The Land Of Bush And Cheney

May 9, 2014

daysfire

Is it too soon to examine the White House of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney? Their tenancy is hardly ancient history, after all. We’re still mired in an unfunded war and struggling through a crippling financial crisis which both began on their watch. The plutocracy that they personified still rules American electoral politics and grows more powerful every Supreme Court term. And it will take decades to establish whether their overriding priority, a “global war on terror,” was an aberrational reaction to a temporary climate of shock and fear or the new, amoral chapter in world history they perceived.

Still, nearly all the key players have already weighed in with self-serving memoirs: both Bush and Cheney themselves and a warehouse pallet’s worth of others, including Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, John Ashcroft, Paul Bremer, Tommy Franks, Karl Rove, George Tenet, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, Ari Fleischer, Paul O’Neill – even John Yoo, the lawyer who attempted a legal justification for our country’s use of physical torture on its “detainees” who had (and in some cases still have) yet to be charged with a crime. Of course, a memoir can only represent its author’s particular point of view, meaning only as much as the author can or cares to “remember.” What we need instead is a dispassionate narrative with no particular axe to grind, and here is the first one: DAYS OF FIRE by Peter Baker, the New York Times reporter who did a similarly non-judgmental job in THE BREACH, the definitive fly-on-the-wall account of Bill Clinton’s impeachment and trial.

If you have any presumptions about the two featured men, either as an admirer or a critic, you’ll likely find corroboration here, beginning on page 3, where Mr. Baker lays out the impressive Bush-Cheney record of accomplishment (if he’d done nothing else, Bush would still be the best friend Africa has ever had in the White House, one reason accusations of racism stung him so), and then in the following paragraph recounts the “misjudgments and misadventures” that “left them the most unpopular president and vice president in generations.” What impressed me throughout, though, was how the author was calmly able to disabuse me of some assumptions I personally held that just aren’t true.

George W. Bush is not an unintelligent man, though he’s aware that he can come across this way and over the years has found it useful as a bit of jujitsu against opponents: it gives him a negotiating advantage whenever he’s “misunderestimated.” Rather than dim, what he seems to be instead is incurious and impatient, probably after having lived a life that found its way down prescribed and predictable paths (with one notable exception). He has always had the benefit of mentors, friends, guides, some of them inherited. You can gauge your personal prejudice by considering the chilling five minutes on 9/11 after Andy Card told the president the country was under attack and he didn’t move from his chair in that Florida elementary-school classroom. Some will see a steely gaze on Bush’s face as he silently vows to bring the evildoers to justice. Others will note the same expression and see a man desperately hoping for somebody to tell him what to do. Mr. Baker suggests that Bush had thrived on, insisted on order, punctuality, and disruption-free schedules since he changed his life by giving up alcohol at age forty, and his temporary paralysis may have indicated he was coming to grips with the enormity of the desperate, uncontrolled, improvisational days to come.

Contrary to popular opinion, Dick Cheney was not Bush’s puppet master, and that was the notion which most rankled “the Decider” personally, particularly as he became more confident of his footing in the second term (to the eventual detriment of both Donald Rumsfeld and Scooter Libby). Cheney was certainly adept at behind-the-scenes manipulation, and served as the final gatekeeper regarding what the president saw on his desk, but none of Mr. Baker’s many sources can remember a single instance in which Cheney talked Bush into doing something against his will. Cheney’s genius was in understanding how Washington operates – most of it alien to his less experienced boss, even after having observed his father’s long federal career – and in encouraging inevitability. The perfect example was his own selection as vice president; as candidate Bush’s designated point man assigned to find a running mate (after first being asked if he would like to be considered himself), Cheney vetted nine potential veeps in such grinding detail that he possessed valuable information about each of them that precluded perfection in any of them. When the governor finally implored Cheney to run alongside him, the irony wasn’t lost on anyone. Dick Cheney had long said he’d love to be president if the job were simply handed to him; it was all the required baby-kissing and money-grubbing by the figurehead in an actual campaign that he disdained. Now, here was the closest anyone could ever get to that wish. Colleagues who served with Cheney as far back as the Nixon administration were later heard to mutter, this isn’t the Dick Cheney I thought I knew. But anyone who bothered to check his Congressional voting record, so radically conservative that it fit right in with early 21st-century smash-mouth Republicanism, wouldn’t have been so surprised. Except nobody did bother. Cheney, the great inquisitor, was himself never vetted as a V-P prospect. The job was simply handed to him.

Cheney was particularly attractive to Bush for another reason besides his long experience in government and business: uniquely among modern vice presidents, he did not aspire to the top job. As noted, he found running for national office odious, and that became doubly apparent during the campaign. There would be no sniping or second-guessing, no positioning or ass-covering for some future race. Halfway through the first term, Cheney mused aloud: “In this White House, there aren’t Cheney people versus Bush people. We’re all Bush people.” He was being overly generous to the president: of course there were Cheney people, led by chief of staff Scooter Libby and bulldoggish attorney David Addington, and his cadre quickly found itself at odds with the likes of Secretary of State Colin Powell and, less frequently, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, particularly during the runup to Iraq. But as a potential competitor to the boss, Cheney didn’t compute at all – and Bush liked that, both as candidate and as president. The deference extended to official meetings: Cheney never opposed the president in public and tended to either keep silent or ask an occasional question. They held private weekly lunches, but all we know about them is what they told us or their aides.

Having served in the Nixon administration and as President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff before being elected to Congress, Cheney witnessed firsthand what he felt to be a dangerous swing of the pendulum of power from the Presidency toward the legislature – an overreaction, in his view, to the Watergate scandals. When it came to authority, Cheney was a Nixonian (“When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal”) and felt no more need to “ask permission” for extraordinary rendition and CIA black-ops than Ronald Reagan had for the Iran-Contra affair. Cheney’s world was black and white, populated by heroes and villains, and from this he never wavered during all his years in office.

Address to the Nation on Immigration. Oval.

Conventional wisdom about the self-described “compassionate conservative” was that George W. Bush was basically a nice guy who got in over his head, but that isn’t accurate either. It’s a notion held over from his fairly successful service as Texas governor, a constitutionally weak position in which he was forced to work alongside Democrats in the state legislature. But family observers had long noted that Bush personally took after his tough, no-prisoners mother over his more conciliatory father. He had been the senior Bush’s doctrinaire enforcer and hatchet man during the 1992 campaign; it was George W. who informed chief of staff John Sununu that he should resign. Upon losing the popular vote and gaining the presidency by its fingertips when a Florida recount was halted in a highly controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision, the Bush administration – particularly in the form of Cheney – proceeded to govern as if it had won a landslide. There would be no compromise, divided electorate or not. Advisor Karl Rove, who comes off in this account more important in his own mind than he is to day-to-day governance once the elections are done, famously admitted as much early in the first term: it doesn’t matter how close the margin, just as long as you win. The first concrete indication that these people weren’t all that compassionate was a private-sector task force convened by Cheney a few months after inauguration to advise on federal energy policy: not only were outsiders barred from the meetings and their conclusions, we weren’t even allowed to know who had attended. One name appearing on everybody’s speculative list was the doomed Enron’s doomed Kenneth Lay, whom Bush affectionately called “Kenny Boy.” But we don’t know for sure. Transparency was for wimps.

One thing the satirists did get right was Bush’s tendency to receive a first impression and then stick with it, to “go with his gut.” He “loathed” Kim Jong Il of North Korea, but after meeting Vladimir Putin, pronounced him “honest, straightforward.” “I looked the man in the eye,” said Bush, and “I was able to get a sense of his soul.” When Cheney looked Putin in the eye, he thought, KGB, KGB, KGB. Unlike the hard-charging 1992 campaign worker, the presidential Bush was more likely to shy away from personal conflict. He hated firing people, particularly those who had been loyal to him. When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s head came on the block, he insisted on a personal meeting, and only after a reluctantly hosted and uncomfortable lunch at Bush’s Texas ranch did it become clear to the General that longtime fealty was no longer a basis for appeal.

Bush’s complicated relationship with his father almost surely colored his entire presidency, partly in ways we’ll never understand. For most of George W.’s pre-political life, it was his industrious younger brother Jeb of whom their parents expected great things; the eldest son was wasting himself in frivolity and desultory attempts at business. It was a strange inversion of the Kennedy family history, in which golden boy Joe Jr. self-abdicated in a premature WWII bomb explosion, and younger freewheeling playboy Jack ascended to the Senate and presidency instead. When George W. Bush sobered up in 1986, he was still the “black sheep” of the clan, and he had lots to prove, both to his father and to himself. When he unexpectedly beat Ann Richards in the 1994 Texas gubernatorial race on the same night that Jeb lost his first election for Florida governor, Bush asked his father over the phone, “Why do you feel bad about Jeb? Why don’t you feel good about me?”

There were two main lessons “43” took from “41”’s presidency. First, breaking the elder Bush’s famous “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge cut him off at the knees among hard-line conservatives, who use a Mad Hatter-like formulation regarding taxes and the economy. If there’s a deficit, businesses are being taxed too heavily and are disinclined to hire and grow. If there’s a surplus, as “43” inherited from President Clinton, then taxes are still too high because the government is taking in more than it spends. (Never mind the national debt; that only clouds the issue. As Cheney said one day, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” That is, unless a Democrat is in the White House.) “This is not only no new taxes,” Bush proclaimed during a January 2000 debate. “This is tax cuts so help me God.” He made good on his promise barely four months into office.

Bush Attends Ceremonial Swearing In Of Veterans Affairs Secretary

The second lesson emerged only in retrospect. When the Persian Gulf War liberated Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s army in February 1991, “41”’s popularity was the highest of his presidency: even Democrats approved of his performance by a four-to-one margin. He looked unbeatable for re-election. But less than two years later, he was defeated by a deteriorating economy and the Clinton campaign’s unerring focus on it. The tax issue was probably the dealbreaker, but “43” and Cheney detected another chink in the armor: with the world’s most powerful ground force deployed only kilometers away, “41” had not completed the job by deposing Hussein with military muscle. There were many good reasons to simply accomplish the stated mission and leave, which is exactly what happened, but Bush and Cheney felt Saddam had only been emboldened to continue terrorizing his people and developing nukes. A disrupted 1993 car-bomb plot to assassinate Kuwait’s emir and “41,” purportedly traced back to Saddam, was a particular burr. “After all, this is the guy who tried to kill my dad,” Bush said at a 2002 fundraiser. If generals had seized the day and marched on Baghdad, that might never have happened. At one of their weekly lunches, as Bush was wrestling with the decision to extend his own war into Iraq, Cheney even goaded him on a personal level, one cowboy to another: “Are you going to take care of this guy or not?” Years later, Bush was surprised that this bit of impertinence had stuck with him, but it had its effect at the time.

After 9/11, the notion of retaliation against Iraq had surfaced almost instantly, beginning with Bush himself. “See if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way,” he ordered counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke. “But Mr. President, Al-Qaeda did this.” “I know, I know, but see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred.” (As events later proved, he wasn’t kidding about the shreds.) The first few hours after the planes struck were chaotic, with the president struggling to get back from Florida while buildings were burning in New York and D.C. As United Airlines Flight 93 sped toward Washington, Cheney ordered it shot down – and twice more as a military aide re-confirmed “authority to engage.” Recollections differ as to whether he had obtained Presidential approval in advance, but “none of about a dozen sets of logs and notes kept that day recorded the call,” writes Mr. Baker. The plane was brought down instead in a Pennsylvania field by its passengers, before any Cheney order was given (and, fortunately, ignored), as frantic cell-phone calls revealed that other airliners were being used as deadly missiles. Most observers speculate its target was the Capitol or the White House; Cheney and team were below the East Wing in a secure but “low-tech” bunker that had never been used in a crisis before. Cheney spent most of the next few weeks at one or another “secure undisclosed location” (his own words) in order to maintain the line of succession in case of further attacks. Usually the secret hideout was no more exotic than Camp David or his own residence, but it was still undisclosed.

Bolstered by an historic wartime thumbs-up from the electorate – not dissimilar to Bush’s father’s – which extended into the 2002 midterms, Bush and Cheney might possibly be forgiven for convincing themselves that they were acting on behalf of a united nation. To the “reality-based community” (a notorious term that came from an anonymous Bushie widely believed to be Karl Rove), however, the administration needed to pound into “truth” the notion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. (Never mind that another member of Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” North Korea, actually had nukes.) Some suspected the actual motives were less noble after watching post-invasion Iraqi looters sack everything in sight – including museums and munitions dumps – except for the one bit of infrastructure under Coalition protection: the oil fields.

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“Stuff happens,” shrugged Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at one of the press conferences that made him something of a rock star after the invasion proved easier than anybody expected. Saddam’s army quickly dissolved away, allowing a cathartic “victory” to play out on American tv sets tuned to the “shock and awe” channels, and it turned out that Iraq had actually long since disposed of its WMDs but maintained enough of a pretense to juice the dictator’s perceived international importance and keep the hated Iran at bay. Rumsfeld is the subject of Errol Morris’s new film THE UNKNOWN KNOWN, which one might expect to be a companion to his Oscar-winning THE FOG OF WAR (2003), in which former SecDef Robert S. McNamara expresses second thoughts (his “eleven lessons”) about our prosecution of the Vietnam war. But Rumsfeld displays no contrition, no beard-stroking, no doubt whatsoever. In this he was typical of the Bush inner circle.

Without Donald Rumsfeld, you might not even have a Dick Cheney. It was Rumsfeld, Cheney’s longtime mentor, who convinced President Ford to bring Cheney in to succeed him as Chief of Staff when he became the youngest man ever to serve as Secretary of Defense. Cheney returned the favor years later when he counseled Bush to appoint Rumsfeld as the oldest SecDef in history. Through all the intramural squabbles of the Bush years, Cheney and Rumsfeld were never on separate teams. Rumsfeld was the ultimate organization man, highly attuned to protocol and what he saw as proper chains of command. He communicated orders and random thoughts in hundreds of memos that were so voluminous they came to be known by his staff as “snowflakes.” Rumsfeld spends much of THE UNKNOWN KNOWN reading from various snowflakes, some of which sound like koans, full of Zen ambiguity but lacking any enlightenment. For example, this passage, which originated as a press conference answer and gives the film its title: Reports that say there’s — that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know. One Rumsfeld snowflake was directed at President Bush as he searched in vain for WMDs in Iraq: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. By such logic did our country invade a sovereign nation in a runup so blind and frantic that besides squandering precious blood and fortune, it also consumed the political career of a man who otherwise might well have become the first black president of the United States: General Colin Powell. (Think about how that might have altered the Republican brand.)

In Rumsfeld’s view, SecDef’s job was to wage and win a war. Whatever happened afterward was somebody else’s responsibility. In fact, the various administration members’ accounts of the post-invasion debacle form a Quentin Tarantino-like Mexican standoff, pointing at each other with fingers rather than pistols. What fool dissolved the Iraqi army, encouraging trained soldiers to fade back into the population as armed dissidents? Who failed to protect storehouses of weapons and ammunition, never mind priceless, irreplaceable cultural antiquities? How did uniformed American jailers turn into sadistic monsters? When did we begin fighting wars with contractors and mercenaries, including a private-sector paramilitary immune from U.S. or Iraqi law? What gave us the idea that we could pay for this whole mess with another country’s oil? Each memoirist tells us, in his or her own way: I don’t know, bro, but it sure wasn’t my fault.

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Rumsfeld held a great advantage over Bush, at least while war plans were being laid. To his fellow Texan, Lyndon Johnson’s tragic mistake in Vietnam was trying to micromanage the war from Washington. Bill Clinton, to some extent, had been guilty of the same thing in tentative humanitarian uses of the military (even though Clinton had worked his will in Kosovo without a single casualty). Instead, Bush resolved to listen to his generals on the ground, under the direction of Rumsfeld. The only general he didn’t listen to was Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “several hundred thousand soldiers” might be needed to occupy Iraq after the war, in direct opposition to Rumsfeld’s notion of a quick, sleek, in-and-out strike by a lean, techno-savvy force. Shinseki was never asked to elaborate, and was replaced later in the year.

The speedy ground “victory,” and Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” football-spike aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, kept the wartime fervor bubbling hot enough to defeat Sen. John Kerry and win a second term. Bush liked to brag that more people voted for him than for any other presidential candidate in history. (The all-time #2? Sen. John Kerry in that same election. It helps when there’s no vote-siphoning from a third-party candidate, as Ross Perot did to “41” and Ralph Nader did to Al Gore. Both were topped by Barack Obama four years later, but Bush is still the only Republican presidential candidate to win the popular vote since his father in 1988.) Re-energized, vastly relieved at never having to campaign again, emboldened by a victory that was clearly mathematical after the overly lawyerly 2000 race, and much more comfortable in his presidential skin, Bush enthused in his first post-election press conference: “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital. And now I intend to spend it.”

But now the war had entered its excruciating just-dragging-on phase, a bloody grind of noise behind anything else the president tried to accomplish. He had some plans for the second term, to at least partially privatize Social Security and forge some desperately needed immigration reform. But the public was losing patience with the war effort and thus its authors. Sovereignty had been handed over to Iraq (“Let freedom reign!” Bush scribbled on Condi Rice’s note. Not “ring.” Reign.), but without U.S. troops it only amounted to a few words on a piece of paper. The lurid images from Abu Ghraib prison had been assimilated but not forgotten. Don Rumsfeld had gallantly offered his resignation over the scandal, but as Mr. Baker writes, “cynically, it could be seen as forcing Bush to either support him or cut him loose.” “Pretty smooth,” Bush told an advisor. “He called my hand.”

That had been the first-term Bush. The more assured second-term president now paid less attention to the likes of Cheney and Rumsfeld; one imagines he must have been growing tired of advice that the fullness of time was proving so wrong. There’s a famous clip, used by Michael Moore in his film FAHRENHEIT 9/11, of Bush resolving to hunt down America’s enemies, then stepping back to a golf tee and saying, “Now watch this drive.” It makes him seem callous, flippant, even foppish (whatever PR officer approved that idiotic photo-op should have been beheaded), but that’s not so, either. Bush agonized over the victims of his wars, at least on the American side, and his frequent visitations and other acts of kindness to veterans and their families went unpublicized, which suggests to me that they were genuine. (He even temporarily gave up golf in sympathy, perhaps because of that mortifying clip.) The war consumed Bush, and if any regrets were deeply internalized – you can’t betray your troops by second-guessing their mission, he frequently said out loud – they were still present.

Despite Rumsfeld’s space-age cogitations, it appeared that what we really needed was more troops (easier to argue than more domestic spending, which we needed as well), and with the support of the usual suspects – John McCain has never seen a military muster he didn’t like, and his obviously bobbleheaded choice of Sarah Palin later helped our nation dodge a fusillade of bullets because he could only grouse from the Senate, not push buttons from the Oval Office – Bush doubled down on the troops a la Shinseki and thus helped tamp the reddest Iraqi embers. When I heard Citizen Rumsfeld’s Fox News comment two months ago that, in his words, “a trained ape” could have done a better job handling Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai than President Obama and his team, I first wondered how the word “ape” came to mind, then reminded myself that I shall never again be lectured on foreign policy by this particular individual. As for Cheney, Mr. Baker writes that by the time of the surge, “He was becoming more like a regular vice president.” In June 2007, when Cheney urged bombing of Syria’s newly discovered nuclear reactor at a meeting of the national security team, Bush asked, “Does anyone here agree with the vice president?” Not a single hand went up.

When Bushies were delivered their electoral “thumpin’” by a war-weary electorate in the 2006 midterms, it was finally time for Rumsfeld to go away for good, and the chief picked up SecDef’s longstanding offer of resignation like a Texas-League grounder. (Some Republicans, who were beginning to recognize a sinking ship when they saw one, began grousing that if Bush had thrown Rumsfeld to the dogs before the election, it might have helped their chances, but to Bush that would have been a sign of weakness, always less desirable than wrongheadedness.) This did not sit well with Cheney, but less and less did these days; if the president was a lame duck, then what did that make a vice-president who was not interested in running for higher office? The debilitating ennui of the war, now officially America’s longest, topped by a financial cataclysm overseen by the “business party” (i.e., the foxes had been guarding the henhouse all along) rendered McCain’s ticket – made to appear even more feckless by the transparent Hail-Mary selection of Gov. Palin and his tin-eared insistence on a money-meltdown White House “summit” at which he barely spoke – DOA against the first credible black candidate in history, who was only there because he’d narrowly beaten the first credible female candidate in history. On the way out, Bush even towel-snapped Cheney one last time by refusing to pardon the veep’s loyal aide Scooter Libby, who had been convicted of leaking the name of a covert CIA officer. He commuted Libby’s sentence, obviating jail time, but refused to wipe the slate clean, despite all of Cheney’s protestations right up to Inauguration Day. Bush was his own man on this issue, and if he had not always been, perhaps he had grown in the office. At least when measured against Dick Cheney.

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Cheney was nothing if not stalwart. He became obsessed with the possibility of another attack against America, a “second wave,” and he never let it go. As with the Commies he hated, to him the end justified the means, thus “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation techniques,” his cold-blooded euphemisms for US-sponsored extra-legal kidnapping and torture. He famously held that “if there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Queda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.” Cheney’s “One Percent Doctrine” applied only to 9/11, not the 95% of scientists alarmed over man’s contribution to climate change or the 90% of Americans who favored stricter gun regulations. He continued to insist, notably in R. J. Cutler’s 2013 film THE WORLD ACCORDING TO DICK CHENEY, that he had protected America against further attack and foiled evil plots due to information gleaned extraordinarily, though some interrogators say they obtained every bit of actionable stuff without resorting to torture.

Bush admired Barack Obama’s meteoric rise but felt his successor was unqualified to prosecute American foreign policy, perhaps forgetting his own global inadequacies on Inauguration Day 2001. When candidate Obama remarked in a debate that he would send U.S. forces into Pakistan to chase terrorists even without the government’s permission, Bush found it “stunning” in its “naivete.” (That Cheneyesque bit of bravado, of course, was exactly how Obama eliminated Osama bin Laden, an accomplishment that had eluded Bush for seven years.) “This guy has no clue, I promise you,” Bush ranted one day. “You think I wasn’t qualified? I was qualified.”

Near the end of his term, a former aide asked Bush, “You’re leaving as one of the most unpopular presidents ever. How does that feel?” Bush responded, accurately, “I was also the most popular president.” After 9/11, his approval rating reached 90%, the highest ever recorded. But his fall from public grace was also historic. During the nadir of the financial crisis in October 2008, a Gallup poll found that 71% of Americans disapproved of Bush’s job performance, the lowest marks for any president since the firm began asking that question in 1938. And while others at their worst – Nixon, Truman – fell below Bush’s low approval ratings, his dragged on and on. The last time a majority supported Bush was March 2005, “meaning he went through virtually his entire second term without most of the public behind him,” as Mr. Baker writes, and Cheney fared even worse. But “Bush’s graceful post-presidency seemed to temper judgments.” Unlike Cheney, unlike Rumsfeld, unlike nearly everyone else in his administration, Bush has found the fortitude to resist self-indulgence. In retirement he has uniquely been able to maintain a discreet silence, and his legacy is at least partially mending as he displays the common courtesy that few others in his party can manage to conjure.

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George S. McGovern, 1922-2012

October 21, 2012

I was lucky enough to meet George McGovern almost exactly twenty years ago, and spend about a half hour in conversation with him. That can happen to you when you’re trapped next to somebody in an airplane, but I would hope that if the tables were ever turned, I’d be as gracious as was the Senator.

It was just about now in the 1992 election cycle, as Bill Clinton was struggling to defeat a sitting President, George H. W. Bush. Senator McGovern had been in that same position twenty years earlier, in 1972, but his campaign to dethrone Richard Nixon came to an ignominious end. Simply by tapping the “Silent Majority” which had grown tired of hippies protesting in the streets, Nixon probably would have been re-elected anyway without his dirty tricks department, illegal wiretapping, enemies lists, hush money and assorted cheap thuggery. But his personal paranoia evidently knew no bounds, and he won in a landslide. For years afterward, as we slowly learned just how low Nixon and his henchmen sank to ensure victory, you could see bumper stickers in the only state Mr. McGovern carried: “Don’t Blame Me, I’m From Massachusetts.”

As I told the Senator on that plane flight, his was the first vote for President I ever cast. The Constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18 came too late for me, so I was 22 before I was granted that right, old enough that I could have served an entire hitch in Vietnam and returned home. (That injustice, that you could die for your country but not vote in its elections, was probably what tipped the issue for the nation at large — the very effective slogan was, “Old Enough To Fight, Old Enough To Vote” — as state after state ratified the Twenty-Sixth Amendment.) So I was on the losing end of that historic electoral torrent. But I’ve never regretted my vote. And George McGovern has remained a role model over the years: not just for the stand-up way he retained his dignity after that humiliating defeat, but also for his unwavering adherence to his core values. He never sold out his principles for a pocketful of votes. That this is at all remarkable says a lot about how American political life has devolved in less than half a century; it ought to describe most public servants.

During our conversation, you could tell that twenty years had passed since the Senator teed it up against Richard Nixon. The 70-year-old man wasn’t as spry as he was back in the days when the knot on your tie was as big as your fist. But he still had the same voice, that distinctive Midwestern twang, and by the time we landed everybody in the cabin knew who I was speaking with. In the last few years, his health deteriorated, but he kept working, giving speeches, striving to make real what he felt was right. Whether you agreed with him or not, he was a good man, an exemplary public servant, and we are fortunate indeed to have enjoyed the labors of this great American.


Releasing The Kraken

February 20, 2012

Peggy Noonan’s beautiful Wall Street Journal weekend piece featured a fanciful negative tv spot against Abraham Lincoln, illustrating just how easy it is to compose “negs” out of thin air, and Newt Gingrich said Saturday that he felt negative ads were driving down GOP voter turnout. It’s tempting to sit back and enjoy some delicious schadenfreude as the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision bites some unintended asses; the Pubs always expected Mr. Monopoly’s unlimited resources to vomit all over the campaigns of Democrats, not each other’s. But with St. Ronald’s Eleventh Commandment left in tatters (as well as the rest of his initiatives: a candidate with Mr. Reagan’s record and attitude couldn’t be elected dogcatcher in today’s Republican Party, because the “base” wouldn’t even consider nominating him), what we’ve seen so far is only a taste of the torrent of slime that is to come.

New York, where we live, is rarely a “battleground.” We’re usually as blue as can be, and broadcast costs in our city, the nation’s largest media market, are beyond expensive. So we don’t normally undergo the tv tsunami found in “swing” or early-primary states, where, in the words of Stuart Stevens, the Romney adviser with whom I once worked long ago, broadcast spots are “a dollar a holler.” Friends of mine who are in such places, though, say this year is different: both the frequency and the nastiness have been turned up to 11. And this is just the Republicans going to work on each other: wait till the sewer spigot is turned on somebody they really, viscerally, hate. As Bill Maher pointed out last week, no President in memory, not even Dubya, has been treated so disrespectfully, from Joe (“You lie!”) Wilson to Jan (“Finger Pistol”) Brewer. What is it about Barack Obama that gets ‘em so riled up? Let’s see: what’s unique about him?

Negative messages have been around forever. They’ll never go away, because they work: they appeal to the baser parts of our natures, the ids that occasionally crawl up from the dank cellar inside. That cute little girl picking flowers made people worry about Barry Goldwater’s finger on the nuclear trigger, even though there was scant other reason (“bombing [the North Vietnamese] back to the Stone Age” was Curtis LeMay’s bon mot, not Sen. Goldwater’s). Just after John Kerry – an actual war hero opposing a draft dodger who went AWOL from Stateside service – was nominated in 2004, I remember reading this boast from an anonymous George W. Bush operative: “by the time we get through with him, you won’t be sure which side he fought for.” I chuckled to myself at the time. Then the Swift Boat deluge began.

You can utter a blatant lie in 30 seconds, but the victim can’t defend himself in that same moment: nuance takes much longer than :30. Case in point: Mitt Romney’s very first tv commercial of the present campaign, in which President Obama is pictured saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” The commercial failed to note that the statement is from the 2008 campaign, and that then-Senator Obama was quoting a John McCain campaign aide. Not only didn’t the Romney camp apologize, they puffed out their chests and stood by the false insinuation: who cares if the statement is four years old and completely directed elsewhere, and that we omitted the words, “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote…”?

Mind you, this was an “on-the-record” Romney spot, the kind in which the candidate says, “I approve this message.” What’s new in this presidential election cycle is the rise of “Super PACs,” made more powerful than ever by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which held that individuals, corporations, unions and the like can donate unlimited amounts to an advocacy organization, as long as this group “does not coordinate” with any candidate’s actual campaign. It takes but a moment’s reflection to apply this fig leaf to anything you want: for example, why not hire a former campaign manager to manage the Super PAC instead? No coordination is necessary, because the newly moneyed guy knows exactly what the candidate needs without being told. These Super PACs will be the source of most of 2012’s negative ads, because the candidate himself need not approve them or even appear in them. Super PACs will be the ones getting their hands dirty. They will be full-time Swift Boaters. And they will outspend the putative campaigns many times over.

The effect of the Supreme Court decision hasn’t been insidious; it’s been instantaneous. Through a Super PAC, one single wealthy donor has personally kept Newt Gingrich’s candidacy alive, even though it is woefully deficient in organization. Stung by a loss in South Carolina, Mitt Romney’s Super PAC unleashed a tornado of anti-Gingrich ads in Florida and cost the Speaker the primary, almost surely because of this effort. And I repeat, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet: these are just firing-range practice rounds.

Some friends on the left say they’re disappointed in the President for reversing himself by encouraging donations to his own Super PAC after loudly criticizing the Citizens United decision (causing Justice Samuel Alito to mouth the words “not true” during the State of the Union address shortly after the ill-considered judgment was handed down). It offends their sense of honor and fairness. But to me, the President is simply acknowledging that you don’t bring knives to a gunfight. And while nobody should be proud of the kind of “support” they’ll be getting from Super PACs, Pubs of all people should understand about the relative merits of unilateral disarmament. The Kraken has already been released; without a similarly titanic response, nothing remains but destruction.

It all reminds me of an incident that happened almost twenty years ago, just before the election between President George H. W. Bush and Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas. I was flying back from Seattle to New York, and my company’s policy was that if you took the red-eye back on a long trip, you could travel business class. After I managed a bit of fitful sleep, we stopped in Chicago, and a distinguished-looking gentleman slid past me into the window seat. He read a newspaper, then accepted breakfast service. I let him finish everything and hand over his tray before screwing together the courage to ask, “How does the election look to you, Senator?” For my seatmate was none other than George McGovern.

“Clinton in a squeaker,” replied the man who had been the Democratic candidate just as long ago at our meeting as that conversation is to me now. We had a delightful chat, mostly on lightweight subjects, but two things in particular absolutely startled me. He said that during the entire 1972 campaign – Richard Nixon, Watergate bugging, Hunter S. Thompson and all – “not once did a reporter ever ask me a question about my personal life.” Now, let’s step back. Sen. McGovern’s first choice for vice-president was Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, who – unknown to the nominee – suffered from clinical depression, a condition that, along with his secrecy about it, forced him to withdraw from the ticket. So personal lives were definitely in play at the time. Yet read again what McGovern said. He faced a more generous press corps, a less toxic political climate. Even given Nixon’s acute paranoia and his dark power to indulge it, in most ways 1972 was a more innocent time.

And so McGovern acknowledged. I asked him, “If you had the chance, would you run for President today?” “No,” was the immediate answer. “I couldn’t put my family through what you have to today.” And please remember, this was only 1992. Now, I don’t care whether you agree with the Senator’s politics or not, but only the meanest-spirited Bircher could deny that he’s a good, principled man, the kind of guy you want in public service. If campaign sleaze disgusts the likes of George McGovern enough to keep him off the ballot, then what rough beasts will we continue to attract among those potential candidates who remain?

As we arrived at the gate, several people in the business cabin, who had all overheard McGovern’s distinctive voice, rose to greet him. Each one said they’d voted for him in ’72. “Wait a minute,” McGovern protested. “If everybody voted for me, why didn’t I win?” After they’d dispersed, the two of us continued to walk together toward the terminal. I told him the first Presidential vote I was able to cast, once I got old enough, was for him. The Senator stopped and shook my hand goodbye. “I’m glad I got your first vote. But I’m gladder it wasn’t your last.”


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