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Hell of a Ride: Backstage at the White House Follies.

This is a terrific book, which almost anyone interested in politics will enjoy reading. It clarifies aspects of the Bush years that had seemed to be inexplicable quirks, and it provides hilarious new illustrations for timeless truths of political and governmental life.

Structurally, John Podhoretz's book might seem to be a successor to What I Saw at the Revolution, Peggy Noonan's memoir of her years as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Podhoretz served briefly as a Reagan speechwriter, during that administration's last few months, and for the first few months of the Bush regime he worked in the office of "Drug Czar" William Bennett. (By the way: now that Kristine M. Gebbie has become head of the government's anti-AIDS efforts, can we either drop titles like "AIDS Czar" or change them to "Czarina" as appropriate?) Like Noonan, Podhoretz throws out occasional right-wing chestnuts to show that he really does believe in the "empowerment" agenda, a strong national defense, cuts in the capital-gains tax, and so on.

But the emotional tone of this book is completely different from Noonan's, in a way that makes it more delicious reading and that also illustrates differences between Reagan and Bush as politicians. Noonan's book had a sentimentality about Reagan - the man, the symbol, the leader of a movement. While reading it I was reminded constantly of World War II movies, in which stoic GIs and brassy dames back home would go all teary-eyed when they thought about the Big Causes that little people like them were fighting to defend. The emotional model for Noonan's book was, in short, Casablanca. Seemingly tough guys, who were idealistic deep down inside, pulled together to beat an evil foe.

Perhaps this tone reflected the way the world really looked to Reagan loyalists during the 1980s. Podhoretz hints time and again in this book that it would have been great to be part of a crusading administration like Reagan's, rather than that of a conservator, like George Bush. (Although Podhoretz doesn't say this, anyone who has ever written speeches envies those who wrote for Reagan, a man whose long training as a professional announcer taught him, first, that delivery mattered and, second, that it was not shameful to stick to a text.) Perhaps Noonan's soft-focus rendition of those in power reflected either a conscious or an instinctive trait of her own personality. For instance, she presented George Bush as being so completely selfless and other-oriented, so Gary Cooper-like in his modesty, that he could barely bring himself to use the word "I." This trait, she said, accounted for the odd subjectless syntax of Bush's acceptance speech at the 1988 convention ("moved to Texas, raised a family," and so on).

Podhoretz presents Bush, more hard-headedly and much more convincingly, as being just the opposite sort of person: a man so completely absorbed in his own drama of success, failure, and popularity that he could barely notice anything else. The Bush years, Podhoretz says, should be thought of as a "solipsistic presidency," guided not by any positive agenda but by the president's concern about how to position himself on each new issue that turned up in his in-box. Podhoretz says:

Comedian-impressionist Dana Carvey of Saturday Night Live captured Bush's self-obsession perfectly when he picked up on Bush's incessant use of the word "prudent," lampooning it in the oft-invoked phrase "It wouldn't be prudent at this juncture." . . . Someone who is obsessed with "prudence" is less concerned about what is going on around him than about his response to the activity and how it will be perceived.

As these few lines might suggest, Podhoretz has not exactly sugar-coated his portrayal of Bush. Indeed, the book has barely a good word to say about Bush's presidency, except of course for the successful coordination of the war against Saddam Hussein. Strictly as a matter of human relations, the utter lack of warmth in this depiction of his party's leader is startling. Exasperated as Democrats were with Jimmy Carter during his administration's long collapse, most of them retained some little trace of fondness for what Carter had tried to do or what he could have become. Podhoretz's nostalgia is all used up on Reagan. In fairness, Podhoretz was not some long-time ally of Bush who spurned him at the last moment. He says he came to Washington in the 1980s to be part of the conservative moment, rather than to plump for the election of George Bush. In any case his stony attitude toward Bush, whatever it says or doesn't say about Podhoretz as a person, frees him to take a black-comedy approach to the administration's foibles.

Politically, this book makes a stronger case against Bush's re-election than did all the speeches by all Democrats in 1992. Podhoretz uses the famous-in-Washington story of the "empty box" as one illustration that the administration had completely run out of gas. In June of 1992, as Bill Clinton was wrapping up the Democratic nomination, Bush's speechwriters met with Robert Teeter, the campaign manager. Teeter showed them a chart he had worked up on the computer to coordinate the themes for the campaign. The first box, on the left-hand edge of the chart, listed some of Bush's accomplishments in office. The second box listed the problems America had to deal with at home. Other boxes on the right listed specific Bush administration proposals and the main argument for them. "But it was the third box," Podhoretz says:

at the center of the chart, the box from which all the other boxes flowed, that was the subject of the meeting. It read:


There was nothing else in the third box. "What I want from you," Teeter told the speechwriters, "is to help me fill this empty box."

The book contains dozens of similar examples, all elaborating the idea that Bush felt entitled to stay in office but could not offer any reason why. "The worst-run campaign in presidential history" - probably an exaggeration, but at the moment I can't think of a counter-example - was "led by a man who believed he deserved a second term because, damn it, he just did, that's all." The only people who felt loyal to Bush, Podhoretz says, were those who were in some anthropological sense like him - the New England preppie crowd that "summered" on the Maine coast and had been "tapped" for Skull and Bones. Because the battle against Bill Clinton was purely personal, turning not on "ideas" but on Clinton's affront to Bush's sense of entitlement, any campaign tactic was acceptable. (Richard Ben Cramer's brilliant book about the 1988 campaign, What It Takes, illustrated even more vividly how the gentlemanly Bush could talk himself into gutter campaign tactics.) Bush's father Prescott, as a senator from Connecticut in the 1950s, had expressed patrician disdain for Joe McCarthy's low-life smear techniques. But George Bush found himself trying to gin up concerns about Bill Clinton's student visit to Moscow and anti-war protest in England. The main bit of news in Podhoretz's book shows that this was an even riskier and more hypocritical strategy than it seemed at the time.

During the first debate among the presidential candidates last fall, Bush lit into Clinton for helping organize a protest in London in 1969. He said "I just think it's wrong to demonstrate against your country in a foreign land." Podhoretz says that as soon as the words left the president's mouth, a Bush campaign aide named David Tell nearly had a heart attack.

Tell knew that if the Clinton campaign had a particular clip from a London newspaper, Clinton himself could right now deliver the coup de grace that would level the Bush candidacy for good. The clip was a story about the demonstrations dated September 22, 1969, and one of the Americans who spoke critically of his country's role in the Vietnam war was "Michael Boskin, 22, of Stanford University."

Boskin, forty-five, was currently serving as the chairman of Bush's council of Economic Advisors, in a grand office on the third floor of the Old Executive Office Building.

Clinton of course didn't find the clip, Boskin kept his mouth shut, and the protest issue never really took. But the whole campaign, in Podhoretz's view, was the logical culmination of an administration whose leader wanted only to be president, not to do anything in particular, and whose subordinates therefore spent most of their time fighting for positions on the greasy pole. While Podhoretz has a few kind things to say about fellow grunt-level staff members, his portrayal of most of the administration's big shots consists of devastating anecdotes about their pomposity, selfishness, and blunders. Those who come off worst, apart from the president himself, are Samuel Skinner (for incompetence), John Sununu (for overall unpleasantness), Boskin (for huffy self-importance), and above all the inimitable Dick Darman.

Podhoretz gives proper emphasis to the most unbelievable act of chutzpah in modern political history: Darman's role in a big Washington Post series that came out two months before Election Day, 1992. The series, by Darman's close friend Bob Woodward, was an examination of the Bush administration's economic record, concluding that the record was disastrous. So far, so good: It was hard even for Bush to claim that the combination of big deficits and lost jobs represented success. The problem with the series was Darman's obvious role as (a) the main source for Woodward's anecdotes, most of which cast the President in a very unfavorable light, and (b) the only hero in this economic tragedy - the lone voice bravely warning the short-sighted, unprincipled president that trouble lay ahead.

Presidential aides routinely try to clean up their records after their administrations have left office, taking credit for the victories and distancing themselves from the defeats. (The generic title for White House insiders' memoirs should be, If Only They'd Listened to Me.) Darman's innovation was to start re-writing history while it was still going on, acting as if he, the poor little budget director, had had no responsibility whatsoever for the ballooning federal deficits. As Podhoretz says, "There was simply no precedent in Washington history for a sitting official to work with a hostile journalist on an expose of his own administration to be published in the middle of a life-and-death reelection drive. . . You did not just want Darman to be fired for his disloyalty; you wanted him to suffer, to be stretched out on a rack for a few hours."

Yet Bush did nothing to Darman, taking at face value his claim that Woodward had "sandbagged" him and reneged on a promise to publish the information only after the election. Sorry for the misunderstanding, Dick! No problem with you calling me an unprincipled hack, as long as it's for a best-selling book next year! "It had to be true, then," Podhoretz concludes. "Darman had the president hypnotized."

There are countless anecdotes like this one. Nearly all ring true to the way the Bush administration looked from the outside, and to the way the White House always looks to anyone who has worked there. Podhoretz offers a number of nice details about the vanities and vulnerabilities of those who temporarily hold political power. One of my favorites concerns the endless status battle between people with offices in the West Wing of the White House and those working in the vast, adjacent Old Executive Office Building, or OEOB. West Wing offices are cramped, uncomfortable, low-ceilinged, and generally terrible; the OEOB has hallways and office suites that look as if they were designed for a race of giants. But everyone in the West Wing views the OEOB as the other side of the tracks, since the president's own Oval Office is also in the West Wing. This is an old story, but Podhoretz has a new touch. Rather than walk the dreaded 20 yards that separate the two buildings, secretaries in the West Wing would send faxes when they needed to communicate with the wretches in the OEOB. There is much, much more in this vein. Hell of a Ride is a realistic if mordant view of what things can be like when the campaign is over.

Podhoretz's explicit message is that the Bush administration lacked the strengths of Reagan's - the ideological clarity, the sense of mission starting at the top. The main message I took from it is how much Bush shared with the previous one-term president, Jimmy Carter. One reason the Bush administration accomplished so little except fighting Saddam Hussein, Podhoretz says, is that no one within the administration could predict exactly where the president would come down on a particular issue. During the Reagan years, you generally knew without asking where the president stood. He was for most military programs, against most taxes, and so on as we all knew. But under Bush, Podhoretz says, most issues had to be fought out from scratch, since in the end the president might go either way. Bush might have decided that the Rio environmental conference was an anti-American extravaganza, to be ridiculed and boycotted, as Reagan would have - or decided to go, as he finally did. Bush might have stonewalled on the 1990 budget agreement because of his promise not to raise taxes - or given in, as he did. As a result, the Bush team spent more of its time fighting internally, and less getting its plans passed, than Reagan's team did.

The Carter administration had a problem similar to Bush's, although for a different reason. Carter loved studying the details of programs, and judging each on its independent merits. Bush apparently didn't care that much about domestic programs and so could be pushed either way. The cautionary lesson for the Clinton team should be obvious. It is good that their leader cares more about facts and details than Ronald Reagan did. But he must also take care that a few big, simple goals remain clear, to the public and to his employees as well.
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Author:Fallows, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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