Presidential oral history: '43: George W. Bush'

Presidential oral history: '43: George W. Bush'

George W. Bush, as a post-Cold War president, came to office with modest aims

George W. Bush, reflecting on his own wisecracking ways, occasionally quipped that he had his father’s eyes and his mother’s (acerbic) mouth. But he inherited something much more important from his father once he became president: an institution transformed by the successful conclusion of the Cold War.

During the Cold War, the presidency was an empowered institution in a state of continuous readiness for nuclear conflict. Although it would be too much to say that the Cold War presidency was raised to the wartime heights of Abraham Lincoln (or Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt), those presidents who served after World War II never returned to anything close to a status of power equality with the other branches of the federal government.

“How could it…have,” asked Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) in 1991, “in the course of 30 to 40 years in which presidents knew they would have 10 minutes at most to decide whether to launch a thermonuclear second strike.”

That persistently elevated threat created two generations of presidents who dominated the American political system and the global landscape. But the victory in the Cold War that President George H. W. Bush helped secure brought an end to that quasi-wartime presidency, ushering in a decade of constitutional readjustment.

Such periods are commonly characterized by painful institutional contraction. That was certainly true for the elder Bush and his successor, Bill Clinton. Bush’s reelection failure in 1992, Clinton’s loss of a “permanent” Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate in 1994, and Clinton’s 1998 impeachment can all be traced to the conventional postwar impulses to restore something approaching a constitutional balance.

By the time George W. Bush entered the White House, those post–Cold War contractions had left the presidency in an institutionally diminished state. The office he was expected to fill was neither a place of grand public designs nor a seat of soaring global leadership. That kind of office would have called for a president with expansive ambitions. Instead, Bush had more modest aims. He would replicate what he had done as governor of Texas.

In 2001,Texas’s governor was ranked 39th out of 50 in terms of statutory powers. Thus, what Bush had been able to accomplish in Texas was largely the product of cooperation with the state legislature. He had developed an especially fruitful—and colorful—relationship with Democratic lieutenant governor Robert Bullock, which allowed Bush to tell national voters that his style was consensual. Observers often commented on the bipartisan character of their partnership and what it meant for Bush.

“The relationship with Bullock,” reported Paul Burka of Texas Monthly in 1999, “was the foundation of Bush’s national image as a politician who values consensus and goodwill over partisanship.”

But in the prevailing institutional environment of the times, the relationship may have been equally important for what it said about Bush’s valuing of consensus and goodwill over getting his own way as governor. He was a political executive who succeeded in a state where the legislature was the dominant institution. As president, Bush would thus be practiced in the art of deferring to legislative ways.

Bush featured his relationship with Bullock in his acceptance address at the Republican convention in August 2000. And when he finally appeared in public to claim the presidency after the Supreme Court ruled in his favor on the Florida recount, he chose to speak in the chamber of the Texas House of Representatives.

“Here, in a place where Democrats have the majority, Republicans and Democrats have worked together to do what is right for the people we represent,” Bush said. “We had spirited disagreements, and in the end, we found constructive consensus. It is an experience I will always carry with me, and an example I will always follow.”

The way Bush depicted his approach to the job in his 2000 presidential campaign betrayed a relatively modest conception of his aims in office. Bush’s five major priorities, according to Domestic Aide Kristen Silverberg in her oral history (with Josh Bolten), were No Child Left Behind, tax cuts, Social Security reform, Medicare reform, and faith-based initiatives.

But, Bolten noted, “from the president’s perspective, there was no question that two things had to come first. One…was the tax cuts, and the other was his top priority, which was education reform. He ran to be the education president.”

Selling tax cuts to a Republican Congress was not a heavy lift—and had the added benefit of constraining the size of the national government. Education reform was another small-bore policy that, for most Americans, did not betray imperial aspirations on the part of the president. It made him look like the nation’s governor. In pursuing No Child Left Behind, Bush closely replicated his Austin experience by finding an unlikely Democratic leader to help sell his plan: Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. Their partnership was indispensable in getting the reforms passed.

It was clear from the beginning of Bush’s presidency that he was content to lead in ways that were more transactional than transformational.

As journalist John Dickerson observed, “In 2001, President Bush’s staff talked about how he was going to be an ‘A4’ president, not always in the center of the day’s news on page A1 of the newspaper.”

Indicative of these intentions, the administration announced just days before the 9/11 attacks that it would follow up its earliest initiatives with a “national campaign…to get people to be nicer” to one another. A major Canadian paper described the program as “politicians and Hollywood stars united together in a public campaign to eliminate gossip from the American landscape and restore some sort of dignity to public debate.”

One instructive measure of the relatively tranquil state of the first phase of the Bush presidency arises from the oral history of one of the most influential figures of the post-9/11 period: John Yoo, who arrived at the Justice Department in July 2001. Rather than reveling in the experience of being the formal dispenser of executive powers under a forward-leaning Republican president, Yoo found himself completely bored:

“There was really not enough work for the day. I spent some time on a Vacancies Act issue, which always happens at the beginning of an administration: When can you appoint people who aren’t confirmed yet?... I remember reviewing a treaty about marine mammals…. There was a case about a Russian on an American ship who might have killed an American…. I was thinking I’d probably go back home after a year because I thought the job was pretty dull.”

Without any indicators of presidential urgency, the matter of terrorism was committed to the ordinary slog of the policymaking process. National Security council legal advisor John Bellinger reported that they “concluded that we couldn’t just decide on a policy toward al-Qaeda until we decided on a policy toward Afghanistan. And we couldn’t decide on a policy toward Afghanistan until we had decided on a policy toward Pakistan. And we couldn’t decide on a policy toward Pakistan until we decided on an [India-Pakistan] policy.”

Then airplanes began to fly into buildings.