, and probably loyal, to point that out. If asked about it directly, I wonder if she'd provide the raw truth or something that might be called spin?
Fred Barnes delivered the talking points
Isaac Chotiner on Rebel-in-Chief
Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard, is one of those figures who drifts in and out of political consciousness: genial, conservative, always on television and rarely very memorable. But Barnes plays a particular, and to some quite important, role in the Washington media and political establishment. Where Bill Kristol may show more fealty to his conservatism than his president, or where Ann Coulter is too vitriolic for the good of her own side, you can always find Barnes calmly toeing the administration's line. When even Fox News panelists seemed uncomfortable with the administration's position on torture, there was Barnes defending the policy. When the president nominated Harriet Miers--and most conservative commentators and intellectuals rebelled--there was Barnes supporting the choice. He is the perfect Bush hack. Bames's obsequiousness, on display in his new book, Rebel-in-Chief Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush (Crown Forum, $23.95), is so deep it leaves you wondering what motivates it.
Rebel-in-Chiefs portrait of Bush is fawning and at times unintentionally amusing. It is also unlikely to change any partisan minds. What it does reflect is the startling conviction that movement Republicans--after five years of complete GOP control of every branch of government--somehow remain political underdogs in the nation's capital.
Barnes's readers are handed the dispiriting spectacle of a very experienced writer in pursuit of a very dubious thesis. The book has two ever-present goals, and they are not entirely distinct from each other. The first is to show that Bush is a brave leader, willing to trust his gut and do what he thinks is right. When Barnes meets the president in the Oval Office, we get this paragraph: "[Bush's] job, he told me, is to 'stay out of the minutiae ... ' To stress the point, Bush called my attention to the rug; he had been surprised, he said, to learn that the first decision a president is expected to make is what color the rug should be. 'I wasn't aware that presidents were rug designers,' he told me. So, he delegated the task, to Laura. Typical of his governing style, though, he gave a clear principle as guidance: He wanted the rug to express the view that an 'optimistic person comes here? The rug she designed is sunrise yellow." Lest the reader miss the point, Barnes inserts some helpful exposition: "Bush is a big picture person, eager to concentrate on major issues and delegate smaller ones. That explains why he let Laura design the Oval Office rug."
Having framed Bush as a man of principle in matters of interior design, Barnes wants to argue that this characteristic also explains his domestic policies. The huge spending binge of the last five years presents a problem for conservative defenders of Bush. There are two honest ways for them to address this part of the president's record. The first is to say that the (non-defense and Homeland Security) spending increases were simply made to capture votes, and thus farm subsidies and prescription drug benefits and the like are necessary to sustain Republican Congressional majorities and control the White House. The second is to say that conservatives do not cam about the deficit as long as tax cuts keep coming. What we get from Barnes is this: "[Bush's] view of government is Hamiltonian: It's a valuable tool to achieve security, prosperity, and the common good. His strategy is to use government as a means to achieve conservative ends" Later in this same paragraph Barnes notes that some of these ends am not really conservative at all. But rather than admitting that perhaps Bush has political priorities like all other politicians, he lets the clear implication of his own words go unmentioned. This is a defense of Bush you don't hear even from right-leaning magazines and talk shows, who frequently attack the president for an insufficient commitment to conservative values.
At this point in the narrative, the main question before the reader is why the book is so adulatory. It would be easy to say that Barnes has simply traded away his integrity and become a partisan because the pay is better, and it allows him to write books like this, which I imagine will sell quite well. But Rebel-in-Chief is so sincere that one is left with the unmistakable impression that Barnes really does see Bush as a serious underdog, that the establishment is truly out to get him. Which completely undercuts Barnes's ability to appraise Bush honestly.
Thus, the second, and central, argument of the book--Bush is a rebel, some metaphoric combination of Robin Hood and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: "President Bush operates in Washington like the head of a small occupying army of insurgents, an elected band of brothers (and quite a few sisters) on a mission. He's an alien in the realm of the governing class, given a green card by voters." For Barnes to present Bush as a conservative outsider, bravely fighting an uphill battle and bucking the liberal establishment, seems especially strained as the country enters another year under Republican control of Washington.
The picture of Bush as underdog appears early and often. "As an insurgent, with few ties to Washington aside from an alliance with Republicans on Capitol Hill," Barnes begins one paragraph. This is, after all, a man who was elected with almost total support from the Republican establishment. He raised more money from big donors than any presidential candidate in history and his father was president of the United States. Still, Barnes presents him entering Washington as a sort of High Noon-like hero, alone but morally courageous. I have no evidence that Bush does not prefer Crawford, Texas, to Washington D.C, and it certainly does seem that he would rather clear brush than dine at the home of Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn. But when it comes to governing, Bush did not start with any disadvantages, and the Republican Party has been united almost completely behind him, financially and ideologically.
To some extent, of course, Barnes is right about the Washington establishment. It has been duly noted time and again that if you were to poll all the bureaucrats and reporters in this town, they would likely register as more liberal than the country at large. Additionally, they am resistant to change in a way that must certainly be frustrating for a president as bent on setting a new policy course as Bush is. But to focus solely on these things, as Barnes does, is to miss the bigger, more important, picture: The old establishment no longer holds real power. The GOP, a more conservative party than it has ever been, controls all three branches of government and has a near-stranglehold over the capital's business and lobbying communities, that in turn give it a large and persistent fundraising edge. And though the right may be able to argue that the major newspapers and television networks lean left, there is no denying that there are more openly and strongly conservative voices than liberal ones in the press.
Why then is Barnes so prone to viewing Bush as an underdog? He seems to be seeing Bush through the prism of his own experience 20 years ago, when a staunchly conservative reporter may have felt snubbed by the Washington establishment. This may explain why he is more likely than, say, the young conservatives at National Review to see Bush as a victim. The latter came to Washington when the right had already captured power, and that confidence enables them to (occasionally) criticize the president, or view him as a normal politician. But even among the most recent arrivals to the capital, the victim mentality perfectly captured by Rebel-in-Chief is still the norm. This book is just one extreme example.
Much has been written about GOP troubles in these last few months, and the conventional wisdom seems to be that the Republicans have not adjusted to being a governing party. Maybe so. It is no wonder conservatives cannot see themselves as being truly in charge when they see our two-term, 43rd president, son of the 41st, as a rebel fighting against the dark force of elite opinion.
Kevin Drum is a contributing writer for The Washington Monthly.
Carl Cannon covers the White House for National Journal, an authoritative, non-partisan weekly Washington magazine on politics and government.
Michael Hirsh is a senior editor at Newsweek, based in Washington, and author of At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance To Build A Better World.
Spencer Ackerman is an associate editor at The New Republic.
Margaret Sullivan is the editor in chief of The Buffalo News.
Isaac Chotiner is a writer in Washington, DC.
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|Title Annotation:||BUSH & HIS ENABLES; George W. Bush|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2006|
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