The Book on Bush: How George W. Bush (Mis)Leads America
Introduction: The Power of Audacity
“All public policy should revolve around the principle that individuals are responsible for what they say and do.” – George W. Bush, 1994
When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 he was presented to the nation by his campaign handlers and a sympathetic media as a nice-enough fellow who didn’t take himself or much of anything else—save perhaps his family and religion—too seriously. Though polls consistently showed that a majority of voters held views closer to those of Democratic candidate Al Gore—and, indeed, a 52 percent majority did end up voting for Al Gore or Ralph Nader—even most of Bush’s opponents did not see his presidency as much of a threat to their beliefs.
While Bush had the reputation of being a conservative from a conservative state, he did not strike voters as particularly ideologically motivated. The media served his purposes here by focusing not on his record in Texas, or on the scale of the tax cut he proposed, but on his personal story of youthful dissolution before finding faith, along with his apparently charming habit of handing out nicknames to everyone he met. George W. Bush, the self-described “compassionate conservative,” was said to be different from the Republican hard-liners in Congress, who, in President Bill Clinton’s terms, held up the nation’s business with a politically inspired shutdown of the government and impeachment of the president. True, few people found themselves awed by Bush’s intellect, but the argument went that a man who knew himself, as Bush appeared to, was preferable to one who knew many things but needed to rely on pollsters to tell him what to say.
Nothing about Bush’s genial campaign—or Al Gore’s, for that matter—motivated Democrats to commit themselves strongly to his defeat. The New York Times reported just before Election Day that “the gap in intensity between Democrats and Republicans has been apparent all year,” with Republicans fighting tooth and nail for their man, and Democrats taking a more diffident attitude to theirs. Polls showed that Gore voters by two-to-one were more willing to accept a Bush victory after the Florida fiasco than vice versa. The retiring Democratic senator and liberal icon Daniel Patrick Moynihan told the Times, “There is no great ideological chasm dividing the candidates….Each one has his prescription-drugs plan, each one has his tax-cut program, and the country obviously thinks one would do about as well as the other.”
Bush’s victory in the highly disputed fight in Florida and his failure to get more votes than Gore nationally further contributed to the belief that America’s forty-third president would govern from the happy middle of the partisan divide. “Given the circumstances,” wrote the commentator Joe Klein in the liberal New Yorker magazine, “there is only one possible governing strategy: a quiet, patient, and persistent bipartisanship.”
Few predictions in recent political history have proved quite so mistaken. Once sworn into office, a potential bait-and-switch occurred as George W. Bush proceeded to embark on the most radical presidency in modern times. In fact, his hard-right agenda strikes out in so many directions simultaneously that it’s nearly impossible for the average citizen to keep up. In his first term as president, Bush has sought to explode precedents in almost every area of governance, whether the policy in question be foreign or domestic, popular or unpopular, old or new, effective or not. He has done so in contempt of the opinions of not only his opponents but also many of the corps of professional experts who are charged with nonpartisan evaluation of government programs purely from a standpoint of efficacy. To find an apt parallel in American history one would have to go all the way back to FDR’s New Deal and wartime mobilizations. But Roosevelt was contending with the Great Depression and the near-collapse of world capitalism, and later with the declaration of war against the United States by two highly industrialized great powers bent on world domination, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Bush, in contrast, is driven almost exclusively by a near-religious belief in the rectitude of his ideological convictions on domestic matters and by the shock of a single albeit devastating terrorist attack by a group of stateless, pre-modern Arab fundamentalists. There is literally no comparison.
To be fair to the pontificating pundits, it was not easy—at least at first—to discern just how differently from his campaign rhetoric Bush intended to govern. There were few precedents for Bush’s transformation, either in America’s political past or in Bush’s own personal history. “I remember describing Bush as an incrementalist when he was down here, and he was,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas. “He was not throwing the long pass. He was not a policy ideologue by any stretch of the imagination.”
Early profiles of Bush paid tribute to his quiet sense of religious commitment and his easygoing “aw-shucks” manner. Time’s Jay Carney discerned in Bush “an immutable core” and called the president a man of “preternatural equanimity.” Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Bush’s is the impish grin, a deliberate signal of confidence and good cheer. He revels in unpretentiousness, and he seems wholly undaunted by his new responsibilities.” When Bush came to Washington, USA Today announced in a bold front-page headline, “Bush charm offensive gains ground.” Here was a classic case of the media as an enabler, encouraging the elevation of style over substance.
While it is important not to “misunderestimate” George W. Bush— personally, we think him dumb like a fox—it is no less important to address the consequences of his self-defined limits of intellectual inquiry. “I was never a great intellectual,” he said in 1986. “We’re [the Bush family] not serious, studious readers. We are readers for fun.” In 1999 Bush explained to conservative commentator Tucker Carlson that he didn’t like to read long books, especially books about policy. His advisors have admitted that the staff usually limits him to three or four thirty- to forty-five-minute “policy time” sessions per week, about what Bill Clinton engaged in per day. Then, more often than not, the president sloughs off responsibility with the admonishment, “You guys decide it.” It was therefore hardly surprising when our forty-third president told Fox News in the fall of 2003 that he rarely read beyond the headlines of the day’s newspapers. Even Bush friends and boosters cannot vouch for the extent of his knowledge. Neoconservative strategist Richard Perle damned with faint praise when he told Vanity Fair, “The first time I met Bush 43, I knew he was different….One, he didn’t know very much. The other was that he had the confidence to ask questions that revealed he didn’t know very much.”
It was dismaying though obviously not disqualifying that president-elect George W. Bush entered office with less understanding of American history and the world than probably any twentieth-century predecessor. But lacking Eisenhower’s or his own father’s worldliness or JFK’s or Clinton’s intellect, Bush is prone to grab onto a useful intellectual framework like a life preserver and then not let go—whether it’s Myron Magnet’s sour interpretation of the sixties in The Dream and the Nightmare, Marvin Olansky’s irrationally exuberant view of the value of government faith-based programs in The Tragedy of American Compassion, or Paul Wolfowitz’s Pollyannaish analysis of the likely consequences of an American invasion of Iraq.
Bush’s lack of the most rudimentary knowledge of the areas in which he sought to pursue radical change did not strike him or his advisors as in any way limiting. The president is rarely allowed by his handlers to speak directly to the media on matters of policy, and he has reduced the number of regular presidential press conferences held on average by his four predecessors in office by nearly three-quarters. (By the fall of his third year, the father Bush had held sixty-one press conferences; his son by the same time, nine.) They happen often enough to indicate that Bush does not take presidential preparation much more seriously than he took his course-work as an affirmative-action–legacy student at Yale. Asked for instance, in July 2003, whether he might revisit the case of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, Bush replied, “Well, I said very clearly at the press conference with Prime Minister [Mahmoud] Abbas, I don’t expect anybody to release somebody from prison who’ll go kill somebody.” Clearly Bush had never even heard of Pollard, who is only the most famous foreign spy to be captured and tried in the United States in the past thirty years and whose jail sentence remains a significant bone of contention in U.S.-Israeli relations. One could literally fill books with examples of cases where Bush demonstrated less knowledge about a given topic than would a decently educated graduate student.
Bush’s combination of a low base of knowledge coupled with his admitted lack of intellectual curiosity might be less worrisome in a less ambitious politician. No president can know everything and, as Bush defenders argued during the election, many presidents have been book smart and real-world stupid—and vice versa. But the advent of the second Bush administration witnessed a fully united Republican Party driven by the engines of the religious right, big business and the neoconservative worldview—and piloted by a famously stubborn Texan.
For example, Bush’s unwillingness to depart from an original premise—get Saddam; tax cuts are always good—reflects a focus and willpower that are much commented-on traits. “We don’t second-guess out of the White House. We don’t adjust the plan based on editorials,” he said with an edge of disdain during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. A supporter told the Washington Post that Bush “learned that anguishing doesn’t pay. He doesn’t let his own inner core be supplanted by the hand-wringing of policy wonks.” Post reporter David von Drehle concluded, “Bush tends to make a decision only once. He doesn’t anguish afterward. He doesn’t really anguish much to begin with.”
But if the facts are merely a political convenience to prop up his first instincts, then where do Bush’s first instincts come from? If W’s thinking is more catechismic than empiric—that conclusions produce “facts” rather than facts producing conclusions—how does he arrive at his predetermined conclusions?
The answer, we believe, is that he begins any policy consideration with three fundamental questions: What does the religious right want? What does big business want? What do the neocons want? Convinced by political advisor Karl Rove that the way to a second term is to “activate the base”—that is, not alienate it, as his father did when he raised taxes after promising, “Read my lips, no new taxes”—Bush first and foremost wants to satisfy his core conservative constituencies. And if facts clash with the established orthodoxy, he’ll stick with his base, not the facts.
First, Bush’s own religiosity is well known. He’s both a “born again Christian” who kicked alcohol and found God at forty with the help of family friend Billy Graham, and a politician who keenly understands, in G. K. Chesterton’s view, that America is a “nation with the soul of a church.” Of course, it’s traditional for presidents to be observant, to regularly invoke God and attend church. Difficulties can arise, however, if either a public official appears indebted to religious zealots or bases policy significantly on his particular religious beliefs. Most prominently, John F. Kennedy—who understood how the Founding Fathers’ aversion to European religious intolerance led to the First Amendment’s separation of church and state—told the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September 1960 that the pope and the Catholic Church didn’t control him. “I believe in a president,” he said, “whose religious views are his own private affair.” Unlike Kennedy, however, Bush appears to weigh religion—and religious voters—far more heavily on his scale of policy. “The president feels that one of the contributory factors to his father’s loss is that he didn’t get as many evangelical votes as Reagan did,” said Dr. Richard D. Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and an intimate of Karl Rove’s. Michele Cottle of The New Republic put it more bluntly: “Karl Rove would likely rather risk an international holy war than a drop in Bush’s support among Christian conservatives.”
Second, if Bush has ever broken with the big-business community, itdoesn’t come to mind. But the marriage of big business and politics isn’t just the world that Bush grew up in; from oil to the Texas Rangers to fund-raising, it’s all he’s ever known (see chapter 4). Ralph Nader teased in 2000 that “George Bush is a corporation running for president disguised as a person.” The Economist, at the other end of the spectrum, concluded that a trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt “may be George Bush’s favorite president, but Mr. Bush is a business school graduate who has stuffed his administration with multimillionaire chief executives. There can be no doubt where his sympathies lie.” And when he seeks to raise $200 million for his 2004 presidential campaign, he doesn’t go to union workers for $25 direct-mail gifts but gets several hundred business “pioneers” to raise at least $200,000 each. No one tells these business bundlers to give back a little of their tax windfall to the man whose policies made it possible. No one has to.
Third, and perhaps most costly, following September 11, 2001, President Bush fell under the sway of a group of neoconservative ideologues placed in his administration by Dick Cheney and focused primarily in the Pentagon and vice president’s office. These ideologues viewed the attacks less as a national tragedy than a strategic opportunity to implement a program of unilateral global empire for the United States, beginning with a “preventive” war against Iraq. Because Bush and his advisors were willing to deceive Congress and the nation about both the level of threat Iraq presented, as well as its (all-but-nonexistent) connections to the true perpetrators of the terrorist attack on New York and Washington, they succeeded in perpetrating a war against the wishes of the population of virtually every nation on earth. Meanwhile, candidate Bush’s promise of a foreign policy that would be “humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course” was consigned to the dustbin of history.
By the time the two authors of this work set down to examine Bush policies in major areas of domestic and foreign policy, it was everywhere evident that they were not simply ad hoc reactions to problems as they arose. Rather, they were conscious attempts to reorder the priorities of the U.S. government both at home and abroad and permanently alter Americans’ relationship with their government, with one another, and with the rest of the world. Few of these policies were even hinted at during the 2000 election, and since then none of them has been honestly presented in language that would alert Americans to the extreme path their government has undertaken. That, in a nutshell, is why we are writing this book: to ensure that Americans do not go to the polls in 2004 without being fully armed with the facts regarding the radical transformation of our political life that began on that fateful day that the United States Supreme Court intervened to prevent a full and fair count of the votes in Florida. Some books and articles have argued that President Bush cannot be trusted to tell the truth, a contention with which we agree. Others have noted that his foreign policies have caused the United States to be reviled across the world as never before, without in any way appreciably increasing our security. We agree as well. Still others focus on Bush’s favoring of the wealthy over the poor, and the contempt, rhetoric notwithstanding, with which his administration treats average Americans. Again, we concur.
What is lacking from these accounts is a detailed map of the entire political and policy landscape. Yes, President Bush frequently dissembles. Yes, he can be fanatical. Yes, he is also often ill prepared and uninterested in acquiring the knowledge necessary to make informed decisions about complicated policy questions. But what will the consequences be for the country and the world of the ascension to the highest office in the land by a man who is willing to deceive the nation on behalf of policies that stem from the most extremist element of his already quite conservative party?
Rather than taking on the thankless role of Cassandra, The Book on Bush seeks to walk readers through this administration’s specific policies with an eye toward revealing what Bush and his conservative warriors would prefer to conceal. We aim to demonstrate, based on the evidence presented by expert analyses, the likely consequences of an environmental policy run for the benefit of the energy industry; an economic policy that beggars the poor, comforts the rich, and destroys the basis of fiscal solvency for the nation; an education policy that “leaves behind” those most in need; a science policy that flatters the prejudices of theological fundamentalists; and a foreign policy that creates hatred and terror where none existed before, undermining our alliances and threatening our security.
In each of these cases, the Bush modus operandi has been to say one thing and do another, whether promising tax saving for everyone but giving the lion’s share to the wealthy few or vowing to protect America from threats while inflating nonexistent ones and ignoring those against which we can be defended. How does he do it? There are a variety of methods that add up to what playwright Arthur Miller terms Bush’s “power of audacity.”
Sometimes the president seems to think that vagueness, non sequiturs, and tautology are enough to explain away his political problems. How long will there be an American presence in Iraq?—”As long as necessary but not a day longer.” Did you get where you are because of your famous father?—”I love my Dad.” Drugs as a youth?—”When I was young and reckless, I was young and reckless.” Is war with Iraq really a last resort? “When I say I’m a patient man, I mean I’m a patient man.” It is sad to say about our democracy, but this nonsense often works.
Another frequent maneuver is to talk left/govern right to the point that Bush seems to think he can get away with anything if he declares its opposite. One is reminded of great magicians who (mis)direct audiences to focus on the visible left hand while the hidden right one behind the back pulls off the trick. For example, in his admiring memoir The Right Man, loyal Bush speechwriter David Frum paid tribute to the president’s stem cell “compromise” in the summer of 2001: “Because Bush summarized all points of view so sympathetically, he was able to win the support of his viewers for his own not at all middle-of-the-road position.” Few Americans probably realized that this sympathetic-sounding man was, in fact, throwing up ideology-inspired roadblocks in the search for potential cures for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and cancer.
Then there is what Joshua Micah Marshall has called “the confidently expressed, but currently undisprovable assertion.” Bush took the country to war with Iraq on the basis of arguments that turned out to be patently false—and understood by most experts at the time to be so—but could not be disproven without an invasion. Especially with the president arguing the contrary daily, how could anyone say for certain that Saddam Hussein had no nuclear weapons or even no significant ties to al Qaeda? The intelligence experts quietly made their case against such claims, but Bush and Cheney just brushed them aside with their confidently asserted, largely fictional pronouncements. “There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a threat to world peace,” said Bush after the invasion of Iraq. “And there’s no doubt in my mind that the United States, along with allies and friends, did the right thing in removing him from power. And there’s no doubt in my mind, when it’s all said and done, the facts will show the world the truth.” He can say he has no doubt three times or three hundred times, but the issue isn’t about “doubt in his mind”; it’s about whether a unilateral invasion and occupation of an Arab country was worth the cost.
Much the same is true of Bush’s program of tax cuts for the wealthiest few. Almost no one with even a college degree in economics really expects them to offer a cure for the myriad problems that ail the economy, and in many respects they are the problem itself. But all of this is hard to prove in the face of Bush’s repeated assertions about his “jobs and growth” package. Bush, meanwhile, speaks as if the future will fall into line with his beliefs once it recognizes his personal resolve. “The President and his advisors,” concluded a New York Times editorial, “obviously believe that the constant repetition of several simplistic points will hypnotize the American people into forgetting the original question.”
Another Bush rhetorical strategy, identified by journalist Renana Brooks, is his masterful use of emotional language to dominate debate while ignoring the substance of the question at hand. She notes, for example, “Rather than explaining the relationship between malpractice insurance and skyrocketing health-care costs, Bush summed up: ‘No one has ever been healed by a frivolous lawsuit.'” The multiple fiscal and monetary policy tools that can be used to stimulate an economy were downsized to: “The best and fairest way to make sure Americans have that money is not to tax it away in the first place.” The controversial plan to wage another war on Iraq was simplified to: “We will answer every danger and every enemy that threatens the American people.” These are all empty phrases but they serve their purpose in making all further discussion unnecessary. There are good guys, who want to prevent frivolous lawsuits, to make sure Americans have money, and to prevent threats to the American people, then there is everybody else. Which side are you on?
And, of course, there is that time-honored tactic of so many presidents: outright dishonesty. Few Americans were aware—at least until we learned the truth about Iraq—how George Bush “had such a high regard for the truth,” as Lincoln said of a rival, “that he used it sparingly.” The problem wasn’t just “16 words” about Iraq supposedly purchasing enriched uranium but some 160,000 words—that is, much of what the administration says day in and day out on policy after policy. When Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank collected a number of these in a front-page story in late October 2002, he couched them in linguistic circumlocutions, such as that Bush’s statements represented an “embroidering of key assertions.” Presidential statements were clearly “dubious, if not wrong.” The president’s “rhetoric has taken some flights of fancy…taken some liberties…omitted qualifiers,” and “simply outpace[d] the facts.” The words President Bush lied do not appear in Milbank’s story and have yet to appear in any newspaper account in any major national newspaper, insofar as we are aware.
Part of the reason is deference to the office and the belief that the American public will simply not accept a mere reporter’s calling the president a liar. Part of the reason is the nature of the political culture of Washington, where it is somehow worse to call a person a liar in public than to be one. Another motivation is the inherent caution of the journalism profession on this most sensitive of topics. Former Washington Post editor in chief Ben Bradlee notes that “even the very best newspapers have never learned how to handle public figures who lie with a straight face. No editor would dare print this version of Nixon’s first comments on Watergate for instance: ‘The Watergate break-in involved matters of national security, President Nixon told a national TV audience last night, and for that reason he would be unable to comment on the bizarre burglary. That is a lie.'”*
We know that President George W. Bush is not the first president to mislead, misstate, fudge, or falsify in a pinch, citing national security needs to be sure. What distinguishes his efforts here is the frequency and scale of the dishonesty, as well as the resolve with which he commits himself to it. ABC News’s scrupulously nonpartisan Web publication “The Note” observed early in the Bush presidency that the president and his advisors were unusual in modern times for the degree to which they were willing to insist that “up is down” and “black is white. While the public doesn’t necessarily see or pay attention to all of this,” the authors added, “there has been a corrosive effect on the filter through which media and political elites view administration statements and actions.”
Michael Kinsley succinctly describes the Bush administration technique: “What’s going on here is something like lying-by-reflex. If the opposition accuses you of saying the world is round, you lunge for the microphone to declare your passionate belief that it is flat.” The ferocity is often accompanied by insouciance. What is odd about the Bush technique is that frequently no one in the administration appears to concern himself with whether such deceptions are necessary or even credible. Kinsley adds, “Bush II administration lies are often so laughably obvious that you wonder why they bother. Until you realize: They haven’t bothered. If telling the truth was less bother, they’d try that, too. The characteristic Bush II form of dishonesty is to construct an alternative reality on some topic and to regard anyone who objects to it as a sniveling dweeb obsessed with ‘nuance,’ which the president of this class, I mean of the United States, has more important things to do than worry about.”
Yet while Bush unabashedly continues to make such misstatements and sleights-of-rhetoric, many Democrats and the media lack the coherence to call him on them. “Like orthodox Marxists who pick apart mainstream economics and anthropology as the creations of ‘bourgeois ideology’ or Frenchified academic postmodernists who ‘deconstruct’ knowledge in a similar fashion,” Joshua Micah Marshall notes, Bush and his ideological supporters reject “‘the facts’ as nothing more than the spin of experts blinded by their own unacknowledged biases. The result, as we are seeing in the land of Iraq and in the sea of red ink currently engulfing the federal budget is that by the time Bush has been disproven, we are stuck with the results of his ideologically driven policies.”
The result of these tactics—together with many others described in subsequent chapters—is that the massive political, social, economic, and environmental revolutions currently underway in America are taking place just beneath the radar screen of public debate. The very nature of our society, our government, and our nation’s relationship with the rest of the world are being transformed in ways that may endure for decades, and yet most Americans are only dimly aware that George W. Bush is a different sort of leader than, say, his father, or even his political role model, Ronald Reagan.
Another way of putting this, as author William Greider does, is that President Bush is actively seeking “to roll back the twentieth century.” The draining of the public treasury to benefit the very rich is just the start of an effort designed to reduce government to a size where, as close Bush ally and conservative political organizer Grover Norquist has so memorably said, you can finally “drown it in the bathtub.” Some of the evident aspects of this historic redirection as Greider identifies it include the elimination of federal taxation of private capital “as the essential predicate for dismantling the progressive income tax”; the gradual “phase out [of] the pension-fund retirement system as we know it, starting with Social Security privatization but moving eventually to breaking up the other large pools of retirement savings…and converting them into individualized accounts”; the withdrawal of “the federal government from a direct role in housing, health care, assistance to the poor and many other long-established social priorities, first by dispersing program management to local and state governments or private operators, then by steadily paring down the federal government’s financial commitment”; the restoration of the “churches, families and private education to a more influential role in the nation’s cultural life by giving them a significant new base of income—public money”; the strengthening of the hand of business enterprise against “burdensome regulatory obligations, especially environmental protection, by introducing voluntary goals and ‘market-driven’ solutions”; and the defenestration of labor unions and all forms of organized labor. Abroad, there is an attempt to abandon virtually all international obligations and constraints that in any way impinge on America’s unilateral ability to define and act upon its own self-interest in a fashion of its own choosing—the “good opinion of mankind” as Thomas Jefferson defined it, be damned.
Some of the above might sound implausible to the point of being unimaginable. We can only wish that this were so. But all that is required for radical conservatives to remake America in their own image through the power of the presidency, the Congress, and the courts is for the rest of us to avert our eyes and pretend that it is just not taking place. That would be the triumph of the power of audacity. In the pages that follow we intend to document both the failures of a far-Right House and other dangerous changes President Bush and his allies have in store for the nation. This is one case, to borrow W.’s penchant for theologically inspired language, wherein “the devil” may really be in the details. Here they are. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.