Excerpts from the George W. Bush Presidential Oral History
With the release of the George W. Bush Presidential Oral History, key memories of the critical first years of the 21st century have been opened to historians and the general public. Here are some excerpts:
On Bush’s interpersonal relations:
Clay Johnson, longtime friend and director of White House personnel: In our fraternity, “Deke,” [Delta Kappa Epsilon]—Fraternities were not a big deal at Yale and never really have been, because the college system provides a lot of the benefits that a fraternity does—there was some hazing. Rush lasts a week and hazing lasts two weeks and it’s kind of pathetic. You pledge in your sophomore year. One of the things they did at the beginning was sit the 50 pledges down and say, “This is the worst class of pledges that we’ve had ever had in the history of this fraternity. We just can’t believe how pathetic you are. You all are terrible. You all are so interested in yourselves. You’re not interested in the group. You’re probably not going to make friends with each other. Smith, get up. I want you to go around the room here and name the pledges whose names you know.”
Smith would get up, and out of 50 he could name six or seven. Jones knew 11 out of 50. Somebody else knew five. Then they got to Bush, and they stopped him at 20. And he hadn’t studied it because he knew, or he hadn’t done the little mnemonic things so he could remember the names. He probably was friends with 45 of the 50, just from his freshman year and the beginning of sophomore year. Freshmen never run with juniors and seniors, in high school or college, or vice versa. He spent as much time in seniors’ and juniors’ rooms, playing cards and what all. It was the same thing at Andover. What is that? I don’t know. It’s notable. I can’t tell you why, but I do know that one of the reasons you’re going to say he stands out, looking back 50 years, or 45 years, is for those kinds of qualities….
When George Bush first considered getting into politics:
Clay Johnson: About 1973, he was in Houston and I was down there for something, we were having lunch, and he said he had been thinking about running for state senator. I said, “You? That’s the first time I’ve ever heard you mention an interest in politics.” There are 150 state reps now, and 31 senators.
He said, “I was thinking about running, but I’ve decided not to.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because I’m just not ready.” I said, “What do you mean you’re not ready?” He said, “Well, I was going to run. I was all excited about it, and then I got a phone call from a fellow named Walter Mischer.” He owned a bunch of banks, a wheeler-and-dealer in Houston, and his right-hand man was a guy named [Charles W.] Chuck Jenness, Chuck “Big Tuna” Jenness. “Big Tuna called me and said, ‘George, my boss wants to take you to lunch.’”
So they had lunch and a little chitchat and then he said, “I understand you’re running for state senator.” He said, “Yes, sir, I am.” He said, “Well, that’s good. I think you’d be a good one, but I like the guy who’s in there now. I like him. You’re more talented than he is, smarter, but I like this fellow and I like him because he tends to vote the way I hope he would vote, real reliable, and so you’d be doing me a big favor if you didn’t run against him. If you do decide to run, he’ll beat you. I’ll make sure he beats you. But you’d be doing me a favor if you didn’t run, so what I suggest you do is not run for that. I suggest you run over here and be a state rep. Pick a district and run and I’m certain you’ll get elected, very certain you’ll get elected. Pick three committees you want to be on, and I’ll make sure you’re on those committees.” George said, “That’s really good and interesting. Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.”
He said, “I got home and I thought, Did he just tell me all that?” He’ll make sure I’ll get beat; he’ll make sure I’m in, and he’ll make sure I’m on these committees. Is that really the way it works? It’s not the best man who wins? He said, “I realized I don’t have a clue what this is about.” That was in the early ’70s.
Karl Rove, on his own political education:
Karl Rove, senior advisor: I had a high-school teacher who really was very influential in my life, and he took us [in 1968] to see George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Hubert Humphrey, all three of them. Hubert Humphrey was a forlorn figure, Nixon was a mechanical figure, but Wallace was downright scary. I didn’t put it in the book [his White House memoir], but I went out, in response to that, and paid something like three dollars to join the Utah Chapter of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People]. It was really scary. I’d never seen racial anger like that.
On the importance of George H.W. Bush’s reelection loss in 1992:
Karl Rove: I think if [southern political strategist] Lee [Atwater] had lived, 41 would have been reelected and 43’s rise would have been impossible.
On the 2000 Republican National Convention that nominated George W. Bush:
Ed Gillespie, political advisor: Different kind of Republican was the theme of that convention, and we conveyed it in a lot of different ways. It was very diverse, which was a conscious decision. I remember Kevin Merida, who is a friend in the media whom I happen to like, said, “It looks to me like you’re trying to feature African Americans and Hispanics and Asian Americans.” I said, “That’s right, we are. If you’re accusing me of trying to increase our share of the black and Hispanic and Asian American vote, guilty as charged. I’d like to have more diversity on the floor, but we only get 10 percent of the African American vote and not a large percentage of them are going to come to a convention for four days. But we want it and yes, we’re trying to send that message.”
On the inclusiveness of Bush’s political approach:
Clay Johnson: He did things politically that no Governor had ever done before. I’ve forgotten what percent of Hispanics voted for him, but he had like 40 percent of the vote in El Paso, which is unheard of, because he really related to them. It’s not like he bamboozled them, you know? He is really serious about them, about Hispanics. There’s a little Hispanic element to his personality. He’s just got a zest for things.
On Bush’s electoral strategy:
Karl Rove, political advisor: The base is just a terrible concept…. How can you win by appealing to the base? You want to have the base there, but you want to have the broader party there, and then you want to look at those elements of the electorate—independents and soft Democrats—who can be swiped away. Are women the base of the Republican Party? Bush erased the gender gap. We’ve got 44 percent of the Latino vote. Are blacks the base of the Republican Party? We got 16 percent of the African American vote in Ohio.
So we were doing things like—One group that we would obviously have success with between 2000 and 2004 were Jews. We had the damnedest group of Jewish Bush supporters, many of them not Republicans, in places like Cleveland and Detroit, a weird group of self-activated people that was wildly successful. I remember we had Rabbi Benny in Detroit who organized “Rabbis for Bush.” We showed up in Detroit. God knows where he has gotten the money, and he’s got “Jews for Bush” bumper stickers. [laughter]
In Cleveland we had a group of very active young Jewish Bush enthusiasts. Some were Republicans, some not. Many in this part of the Jewish community were Russian, so they asked which Bush supporters spoke Russian. If you had any difficulty communicating, these three guys were going to go work this crowd. There were Jews from Poland, so, “Who has Polish Jewish roots? Anybody speak Polish?” It was a pretty impressive apparatus.
The object in all this ground game activity was to find who was persuadable, who was reachable. Another group was “soccer moms,” called “security moms” after 9/11. The interesting thing is we did worse among independents in 2004 than we did in 2000. I think that is in part because we were so successful in integrating some independents in the Republican Party that a greater share of the electorate was Republican in ’04 and these independents were temporarily Republican. They were security moms who said, “Given the choice between these two parties, I will temporarily identify myself as a Republican because of George Bush.”
On debate preparation in the 2000 campaign:
Josh Bolten, campaign policy director and later White House chief of staff: This was before the town hall debate between Bush and Gore. The standard format now is one of the debates is with the candidates not seated behind a desk but seated on stools or something like that and with questions coming from a town hall kind of format. We were practicing in the dining room at the mansion and had two stools set up and a few staffers in the room. I don’t know if you were there or not. All of a sudden in the middle of one of Bush’s answers [Congressman] Rob [Portman, who is playing Gore], gets up and gets into Bush’s space and Bush stops and goes, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m being Gore.” And Bush says, “He’d never do anything like that.”
Everybody is booing and hissing at Portman and Bush is going, “Oh, come on, he’s not that big of a doofus.” Portman says, “I’m just saying, I’ve watched him on tape and he likes to use his size. He’s a big man. He likes to use his size to physically intimidate somebody he is debating with. So if he has a chance to walk over into your space, I think he will.” So he said, “Oh, yes, sure, he’s not that big of an idiot.”
Sure enough in the debate, and I think it was a very important moment in the campaign, Gore walks over to Bush in the town hall debate. Bush is a little bit surprised but he is sort of bemused. I think he’s thinking of Portman and what a doofus Portman is because the look on Bush’s face is great. It’s like, What kind of idiot are you? Why are you invading my space?
On the confused ballot results in Florida:
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert: The CIA would come and start to brief me. I was going to be the temporary President if the decision wasn’t made by some date in January. The last thing I wanted to be was a temporary President.
John Bridgeland, campaign aide and director of the domestic policy council: I was worried that constitutional government would be under threat if Vice President Gore on December 13 would somehow say, “I don’t accept the Court’s political decision.” … Literally every day we were up and down. Something would happen. We’d think, This is going to go on another month. Then the next day we’d think it’s going to be over really soon. Then the next day it was going to go on for another month. And it did. It went on and on. We didn’t know from day to day how long it would go on. You always worry—You’re trying to have an election and pull the country together around someone and then you have this.
On the importance of respecting process and outcomes in a democracy:
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO): I’d always say to my Members in Congress, in a democracy, process is everything. I said that because in a democracy if people feel there is a process that is legitimate and fair and reasonably well run, then they’ll put up with bad outcomes, even though they are very angry. If you lose that process, people resort to violence. I always would say politics is a substitute for violence. As [Winston] Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government on earth except for all the others.” What he was really saying was the process allows people to govern themselves without resorting to violence.
So this [the contested outcome in Florida] was a clear, prime example of that. Even though all the cards were on the table. This was king of the hill, that’s exactly what it was. You know, I think we evolved from animals—I’m deadly serious. We’ve evolved, though. That’s the good news. What we’ve evolved to is self-government and democracy and a process that people can put up with when they lose. That to me was a memorable moment in my recollection of beginning to deal with George W. Bush…. Politics is a substitute for violence.
On the original expectations for a Bush 43 presidency:
Kevin Sullivan, White House communications director: President Bush has said when he was running for President, the word Al-Qaeda never came up. They had however many debates in that cycle, a bunch, and not once in an interview on the campaign trail—Terrorism was barely mentioned and Al-Qaeda was never mentioned. And that of course came to define his Presidency. He thought he was going to be the education President. We’ll never know what would have been, had it not been for 9/11, in terms of the domestic policy issues that he teed up, like faith-based and education and immigration reform and some other things.
On the influence of Vice President Dick Cheney within the Bush administration:
National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley: He was very free to give the President advice, rightly so, but very protective of the fact that it’s the President who is going to make the decision. The Vice President used to call me on the phone, particularly over the North Korea situation. He would get really exercised over Chris Hill and North Korea policy. He would give me an earful and then at the end he would always say, “But those are my views. Thanks for listening. You and the President are driving this train. I get that. I just want to make sure you know my views.” You can’t do better than that. I never recall a time when the Vice President ran around me; he always tried to work with me and through me.
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert: He was always the good, loyal Vice President…. Cheney never tipped his hand one way or another, but you knew afterward. Cheney sat in the meetings in the mornings when we had briefings. He was always there. He was always on top and always listening to what people had to say. You knew afterward that the President got his point of view…. I think he was more of a war hawk than Bush was, certainly, and he saw things in different ways. But I think that Bush made his own decisions. I don’t think Cheney made decisions for him. I would stake my life on that.
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO): People talk about Cheney and being dark and ridiculous and so on, and there is some truth to that. I think he gets carried away. I’ve known him—I knew him from early days in the House, so I know him well. I really believe—He did turn way dark, but you have to, again, remember where we were.
I think in his own mind he thought that he was in this job at a time of great danger to the country. His obsession—I know the phrase he uses about nuclear devices in the United States—I think it’s something like you can only be wrong once. I think he took it on as his own personal responsibility to see that everything humanly possible could be done to prevent a nuclear device in the United States. I understand it. I think he sometimes went too far in some of the things he wanted to do and did, but I understand the motivation. It’s not like he wants to rip up the Constitution and make us all subject to security procedures. Again, this is a transformative event. It’s more than Pearl Harbor. It’s more than anything I think has ever been experienced in American history.
Karl Rove, senior advisor: Cheney was very valuable to the President because he had been there in so many different roles, but the President was the President and he was the Vice President, and both of them knew that. There was one moment in the aftermath of 9/11 where Cheney basically said, “Do you want me to chair the War Cabinet?” I don’t think it was Cheney grabbing for power. I think it was just Cheney saying, “Do you want me to chair the War Cabinet?” And the President said, “No, I’ll do this.”
Cheney understood how the West Wing operated, so he never gave his opinion publicly unless the President asked. If the President said, “Dick, where are you on this?” he’d opine, otherwise he didn’t. I’m confident he opined on the Thursday lunches a lot, because Bush, when he said, “I really do want your opinion,” he meant it. But Cheney was quiescent in that process. He had people who sat in on all these meetings, and occasionally they would be called up for an opinion. The Vice President very much thought, My job is to be ready to respond to the President, not to try and dominate this place.
General George Casey, Commanding General, Multi-National Force – Iraq: You know, when you’re in the meeting and there’s one guy in the back who is really smart, and you know he always asks one really great question that nobody else has thought about? That was Cheney.
Josh Bolten, White House chief of staff: I remember there was a guy at Princeton. I visited his class. He was teaching a seminar, apparently the entire thesis of which was Cheney ran the Bush administration. So they came in and they had me as the guest there. They said, “Tell us, how did Cheney run the Bush administration?” That was the basic tenor of the questions. I said, “He didn’t.” How do you know? “I was there.”
On the possibilities of bipartisan politics during the Bush 43 presidency:
Kevin Sullivan, White House communications director: We had an anniversary event for No Child Left Behind. The anniversary was January 7th or 8th, and every year there was usually an event at a school. Well, in 2007, to mark the fifth anniversary, we did a small meeting in the Oval Office. Senator [Edward M.] Kennedy was there…. After the press pool was ushered out, Senator Kennedy was still there and he asked the President if he could have a private moment. They stepped into the dining room or the study off the Oval and had a few moments, not long. We were all still there when they came out. Senator Kennedy left, and the President said to us—That’s one of the things about Senator Kennedy that’s so impressive: he wanted to ask—I don’t know if it was health care or what the policy issue was, but he wanted to know from the President, “Where’s the line? How far can I go, to a point where you can’t go any further? I want to get this done.” It was what I would imagine those old Reagan–Tip [Thomas P.] O’Neill conversations were like. He was asking the President, “How can we get this done?” Senator Kennedy was obviously different ideologically and philosophically from President Bush, but it was all about getting it done. He wanted to know, “Can we get this done together?” That seems to be, for the moment anyway, kind of long gone, and it’s too bad.
Josh Bolten, White House chief of staff: I think President Bush came to Washington not assuming as politicians probably do today that they are entering into a bitterly partisan atmosphere that will have to be broken down in order to make any progress on anything. I think he came in with something of the contrary assumption, which is—I mean knowing how controversial his election was, he still came in I think with a sense that this is serious governance. There are people who disagree, but people of good will who are willing to cooperate. He came in with a sense of his experience in Texas, where he had governed as not a particularly partisan figure, and in fact had a good relationship with many Democrats in Texas, including the Speaker of the House, who was his dear friend, or became his dear friend during the course of their association.
I don’t recall an atmosphere going into those early months of the administration feeling How are we going to break down this partisan gridlock? I think we went in with We’ve got a lot of persuading to do—in the case of education on both sides. We had an expectation that it could be done and that we would ultimately get the necessary cooperation—which we did, as it turns out. I mean, the struggle over the tax cuts had a partisan tinge to it and it was a process of bringing over enough Democrats to our point of view to make it possible to put something through. But education was different. That was something where we knew we had to have real leadership from Democratic leaders in cooperation with the President. In the case of education that was Ted Kennedy in the Senate, George Miller in the House, and John Boehner on the Republican side. I’m thinking, would it have been Judd Gregg on the Senate side? These were people who weren’t at the poles of difference in their philosophy, but they had different philosophies, and the President viewed it as his job to kind of bring everybody toward his position, which was not traditionally Republican nor traditionally Democratic. And succeeded.
On the complexity of the threat posed by terrorists before 9/11:
General Michael Hayden, director of the Central Intelligence Agency: “Here’s a guy [Osama bin Laden] leading a medieval movement who has more modern communications than we do because he just has to go down to El Radio Shack wherever he is and pick up the latest kit, and here we are … trying to keep up. He can do it for $99, and how many millions do we need then to be able to intercept those communications?”
On the Office of Legal Counsel prior to 9/11, before it became indispensable for generating authorizations for the War on Terror:
John Yoo, deputy assistant attorney general: It was pretty boring. There was really not enough work for the day. I spent some time on a Vacancies Act [Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998] issue, which always happens at the beginning of an administration: When can you appoint people who aren’t confirmed yet, how long can they be in office, and what are they allowed to do? I remember working on the Presidential Executive order on federalism. I remember reviewing a treaty about marine mammals and thinking Antarctica and things like this. There was a case about a Russian on an American ship who might have killed an American, things that I’m really not that—I was thinking I’d probably go back home after a year because I thought the job was pretty dull. It wasn’t that the issues themselves were inherently dull, there just weren’t many things coming in for work.
On the day of the 9/11 attack:
Stephen Hadley, National Security Advisor: [My wife] Ann tells me that I called in the afternoon about 3 o’clock and simply said, “Are you OK?” She said, “Yes, I’m OK. I’ll talk to you when I can talk to you.” But there are a million stories. Ann’s story is, she’s at work and she learns that there have been the attacks. She learns somehow, whether it’s over the radio or someone comes in and tells her that there’s a report that there’s a plane headed toward the White House. Heading to Washington and it may be headed to the White House. What she does is she leaves her job, goes down, gets in the car to go pick up our two daughters, one who’s at, I think, I have to work the dates, but I think they’re at two different schools. Maybe they’re both at St. Patrick’s or maybe one is at St. Patrick’s and one is at Holton-Arms. She says if the White House is going to be hit and the girls’ father is going to be killed, I don’t want them to hear about it at school in a room full of children; I want them to hear about it at home with me.
Pete Wehner, speechwriter and director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives: The sky was a gorgeous blue. The temperature was perfect. Looking up at the sky and thinking, This feels like a movie, except movies have scripts and they have an ending written and this is happening in real time. You don’t know what exactly is going on.
On the consequences of 9/11 for America:
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO): I remember when I was in the police headquarters after 9/11, waiting to get the helicopter, Senator [Patrick] Leahy was in there. We commiserated and he said to me something I’ve never forgotten. He said, “The balance between freedom and security is forever changed.” He was right. I knew that. I mean, I knew that we were going to have to come down more on the side of security and less on the side of freedom; that’s the underlying assumption. If someone is coming in this room with a gun to kill you, you’d better do something or you’re going to be killed.
On Bush’s reaction to 9/11:
Nick Calio, White House congressional liaison: One of the most remarkable things about that day is still what [the President] said so quickly. At one point I asked him how he was doing. He said, “I’m good, I’m ready. You need to be ready; we all need to be ready.” He told us all, “We’re at war. It’s a different kind of war. In three weeks, or four weeks, or six weeks, rest assured, people are going to want to forget about this. They’re going to watch the World Series; they’re going to want to watch football games. They’re not going to want to think about this. We’re going to have to stay on it. We’re going to have to keep harping on it and we’re going to have to watch because our number-one job is to make the United States and its citizens secure.”
On the politics of 9/11:
David Hobbs, White House congressional liaison: There was a real spirit of bipartisanship. You remember the scene when they [members of Congress] came together and sang “God Bless America” on the [Capitol] steps. I can remember a lot of meetings in [Speaker Dennis] Hastert’s conference room, again bicameral, bipartisan, where we did a lot of issues. So that spirit of comity, of working together, bipartisanship, lasted a good month or so. Then it started to fade.
On the bipartisan political environment after 9/11:
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO): I remember looking down at the Pentagon and seeing it in flames and smoke and thinking, The Germans and Japanese fought us for five years and if they could have done this, it would have been their fondest wish, and four people did this. It was a wake-up call of the first order…. The next day, maybe the day after—I think it was the next day, I’m not clear on that, but it was soon thereafter—we met in the White House: the leadership, and the President, the Vice President. Everybody said their piece. When I got a chance to talk, I said something that I felt very strongly. I said, “Mr. President, the most important thing now is that we all trust one another. This is about life and death. Our first responsibility is to keep the people safe. We failed; we all failed and we have to do better. The only way—I know politics intrudes in everything that happens here, as it should, but with this we have to keep politics out. We cannot play politics with this. We have to do whatever we can to do the right things to keep the county safe and to avoid anything like this happening again.”
On President Bush’s appearance at Ground Zero days after 9/11:
John Howard, White House congressional liaison: Karl [Rove] went to find a bullhorn because the President wanted to say something, but you couldn’t hear him. He got the bullhorn and I remember standing there thinking, I can’t hear him with the bullhorn either. For some reason the bullhorn was just not loud enough or not carrying or something like that. That’s when one of the firefighters off in the distance [shouted], “We can’t hear you.” That’s when the President, for some reason all of a sudden you could hear him….
Ziad Ojakli, White House congressional liaison: It was so spontaneous it sent chills down your spine. I remember on the bus ride back to the airport, I was sitting next to Anthony Weiner (D-NY) and he said, “Boy, that just sent chills down my spine.” That was one unbelievable moment.
Clay Johnson, White House personnel director: On September 14, 2001, meeting with the families of the known deceased for two or three hours, nobody else mattered except those people. It wasn’t for the good of America, but it was for those people. He needed to serve those people, because they had paid an unfathomable price, and they deserved every bit of their President, to be the healer-in-chief, consoler-in-chief. It wasn’t like, well, there are 800 people here, so I said hello to 800 people and made them feel good and then went off and dealt with another group of people. These are real people who have real needs that I can address.
On the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and the internal psychology of the administration:
Robert Gates, later secretary of defense: Because the dots hadn’t been connected [before the attack], all the filters that differentiate quality of intelligence reports—from rumor mongering to intercepts—all those filters were removed, so all of the intelligence about threats was coming into the White House with no filters. They then had, every day, reports of imminent attacks with nuclear weapons on Washington, New York, LA [Los Angeles], and Chicago. Those were just flooding into the White House. They were just buried in threats.
They were in an environment where for many months they were expecting another attack, another really big attack. People haven’t appreciated the impact of that on these individuals as human beings and the sense of responsibility they felt for their failure to protect Americans. This was the first successful, foreign-based attack with loss of life on the continental United States since the War of 1812.
That’s a point I would make in speeches all the time. The other point I would make, and still make, is this: Who thought, on September 12th, that we would go more than 10 years without another successful attack? Nobody believed that. All Americans believed there was going to be another attack. Much of what has been written about those months and the interrogations and the wiretaps and all those things was a manifestation of the belief that the country was at war, was under attack, and we were going to be attacked again, and how you prevent that.
I put some of the things that were done in the same category as Lincoln lifting habeas corpus, Roosevelt interning the Japanese. There was a fear for the survival of the nation. They were determined to do whatever they could to prevent it….
I’d been the Deputy National Security Advisor; I’d been the Director of CIA. I was thinking to myself, What would I be feeling if I were in their shoes today, September 12, 2001? It is just this huge burden of failure, that thousands of people lost their lives because I didn’t do my job right and a bunch of other people didn’t do their jobs right. What’s wrong with us? How do we fix this and how do we fix it overnight? …
The reality is that on 9/11 we didn’t know jack shit about al-Qaeda. That’s the reason a lot of this stuff happened and the interrogations and everything else, because we didn’t know anything. If we’d had a great database and knew exactly what al-Qaeda was all about, what their capabilities were and stuff like that, some of these measures wouldn’t have been necessary. But the fact is that we’d just been attacked by a group we didn’t know anything about. In a way, the failure to appreciate Islamic fundamentalism is a far more valid criticism of the intelligence community in the ’80s and ’90s than the collapse of the Soviet Union.
On clues about the decision to go into Iraq:
Nick Calio, White House congressional liaison: In July [2002, White House chief of staff] Andy [Card] says, “You’re going to be part of this group [dealing with antiterrorism], meet down in the Situation Room.” I didn’t even tell this to Bob Woodward, but I go down for my first meeting and look up at the clocks and it has got New York, London, Tokyo, and Baghdad.
On the decision to invade Iraq:
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert: I think the first time the President indicated that Iraq was a problem was the  State of the Union. I was listening to him and he started talking about Iraq. I said, “Oh, crap. We’re going to end up in Iraq.” He was making the case that we needed to move against Saddam Hussein. We were getting intelligence things about yellow [cake] and evidence it was there. We were constantly getting intelligence briefings on … how many centrifugal force machines they had and all those types of things.
Robert Gates, later secretary of defense: [Former secretary of state James A.] Baker and I used to talk about how much shit we took between 1991 and 2003 for not going all the way to Baghdad [after Operation Desert Storm]. Of course, we’d make the argument that the coalition would have shattered, that it wasn’t under the authority of a Security Council resolution. I would argue Saddam wasn’t going to sit on his veranda waiting for the 20th Mechanized Division to drive up and arrest him; he’d go to ground, form an insurgency, and we’d end up occupying two-thirds of Iraq and have to repair everything we destroyed. Go figure. After 2003, I never heard that criticism again.
On the importance of WMD for the decision to invade Iraq:
Q: Karl, let me ask you a question on that point. One argument that has been advanced is that because of the defiance of the UN resolutions there was ample legal rationale to go in [Iraq] and do what we did anyway because effectively the First Gulf War had not been—
Karl Rove: The terms of the resolutions had been violated.
Q: Exactly. So my question is to get you to respond to that. Is that an insufficient argument in the post-9/11 environment to prosecute the war?
Rove: You can make that argument. I could accept it, but look at it from Bush’s perspective. Bush’s perspective was, “I want this to be done in a way that is sustainable. I don’t want to just use the precedent of ‘He is violating a number of UN resolutions.’ I think we will be in a stronger place as a country and internationally if we have a vote of Congress, a vote of the United Nations, and a broad coalition in agreement with us that we need to enforce this.”
Rove: This attitude was formed over many months of discussion. I think his rationale was that the country would be better off if this is done by Congress rather than done by him. Perhaps this goes maybe unconsciously back to the fact that he recognizes that Florida and the 36 days from hell have put him in the Presidency, and that places a special burden on him: There are people in this country who don’t accept that I’m legitimate, so they will apply a tougher test on an action, and I don’t want to weaken the Presidency long term. I want to strengthen the office that I have. I want to leave it in better shape than I found it. The office has been hurt by the lack of respect that many Americans think it was held in, and then more importantly, I came here in a way that is controversial. So I need to take additional steps to make certain that the Office of the Presidency is not weakened by this action.
Q: Got you. What I was trying to make a distinction about was whether the argument about weapons of mass destruction was a necessary argument in a legal environment where the violations existed whether he possessed the weapons of mass destruction or not.
Rove: That’s right, but after 9/11 this was a bigger issue for us. The issue had been in force since 1991, and obviously neither 41 nor Clinton had felt that his—We then get an argument, “Well, if it was so bad, why didn’t Clinton come? Why wasn’t Clinton in favor of this? Why didn’t Clinton do this? Why didn’t your dad do this? Why did your dad let this happen?”
Q: And that doesn’t change after 9/11. You can’t make an argument that we’re in a different environment.
Rove: You can, but the calculus after 9/11 is we can no longer tolerate an actor like this with access to these kinds of weapons who is playing around with terrorist elements and can slip these things to nonstate actors. So the calculus changes after 9/11.
On the disputed intelligence case for going into Iraq:
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO): About January, the President in these meetings started to talk about Iraq. My immediate reaction was yes, I understand what you’re saying. I was also aware that our Air Force and our Armed Forces had been maintaining the no-fly zone in Iraq 10 years after the first Persian Gulf war and that that was expensive and we were losing lives and that was a big problem. But I said to the President in one of the meetings, “If this is just about getting rid of Saddam Hussein, I am not for it. There are a lot of bad guys out there and we can’t go kill all of them; it’s impractical.”
“But,” I said, “if it is about him having weapons of mass destruction that could end up in the hands of terrorists, then I am willing to listen and get serious.” He said, “Figure it out for yourself. Don’t take our word for it, go out to the CIA, talk to them, talk to anybody you want to talk to in the military. Make up your own mind.”
I went out to the CIA. I think I went three times at least and talked to everybody there, alone. I said to George Tenet, “This is not about Saddam Hussein for me. This is not about trying to go change the Middle East forever,” which some of the neocons [neoconservatives] thought this should be about. Even though that’s understandable to try to do, I said, “For me it boils down to one simple fact: Does he have weapons of mass destruction, especially components of nuclear weapons, or does he not? Do we worry that some components could wind up in the hands of terrorists?” Tenet and everybody else I talked to—They said the other world intelligence services agreed that he did. It was a real problem.
So I came back and told the President, “I’ll speak for and vote for and cosponsor the resolution.”
On the intelligence about weapons of mass destruction before the invasion of Iraq:
Karl Rove, senior advisor: What I saw was intense focus on the quality of the intel [intelligence] and did it say that he had WMD. I think that was the lever. It was one thing to say that this was a bad actor who supported terrorism. It was another thing to say that this was a bad actor who supported terrorism who had weapons of mass destruction and regional aspirations that threatened American interests and the interests of our allies in the region. I saw the care and the detail that was gone over and participated in a distant way as we prepared these speeches and statements. There were robust arguments about phrases.
I remember John Kerry went out and made a speech on the floor about the threat and we discussed about how he said things that we would never feel comfortable saying, that he painted a picture of greater immanency than we were willing to acknowledge, particularly on Saddam’s nuclear program.
This is a sobering decision all along, even after we went in and the concerns grew even heavier. I remember when the Third ID [infantry division] was approaching Baghdad and there was really grave concern because Condi and Hadley revealed that the Iraqi commanders are talking to each other in open traffic, “When do we get to use the weapons? When are we going to deploy the weapons?”
So we have the Third ID in MOPP [mission-oriented protective posture] suits. It’s 95, 100 degrees, and they’re approaching Baghdad. These kids are in these antibiological, antichemical warfare suits, looking like something out of some sci-fi movie, approaching Baghdad and trying to fight. You can’t ignore some Iraqi brigade commander saying, “General, when will the weapons be unleashed?” You can’t say, “Geez, they don’t have any.” We did find I think it was 14,000-some-odd artillery shells and short-delivery weapon systems with missile systems with degraded chemical material in them.
I think the whole system of the government over there was so dysfunctional that as these stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons deteriorated, nobody wanted to go in and report to the chief that that was the case. Saddam had them. He used them on his own people. We found them. We found the dual-use facilities that he could use to make these things quickly, particularly chemical weapons.
Saddam was pretty clear with his U.S. interrogators that these weapon systems, or the thought that he had these weapon systems, were important to sustaining him in power. He was diverting tens of millions of dollars from the Oil-for-Food Programme to keep together the infrastructure necessary to reconstitute all these programs when Western attention faltered. He was confident it was, and it was.
On the protracted search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq:
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert: We were looking for a needle in a haystack in the first place, and the haystack moves.
Josh Bolten, White House chief of staff: I remember a conversation with [speechwriter] Mike Gerson, who—he and I were on the periphery of the intelligence and the Iraq decision making. We went out for a walk, or were having lunch together or something. We had gone days without the inspectors finding anything, you know, finding any evidence of weapons of mass destruction. So there was doubt beginning to creep in, which was shocking to me and I think it was to Mike as well, doubt beginning to creep in about the existence of the weapons of mass destruction. At that point I was still convinced that they were there, but they had done a very good job of hiding them, or the inspectors weren’t looking particularly hard.
I remember one of us making a comment that—I think I was making a political comment to the effect that if they don’t find those weapons, the President’s reelect is dead. Mike made the comment, “Reelect? If they don’t find the weapons, he’ll probably be impeached.” We sort of—I remember we kind of laughed nervously. [laughter] I was still convinced that they were there, we just weren’t finding them. I didn’t think at that point that it was a serious prospect that they wouldn’t be found.
On blame for the failed assessment that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction:
General Michael Hayden, director of the Central Intelligence Agency: When we look back on it, I think no one disagrees that it was mishandled. But I also point out that it’s our fault, not the President’s, not the Vice President’s. This is tradecraft on the part of the intelligence community.
[Former Clinton chief of staff and CIA director] Leon Panetta had written a little bit when he was out of government about the administration cooking the intel, and the very last thing I said to him as I left the building was, “Leon, that’s just not right. We just got it wrong…. You’ve got to stop saying it. It was our fault. We just got it wrong. Nobody pressured us.”
On the expectations about how the Iraqis would greet American soldiers:
Josh Bolten, White House chief of staff: I don’t think there were many people who expected something a lot worse than what the Vice President predicted, people cheering in the streets. At least in the initial phases of all this we thought we were going into a friendly environment of people who would be enormously relieved and grateful to be out from under from Saddam’s boot and cooperative in constructing a functioning democratic capitalist society. We turned out to be wrong.
On the public messaging during the Iraq War:
Stephen Hadley, National Security Advisor: [President Bush] understands that when you’re doing something hard, like Iraq, the President needs to will it to happen. And this is something a lot of people will criticize him for. They will say he’s not introspective, it’s all black-and-white, it’s all two-dimensional. You bet. Once he commits troops, it’s two-dimensional. It’s, we are going to succeed. Every time he tried to give a speech on something other than the War on Terror it ended up being a War on Terror speech. I finally went to him and said, “Mr. President, why are we saying the same stuff over and over again?”
He said, “Hadley, you don’t get it. We’ve got troops engaged; it’s a nation at war. I have to make it clear over and over again that America is going to succeed. That’s the message we need to send our enemies, that’s the message we need to send our friends. That’s the message I need to send to our men and women in uniform so they can go out every day and risk their lives to achieve this objective.”
On the cost estimates for conducting the war in Iraq:
Mitch Daniels, director, Office of Management and Budget: It is a total myth that I or anyone said this whole project as it unfolded could be done for whatever we were talking, $50 or $60 billion. That wasn’t the question. The question was how much should the administration request in its supplemental appropriation. The question to DoD was, because I said we’re not war fighters over here, or war planners, “What are your assumptions?” What are we supposed to cost? Answer? Crystal clear. It’s all in the Congressional Record. The answer was: Tell us, what will it cost to beat the Iraqi Army and stay six months, until the end of the year? …
So that was the question. Beat the Iraqi Army, stay six months. In everybody’s naïveté, the thought was, Win it, and start getting out. In fact, that supplemental may have had some cost assumptions for the beginnings of withdrawal. …
If someone had said what will it cost to beat the Iraqi Army and stay eight years or ten years, we’d have given a different answer. That was not the question…. I’m very touchy on this subject because it was completely misrepresented later on by people for political reasons. Of course we would have given a different answer if someone had known or even hypothesized an extended war, ten-year occupation. Anyway, that’s that story.
On the problems of postwar planning in Iraq:
General George Casey, Commanding General, Multi-National Force – Iraq: This is something that’s just my own thought, but the Democratic administration, the Clinton administration, had been through Bosnia, had been through Kosovo, and they had understood postwar, postconflict planning. They’d been immersed in it. Bosnia, we struggled through. Kosovo, we learned from Bosnia, and we did that much better. Now you have all these Republican folks who basically weren’t in government when all that stuff happened and they’re thinking about this for the first time….
The impact on the President? He’s getting all of this different advice. One of the things that Rumsfeld was very good at was asking hard questions, and he was “kicking over a lot of rocks” on the plan to go to war. It was so difficult and so complex, and the outcome was so uncertain going into the war, that it became all-consuming and there was precious little intellectual and emotional energy left to say, “OK, let’s put the plan together here for the postwar.”
On the crucial decision to de – Ba’athify the Iraqi military shortly after the invasion, which contributed to a power vacuum in the country:
General George Casey, Commanding General, Multi-National Force – Iraq: I asked [White House national security expert] Frank Miller about this. You know, one of the things that nobody writes about in their books is who made the decision to de-Ba’athify. Bremer did. I said, “Frank, how the hell did that happen?” Now this is secondhand I’m relating to you. Frank says it was a Friday afternoon or something, and Bremer’s getting ready to go into the country [Iraq]. He comes in and he briefs the principals to the National Security Council that he intends to disband the army and to impose a very stringent level of de-Ba’athification. It had not been raised with anybody beforehand, and it’s one of those bureaucratic moments when nobody says anything because something this big surely had been discussed with somebody and their deputy must not have informed them. I can just see this going through their minds. And nobody said anything, and they adjourned the meeting…. Frank was there, and that’s what he said happened, and it’s just screwy enough to be true.
On congressional criticism of Iraqi failures to advance democracy in their own country:
Robert Gates, secretary of defense: At one point in the spring of ’07, these guys, particularly on the Senate side, were just hammering me on the inability of the Iraqis to pass de-Ba’athification law, oil sharing law, an election law, some fundamental laws that essentially would shape Iraq for a long time to come.
I was sitting there thinking to myself, These guys have emerged from 4,000 years of despotism. They’ve been at this democracy business for a year. You guys, on the other hand, have been in business for 230 years and can’t even pass a goddamn appropriations bill, much less deal with any of the serious problems facing our country and you’re complaining about them not meeting benchmarks? How about some benchmarks for you guys?
I prepared five budgets as Secretary. Not once in the four and a half years that I was Secretary was there an appropriations bill signed by the beginning of the fiscal year, not once.
On the great difficulties of fighting the war on terror:
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO): One of the things I used to say is we can’t kill all of them. You’ll never kill all the terrorists. You have to figure out how to change the underlying causes, which is nation building. That’s really hard to do. In this part of the world it is even harder to do. And query the appetite of the American people to do this, even in the name of national security. It’s a really tough leadership proposition to lead this country in the face of that threat. But the answers to it are really complicated, expensive, and difficult, and we’re still grappling with it and we will be grappling with it for a long time.
On the internal debates about enhanced interrogation techniques:
Pete Wehner, speechwriter and director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives: Did they work? From what I read, and I read a fair amount on it, it seems to have. As a general matter, people will come back and say it is not a forum where the information that you get is very good. But if you talk to some of the people who administered the program, they make a fairly persuasive case that it did. These are the hard decisions in a war. I can justify it with qualifiers. I am not completely comfortable with it, but when you’re in a position of protecting people—and I do think context matters. A lot of people have forgotten or they weren’t aware of the intelligence that was coming in after 9/11. They were expecting an attack that was much worse. We were flying blind; we knew very little about al-Qaeda. We were scrambling to get information. What is the nature of this threat? You get a high-value target like this that you’re not getting otherwise. You have to connect the dots. If you don’t connect the dots, then you’re excoriated because you didn’t do enough to protect us when thousands or tens of thousands of people die.
In retrospect should we have done it? We ended the program. If they had never gone on would we have gotten less information? Maybe. When you’re doing these things in real time I think it was justifiable. But it wasn’t an easy or simple decision.
On the Office of Legal Counsel and its work:
John Yoo, deputy assistant attorney general: What usually happens is the White House counsel or the Attorney General’s office would say we want to do this, something. Then part of our job is to say if you do it, you have four ways to do it. If you do it the first two ways, it will be unconstitutional. If you do it in these latter two ways, it will be constitutional. The latter two ways might not be as fully effective as the first ways in achieving what you want, but they’re constitutional. It happens all the time.
The statutory role or the Executive order role is a little different. You’re not just advising on proposals; you’re reviewing legislation that has already passed. Then it’s more this is either constitutional or unconstitutional. But take for example the [USA] PATRIOT Act [Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act]—I got really heavily involved in the Patriot Act. There was this desire to make it easier to get warrants for national security wiretaps. The White House would say—actually parts of Justice and the White House would both ask us and say—“Can we change the standard to get a national security wiretap from A to B?” We might say, “Look, you might not be able to get it from A to B, but you could get somewhere halfway that would be constitutional. If you try to go all the way to here you might have a serious problem.”
Then you tell them that. It’s still up to them to decide what they’re going to try to do, but they have our advice. Usually we’re the last word in the government—OLC is the last word in the executive branch about constitutionality in terms of our view. So if you said something was unconstitutional, usually they’re not going to do it. I try to think of them as the same thing because I think that’s just sort of standard with clients and lawyers generally. Clients say we want to buy this company or something and the lawyer’s job is to say, “You can’t do it in these two ways. You could do it these other two ways.”
On the problems of getting an incumbent president ready for the reelection campaign:
Josh Bolten, White House chief of staff: In fact there was a point at which we were concerned—not that he was insufficiently focused on the campaign, but that he was insufficiently focused on some of the mechanics of the campaign, like debate preparation. I think that happens to every second-term President. They say, “I don’t need that; I don’t need to prep, I’m doing this stuff every day.” What they forget is that for three and a half years they have not been confronted in either the context or the way that a political opponent will confront them. Presidents are pretty well insulated from political confrontation. The British have question time and things like that; we don’t do that to Presidents. The worst we do to them is the occasional press conference where it’s not a debate. The person gets to ask a question and maybe a follow-up and that’s it. So we were worried about Bush, who a little bit surprisingly to me didn’t take much interest in his debate preparation for ’04 and I think it showed, at least in the early debates.
On the argument for a troop surge in Iraq in 2006:
William McGurn, White House speechwriter: I remember having an argument with someone, I can’t remember who it was. They were kind of implying, “Well, things are bad because the speeches weren’t good enough.” I said, “You give me a better war, I’ll give you better speeches.” It sounds flip, but it’s true. What the American people wanted to know is, Are we winning? In 2006 it looked like we were losing…. So 2006 was a terrible year. Everyone knew at midterms people wanted us out of Iraq. Even people who previously had supported the war wanted us out of Iraq. I think the President realized that…. By the fall, way before the midterms, President Bush was planning to change his strategy…. Remember, the surge was not about just sending more troops to Iraq. The surge was also about completely changing the strategy.
This is a speech where the speech is policy. We’re not explaining the policy, we’re making the policy in this speech. It’s very difficult. Here is the fundamental difficulty we had. The President’s new strategy was a counterinsurgency strategy. The old strategy was you go and you have a base and you support operations. This was to go after the insurgents, to get them in their lairs. Petraeus had thought out a new approach. It’s a counterinsurgency strategy. Not just more troops, a different strategy. The problem we had was we were not allowed to use the word “counterinsurgency.” Now, why would you say we couldn’t use it? The answer was in classic counterinsurgency teaching, I think. You’re supposed to have 10 troops for every one of the enemy’s to be successful. We didn’t have that, we had eight troops or something. Now, General Petraeus argued that the Iraqi Army and police supplied the difference. What we didn’t want is people saying, “Oh, it’s a counterinsurgency strategy. It’s doomed to failure because our troops don’t have the numbers you need for counterinsurgency.”
So here’s the problem from the speechwriter’s point of view. You’re wearing a red tie today. How do I describe that tie if I can’t use the word “red”? The most we could say was General Petraeus had been the author of the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency manual. So the result is after two weeks we put this thing together. It goes through the staffing. Then on a Saturday morning at like 6:30 we’re meeting in the Oval Office. The President has seen the speech for the first time…. The President reads through. He’s on like the third page. He goes, “OK, page one is awful, but it’s not the disaster that page two is.” You can imagine what we’re thinking here: This is not going to go well. [laughter]….
I sat literally right next to his desk on the side when we went through these speeches. The other guys sat on sofas or something. He used to say to me, “Billy, we are not going to abandon the people of Iraq the way we abandoned the people of Vietnam, from the rooftop of an Embassy.” I loved him for that. I really do. I love the man for that. We went through the speech. He didn’t like it. After this meeting—when he doesn’t like it, you have to go fix it….
Everything went wrong the night of the speech. This is my proudest speech and everything went wrong. No one wanted to hear it. It had been canceled so many times before. Iraq is going to hell. So few people believed it. So few people endorsed it. Even the conservatives trashed it after that. When he delivered it, I don’t know if you remember, he delivered it from a room downstairs. I think it’s the library. I remember we had to change the angle because one of the lights in the background looked like a cross and we didn’t want it to look like a crusader’s thing, the way the light was shining on the thing.
Fox did it, and if you remember they missed the feed or something in the beginning. He looked very awkward. It was just awkward and tense. So everything went wrong with this speech except the substance. I said before, “Better war, better speech.” It holds up very well. The surge worked. Not because the words were so great. He took the blame for everything. There is a line that says, “The troops have done everything I’ve asked of them.” I think it holds up well….
I remember the President rehearsing that speech. It was awkward. He would sometimes do it two or three times right before a televised address. He had a bad rehearsal on one thing. Instead of rehearsing it he went out on the South Lawn with Barney. I looked at him and I thought, Boy, that’s a lonely man. It’s one thing to write the speech, it’s another thing to have the lives of a lot of men and women hinging on this thing. He went out and I love him for it. It was a real moment of courage…. This [speech] is to a war-weary public. Then you’re asking the poor guys out in Fallujah and these places, “I know you’ve given everything and you’ve seen your buddies die, but we’re asking a little more of you.” It’s a hard thing to ask and it is a hard thing to do. I was proud to be with the President at his lowest moments. Lots of people are there when a President is riding high. I saw a man for all his flaws who was just magnificent in that moment.
On Bush’s leadership and the troop surge:
Robert Gates, secretary of defense: I give Bush a lot of credit. In essence, because Iraq is not going well, at the end of 2006, for all practical purposes, he fires the Secretary of Defense, the combatant commander, CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command] commander, the field commander, and goes against the unanimous advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to approve the surge.
For those who talk about Obama neglecting the views of the military or disagreeing with the military or so on, this is as stark a case as I have ever read about, since [Abraham] Lincoln, in many respects, or the conflict or the disagreement between Roosevelt and [George] Marshall about sending materiel to England rather than building up the U.S. Army first. There are a handful of these examples in the 20th century and early 21st century, but this is a stark one of a President and his civilian advisors directly disagreeing with all of their uniformed leaders to take a major step.
My experience was that Bush listened to his generals and always listened respectfully, but was not in the slightest hesitant to disagree with them. It was particularly true in ’06, when it was perfectly apparent that their strategy was failing.
Pete Wehner, speechwriter and director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives: The decision on the surge qualifies as one of the most courageous and impressive political decisions in my lifetime—it certainly was in my experience in the Bush White House. Unless people were there at the time, they don’t remember the ferocity of the political headwinds to get the surge through.
On the difficulties of coordinating national security policy in the Bush 43 administration:
Stephen Hadley, National Security Advisor: When I became National Security Advisor, I remember earlier on there was a bunch of press people and they’re sort of looking at me like this kid is never going to make it. So one of them says, let me ask you this, if Condoleezza Rice, with her vaunted close relationship with the President, wasn’t able to keep the peace between the 600-pound gorillas, Colin Powell, Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, how are you going to do it? Not to put too fine a point on it, I said, “I have no intention of knocking heads among those 600-pound gorillas, no intention whatever. Nor is there any need because I have down the hall an 1,800-pound gorilla called the President of the United States who loves to make decisions.”
On President Bush’s commitment to fighting AIDS globally:
General Michael Hayden, director of the Central Intelligence Agency: I had dinner with Bono last week. Sounds like I’m name-dropping…. But he had nothing but kind words for President Bush. Bono said, “I went in there and I was just totally blown away. He knew what he was talking about, he knew the subject, he knew the details. A lot of my liberal friends are saying, ‘Why are you talking to this man?’ I said, ‘Because he knows what he’s doing.’”
Dr. Mark Dybul, United States Global AIDS Coordinator: When Tony [Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] first sent me down [to the White House], I really hated George Bush. I hated him. I was embarrassed he was our President. I thought he stole the election; I hated him. I therefore assumed everyone around him was evil and up to no good and were trying to screw everything they possibly could. I literally hated—I was very much in my activist days. I really hated them, viscerally.
When Tony first sent me down I thought, I don’t know what they’re up to, but it’s something really bad and we’re going to be used. This is going to be total show, BS stuff and not mean anything and this is just crap. Then I got to meet them. They really are some of the most remarkable—They’re still all good friends. … They really are remarkable people.
The one thing I learned is that they all were just totally moderate, complete moderates. It was fun watching them. When they had to put a very conservative kind of person in, they put two layers of protection above them; it was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. And they were doing it for the right reason, there is no question. From the first day—no, I wouldn’t say from the first day, maybe after the fourth to fifth meeting—there was no question in my mind that they were doing this because the President cared deeply and they cared deeply. Once they started learning about what was possible they were totally on board. What they were afraid of was it wouldn’t work….
I’ll never forget [a major White House event scheduled to advance the legislation], I saw Karl Rove point at—It was [James] Dobson, Billy Graham Jr., Ray Ruddy, and a couple of the other far, far right-wing social conservatives. I’m trying to remember if someone from Catholic Relief Services was there. I saw Karl just point to them—He pointed at them and then pointed into a room. I’m pretty sure it was the Green Room because it was the reception area before we went in the East Room. So they all trundled in there, the door is closed.
Karl was not involved in the pieces of the legislation, but he was the one who was assigned to deal with these folks. From what I’ve been told from the people who know is Karl basically said if you don’t get behind this bill you will not be welcomed back in this White House. That’s it; you’re done. That’s how strongly the President feels about that….
Any opportunity they had, President Bush would weigh in on it. So in speeches that had nothing to do with it, he would weigh in on HIV. It was amazing to watch him. Sometimes I knew it was in the speech, but I could always tell when he was going off script. Whenever he started talking about PEPFAR he went off script and just started talking. He would do paragraph after paragraph on PEPFAR. He always quoted Luke, you know, “To whom much is given, much is required.” I’ve never, still to this day, talked about it without referring to that—as did Mike Pence, actually, when he supported the reauthorization.
But related to that, as I got to know him, it was so clear to me how much he cared and this was a great life lesson, how wrong public caricatures are. …
We have a little joke that if everyone who took credit for starting PEPFAR adopted an orphan in Africa, there wouldn’t be an orphan problem.
On creating PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief:
Josh Bolten, White House chief of staff: I think Bush was grappling with the dilemma of a Republican who was not inclined to spend more money, who believed most of Republican dogma about foreign assistance being wasted and that we weren’t actually helping people with this money, but who did want to help and very much took to heart what I think Colin Powell and Condi Rice were telling him about Africa generally, which is that the U.S. both morally and politically cannot and should not write the continent off. I think that he was searching for some mechanism by which he could change traditional foreign assistance and make it effective, therefore make it worthy of taxpayer dollars. In the Millennium Challenge I think he found that….
I knew that Bush was frustrated with pinpricks at this obviously catastrophic problem but concerned about jumping in in any big way to what appeared largely to be an unsolvable problem.
So as Kristen [Silverberg] just said, one of the few things I do remember is saying to [Tony] Fauci, “If money were no object, what would you do, knowing that I had the President’s support and that I probably could beat Mitch Daniels in an arm-wrestling confrontation for a few hundred million dollars, or something like that, or maybe even billions?” Like Kristen, I expected him to come back and say, “If we spend another $2 billion over the next two years or ten years on vaccines we will have a vaccine for AIDS and this pandemic will be over forever.” He didn’t. He shocked me when he came back and said—I even asked when he came back, I said, “What about vaccine?”
He said, “I’d love to have more money,” because that’s him, that’s what he does. He said, “I’d love to have more money of course, but I could not tell you that an additional hundred million dollars at this point would advance by one day the day on which we have a vaccine. But we can do something about treating the people who have it. We have a shot at stemming the tide of this pandemic.”…
I think he was moved, as a lot of us were, by the prospect that this one now treatable disease was basically extinguishing an entire generation on a whole continent. Mike Gerson summed it up beautifully in the decisional meeting when we brought the final plan to the President, where he said, “If we can do this and don’t, history will judge us poorly.” I think you have to go back to the time when it looked as if AIDS was unstoppably going to basically wipe out Africa for a whole generation. There didn’t seem to be any pause to it; it was growing geometrically. We were getting it under control here in the United States, but not over there. I think he felt like this is a different kind of problem.
On lobbying reluctant Republicans to support a costly Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to deal with the 2008 financial crisis, which arguably staved off a depression:
Karl Rove, senior advisor: Then [we] had to peel people off one by one [to vote for it]. Bush—This is where eight years of having cordial relations with the Congress and going out of his way to develop a personal relationship was so critical. Bush is really good at remembering your wife’s name, how many kids you’ve got, developing a cordial relationship, giving you a nickname, campaigning for you, and so forth. Then it really paid off, because at the end of the day we would not have passed this had he not been able to take some Members, Spencer Bachus and others, and convince them. “You’ve got to come across to do this. I don’t like this any better than you, but the future of the country is at stake.” That personal connection really mattered. Whatever political credit he had left on Capitol Hill was exhausted by the time TARP passed. But thank God he’d built it up. Even if he didn’t understand, he was building it up.
On President Bush’s reaction to the 2008 financial crisis:
Ed Gillespie, counselor to the president: Bush was very jaded about the financial markets. He was mad. He has always had a strong populist streak; he doesn’t trust the bankers. He thinks the credit default swaps and these instruments that got set up were all suspect and half illusory and he was really—he was mad at the notion of having to bail these guys out and felt like there was a gun to his head so he had to. And there was a gun to his head and he did it. There was confusion around what the TARP was going to do….
Paulson is in here telling him one day we’re going to buy bad paper and take it off of the ledgers of these banks and that will give everybody confidence. Then he’s back the next day saying we’re not doing that thing where we’re buying the bad paper anymore. We’re just giving them an infusion of liquidity.
I remember Bush saying, “What are we doing?” It wasn’t, “What are we doing because I don’t understand what we’re doing,” it was “What are we doing? Don’t come in here one day and tell me and tell Eddie to craft a speech based on that and then come in the next day and say we’re not doing it.” It was more that. It was a confusing situation. Are we taking over—we’re going to bail out AIG? Not Lehman? The next one? What’s the rationale for doing one and not the other? There needs to be a set metric by which we determine—There was a lot of it that was on the fly but that was the nature of the—it was, a crisis, and you don’t always have perfect information in a crisis.
On George W. Bush as a domestic policy president:
Pete Wehner, speechwriter and director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives: If you had said in 2000, “If Bush is there for eight years, what issues do you think he is going to advance?” You would have said tax cuts, Medicare prescription drugs, education, immigration, and Social Security. Some of those got tabled because you can only do so much in a first term and he had the war to intervene. And we made a mistake, which was we led with Social Security instead of immigration. If we had flipped those and led with immigration based on the capital the President had after the reelection, we would have gotten that through.
On the enactment of the No Child Left Behind education bill:
Margaret Spellings, domestic policy director and later secretary of education: I was from a state legislative background. I was thinking, What is taking so long? But the idea that we wrote a 1,200-page bill in less than a year with 9/11 in the middle of it, in an area that is completely unorthodox for a Republican, how the hell did we ever do that? Never underestimate good-luck charms.
On the prospects for other education reform later in the presidency:
Margaret Spellings, secretary of education: In the last two years of the time in the White House, I really wanted the President to engage in higher education. That’s where we spend lots more money than we do in K through 12. Lord, you talk about achievement gap, global competitiveness, blah, blah, blah. I wanted him to be the first guy out on that. Nobody had talked about it for decades literally, but Cheney hated it. He was like, “Finest system in the world. We don’t need to do anything. We don’t need to talk about anything.” I tried every way possible to—end runs for years….
I used to say that the best thing that ever happened to No Child Left Behind was that Dick Cheney didn’t care that much about it. He himself did not. His staff was from a different orthodoxy. They were more in the “demolish the Department of Education” crowd…. But the Vice wasn’t really paying attention because he didn’t care that much about this stuff.
On President Bush’s failed attempt to reform the national immigration system, which had earned some bipartisan support:
Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee: I was surprised when I was RNC chairman that I was one of the first to pick up the blowback on immigration reform. I remember saying—it was during my second time on talk radio where I raised it. The callers just raked me over the coals. Then also I went in at a phone bank, I was firing up the volunteers and I said, “immigration reform,” and they were all like, Oh! I said to Karl, “I’m getting bad vibes on immigration reform.” He said, “It’s really important to the President—” And it was. But that cross-pressure between our base and the Hispanic vote, I remember flagging that early and I was on the front lines and one of the first to have my shock collar go off on it. It turned out to be a real problem and a real strain for the party. I’m not sure we should be emphasizing this; I did say that. Karl said, “We have to emphasize this.”
On Vladimir Putin’s willingness to use financial lures to influence American politics:
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert: Friday night we got this invitation to go down to Sochi for lunch with Putin. … We flew down to Sochi and went to this whole series of bungalows that made up Putin’s dacha. It was the same way with [Joseph] Stalin. He had his place. We were all isolated, each in our own bungalow, until it was time to go have lunch.
We walk over and have lunch. It was around this round table; we had eight or nine people around the table. It was a typical Russian lunch. It was frozen vodka and nice glasses and caviar and smoked fish, typical Russian. We go through that and finally some kind of dessert.
Putin then takes the menu. Everybody looks at the menu again. He turns it over, draws a map of Russia and says, “Well, now we have a pipeline. The pipeline goes up here to our Northeast to take care of Korea, Japan, and the needs for fuel and natural gas. Then there is a line that goes down through here in Southeast Asia. Then we have this pipeline that goes out here and around Georgia and takes care of the south of Europe. Then another pipeline that goes up to Poland, Germany, the Baltics.” He basically said, “We can provide all the energy needs of the Western world.” He looks at me and says, “Tell your President that if he is interested and he puts some capital in this he can join with us.” I went back to Bush and he laughed.
On staging President Bush’s speeches:
Kevin Sullivan, White House communications director: The State of the Union, he used to say, is the greatest venue there is in the world to give a speech: an electric audience, bright lights, the crowd is right on top of you, you’ve prepared, the whole nation is watching. It’s an incredible environment. The Rose Garden is the greatest home field advantage in the history of communications. The President naturally projects his voice since it’s outside. You have the backdrop of the Oval Office, the trees. Even saying that, during a press conference there, he once had bird droppings land on his jacket. I would encourage you to go back and watch the videotape. He doesn’t miss a beat. He kind of brushes it away. Then as we all gathered in the Oval Office afterward, the first thing he said was, “How about that?”
On the notable differences between President Bush’s ability to communicate in small groups and on television:
Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee: I have my own theory on it, which is that I believe the President is very aware of the Presidency and reveres it. Partly maybe because he is the son of a President and that when he’s speaking on television or in interviews, he knows that what he’s about to say will be the words of the President of the United States forever. He almost translates—I took German in high school and I can speak German but I have to translate it in my head first; I’m not fluent in it. I think he translates in his head what this will be for posterity; how should I say this for posterity.
By the way, if you see him now, if you saw him on his book tour or if you see him doing interviews, he’s more himself because he’s not the President of the United States anymore. What he says now as a former President, he doesn’t care as much about in terms of history because these aren’t the words of the President of the United States any longer. I think it’s more of a reverence for the office.
Believe me, I know you’ve done other of these interviews so I know you’ve heard this: when the President is in the Oval Office in decision-making mode, or other things he’s drilling down on you, there is no “umm” or “huh?” or stammer or looking for a word; he’s got the words and you’d better have yours. Not in a mean way or anything, but he just wants the answers. He’s rapid fire with the questions.
Then I would see him speak to a group of Republican donors at a fund-raiser, without a single “umm” or “huh?”—seamless. You just would never see it on television. I always hoped that maybe I could, as counselor to the President, help close that gap, but I couldn’t. That’s where I came up with this theory.
Bush’s thoughts on presidential rhetoric:
Ed Gillespie, counselor to the president: The first meeting I had with the President was up in his study in the Treaty Room. He was behind his desk and it was after hours, just the two of us. He was excited. He said, “I’m glad this worked out. I’m looking forward to working with you.” I said, “I’m looking forward to working with you.”
Then we talked about the nature of the job, what he wanted from me in it and all that. He said, “There’s something you need to understand though. You are great at understanding the domestic audience and the American people and the voters and how to communicate with them, but when you take this job, the President of the United States has more than just the domestic audience and you’re going to have to learn how to take the other audiences into account. Our enemies listen to everything the President of the United States says. If they detect weakness it will affect what they do. Our allies listen to everything I say as Commander in Chief, and if they sense any vacillation or backing away, they’ll be gone tomorrow.”
And he said, “Our troops listen to the Commander in Chief and everything I say as Commander in Chief and if they sense that I’m in any way undercutting them, that’s bad for morale, it doesn’t help them in the theater. There will be times when you’ll want me to say something that is politically beneficial to the domestic audience but would hurt the morale of our troops in the field. You just need to know that I will never do that.”
On White House press relations:
John Bridgeland, campaign aide and director of the domestic policy council: I used to wake up in the morning and open the blinds and look out at the newspaper. My wife would say, “I know what you’re going to say,” and I’d go, “Uh-oh, there it is.” In part because you would often read about something in the newspaper that was emerging somewhere in government that was becoming a problem because sometimes the system wasn’t teasing it up quickly enough. So, yes, there was some frustration. Then there were some people in the media who would tweak issues, you could tell, to get reactions. There was always that.
On President Bush’s relationship with his father, George H. W. Bush:
Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee: I’ll share one other story that I’ve told just a few times. It was one of the neatest moments for me in the White House. We went to Texas A&M. The President spoke to the winter graduating class, it was January. It was the commencement for them. President Bush 41 and Barbara Bush met us there. It was really neat. We flew into Waco and then went by chopper to College Station. My wife is an Aggie. She flew with us. It was a great moment for her. We watched the President’s speech; he was very well received there, obviously. It was at the Bush School [of Government and Public Service] at A&M. We were on the small Marine One because the big ones couldn’t fly in and out to A&M from Waco.
Then the President, Bush 41, accompanied President Bush back out to the chopper, to Marine One. I was with the President that day; I was the designated, I forget what they call it, but I was there for Josh. Josh didn’t go and I was the top aide. I sat across from the President in Marine One. In that smaller Marine One your knees are almost literally touching. He had finished the speech; it was well received. The speech was good. He liked seeing the President, he liked seeing his mom and dad. It was nice for him. He got to spend a little time with his mother and father. They’re a very close family, as you know. He got charged up a little bit by that.
The chopper is taking off. The rotors are kicking up all of this dust, as they do, as we leave. The President taps me on the knee and says, “Look at that.” I looked out the window and former President Bush is standing at full attention about 30 yards from the chopper, all this stuff blowing up on his suit. A Secret Service agent is standing behind him with his hand ready to catch him in case the wind from the rotors blows him over. We’re lifting off and he’s standing at full attention as Marine One left, and the President said, “He’s paying respect to the office,” which is what he was doing. That’s how the President saw the Presidency.
On President Bush’s operating style:
General Michael Hayden, director of the Central Intelligence Agency: Most of the time the briefers were CIA, and very often I would talk to them the night before. The article is written, it’s gone, the President’s got it. They give me a courtesy copy and then I say [to the analyst], “OK, have you done this before?” “No, sir.”
I start drawing the Oval Office for them and I say, “There are two chairs in front of the fireplace. Don’t sit there, but do sit on the couch, right next to the Vice President. It’s the Vice President, President, you sit here, Hadley is going to be over here, you sit here. Now, what’s your most important sentence?” And they go ba-ba-ba-ba. “No. What’s your most important sentence?” Ba-ba-ba-ba. “No, no, sentence.” They give me a sentence. I say, “Good, because that’s all you’re going to get. Let me tell you how this works. You start talking and this man starts interrupting, and now you’re in a scrum, and so you’ve got to be able to present this in the dialogue, not in the monologue, because he is going to be very interactive.” That’s not somebody who is disinterested, that’s not somebody who is unintelligent, and certainly not somebody who is unknowledgeable.
Ed Gillespie, counselor to the president: He’s a very good judge of people. I always felt that, even when I was in Austin. One thing about President Bush, then Governor Bush, you go in a room with 100 people, you work the room, and you’re out of there in a half an hour. He can tell you, “These 33 people, we ought to get them locked up; those 33 are not worth anything; and I can’t figure out the other 33 in those 20 minutes that I was there.” But he really has a very good read on people, and is a judge of people.
Josh Bolten, White House chief of staff: Chaotic is not the right word for almost anything associated with Bush. For some reason there is rarely chaos anywhere around him, in part because he doesn’t tolerate it.
Harriet Miers, White House counsel: What you can’t be around President Bush is afraid, or you can’t be hesitant to tell him even when he’s wrong, which rarely happens, but every once in a while. You have to be willing to tell him what he doesn’t want to hear, and if you’re not, I don’t think he respects you.
Fred Fielding, White House counsel: One of the first meetings I went to was on Katrina. They’re all sitting around the Roosevelt Room and the President came in; there is the administrator and there are generals all over the place and National Guard people. People started to report and they started talking about the problems with the trailers, and at one point someone said something about there are 2,700 trailers and we’ve got that reduced down to 1,600, a statistic like that.
The President looked up and he said, “Wait a minute. The last time you told me there were 37,500 and you hoped to have them down to—” and I’m looking down at his notes. He has no notes at all. He remembers this stuff and he’s not a dummy and he remembers the nuances of things and the things that people said to him six months ago with all that he has day in and day out. I was very impressed because I really looked over and thought, He’s got a good set of notes. And he had none.
John Bridgeland, director of the domestic policy council: I’ll tell you a funny story. The first time I’m in the Presidential limousine with him, it was pretty early on. We were going to an event. He’s riding here and I’m riding facing, going backward in terms of driving, I’m looking right at him. I’m in the car and there’s the seal. I’m thinking, Wow. I don’t know what came over me but I said, “So, Mr. President, how do you like your job?” In those days thousands of people were lining the streets and he put his hand up to the window and the whole place exploded, and he looked back at me and said, “I like it.” So there was a seriousness, but I also found him warm and wonderfully open to humor.
On the proper tradecraft for a National Security Advisor:
Stephen Hadley, National Security Advisor: You’ve got two ways you want to play that role. If you want, you can use your proximity to the President to make Cabinet Secretaries look really bad. I’ll give you an example—stop me if we talked about this out in California.
It’s always the little things. You open the New York Times or the Washington Post and you see a leak out of the State Department. Now, one way you can do it is you can go into the President of the United States at 7:05 and say, “Mr. President, I don’t know if you saw the leak in the Washington Post today but somebody over at the State Department is undermining your policy. It’s outrageous. I’ve talked to Condi about this problem a number of times. It just doesn’t seem to do any good, but don’t worry, Mr. President. I’ll take care of it; I’ll call her this morning and see if I can get this back in the box. I’ll try to pull her chestnuts out of the fire.” I mean, you could do that.
It makes the Secretary of State look bad, it makes you look good, and it plays up to the President. Don’t do it. What you do is you see that in the morning and you call Condi and say, “I’m sorry to interrupt your 5:30 treadmill but there’s something in the Washington Post this morning. Somebody is talking about X, Y, and Z. You know how the President is going to react when he sees that in the morning. You may want to get on top of it and give him a call.” That’s what you do.
Then when you go in at 7:10 the President is on the phone and he puts his hand over the receiver and he says [whispering], “It’s Condi. She’s talking about the Washington Post article.” She’s saying, “I saw it this morning. Here’s how it happened. Here’s what I’m going to do about it, Mr. President. I’ll fix it.” That restores his faith in his Cabinet Secretary. That’s what you want to do. If you have the right team with people who know each other and have confidence in each other, it’s the second scenario that happens and not the first. That’s terribly important. That’s what you should be doing as National Security Advisor. You should be encouraging the President to deal directly with your Cabinet Secretaries. You should be trying to give him confidence in the Cabinet Secretaries. If at the end of the day they screw up, the President is going to have to deal with that. But you want to be encouraging that relationship.
On President Bush’s eye for talent:
Clay Johnson, longtime friend and director of White House personnel: In 2001, for 9/11, there could not have been a better team of people in the key positions to help him deal with this for America: [Donald] Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, Cheney, who had been Secretary of Defense, was Vice President, General [Colin] Powell, Secretary of State. This is for the big boys. This was prime time. And he had prime-time people for the meltdown in 2008. You had Bernanke, who studied financial meltdowns his entire life. You want to throw a financial meltdown? Bring it on. And you have Paulson, who doesn’t know anything about financial meltdowns, but he could get on the phone and get anybody or everybody in Wall Street to do anything that needed to be done, in minutes. So twice, the people you would most—If you had 10 years of hindsight to think about who would have been perfect to have in there, who were the best you could imagine? It’s those three people there and those two people. Bush had them.
When Vice President Cheney got reprimanded for taking a position on guns at variance with the president’s stance:
Josh Bolten, White House chief of staff: Now the episode with the gun case was actually sort of funny. I mean, it was a serious but also a light moment in the history of the Vice President’s relationship with the rest of the White House. It was a D.C. gun case. My recollection is that the Justice Department had managed it poorly and had notified the White House only like the day before or something like that of the position they were planning to take in a pretty controversial case. They were going to—the Justice Department was going to side, at least partially, with defenders of a D.C. gun restriction….
I think we gave the President the opportunity to have us intervene with the Justice Department, reverse it and so on. Ultimately the President decided not to do that and to let the Justice Department take the view that it would, even though that would be annoying to some of the Second Amendment zealots in the party and elsewhere.
Then we found out—I think maybe in the Chief of Staff’s office we found out in advance, but I don’t think so. I think we found out after the event that the Vice President’s office had signed up on an amicus brief that was adverse to the position the Justice Department took. An amicus brief in full support of the Second Amendment argument. Naturally it was inconsistent with the position taken by the office, the Solicitor General’s office, which represents the United States. So I was both outraged and amused by this. Procedurally outraged. It wasn’t as though the Vice President had defied an order from the President or something like that. The President himself, when we had raised the issue with him, was quite mixed on whether to intervene with the Justice Department or not. He could easily have decided to take the same substantive view as the Vice President. There was a big process foul in the Vice President, on his own, taking this view.
I remember, I probably asked [my deputy] Joel [Kaplan], “On what authority are they doing this?” He said, “I’ve already landed on them and they said that they were—the Vice President was speaking in his capacity as President of the Senate.” He joined an amicus brief issued by a bunch of Senators. I mean, signed by a bunch of Senators. So he was not in his role as Vice President, but as President of the Senate.
I told the President about this; he kind of laughed. There was never any question about Cheney being actually insubordinate or anything like that; it was kind of a classic Cheney maneuver….
So I asked for the President’s permission to go admonish the Vice President for his process foul. So I went to see Cheney and he kind of got a smirk on his face when I raised what the subject was I was coming to see him about. I said I was here about the process foul that his office had committed. There was a certain formality to it, so I wasn’t going to suggest that he had perpetrated the process foul but that his office had perpetrated the major process foul.
He sort of feigned surprise. He said, “But I did that in my capacity as President of the Senate.” I said “Yes, but you are still the Vice President of the United States and it’s not acceptable to have the Vice President, in whatever role he chooses to play, to take a position in legal proceedings, that is different from the Presidentially authorized position of the Justice Department.”
He goes on, “Well, you know, OK.” I said, “With your permission, I’m going to go speak to David [Addington], your Chief of Staff, about this and admonish him that there be no further episodes. He said, “Yes, sure.” He clearly enjoyed the whole thing deeply. [laughter] So I went to Addington and he gave me the, “Well, we were—he was speaking as President of the Senate.” So I told him the same thing and I said, “You’re also here as an employee of the President and the White House. You come sit at the senior staff table at my sufferance on behalf of the President. If we have another episode like that I will have all of your belongings removed from your White House office and sent down to your tiny little office in the Senate [laughter], where you and the rest of the Vice President’s former White House staff may reside as you exercise the functions of the President of the Senate.” So he laughed.
On the controversy about vice presidential aide Scooter Libby’s conviction for lying to investigators:
Fred Fielding, White House counsel: I wanted the President to stop all pardons after Christmastime. Just get away from that end of the administration business, especially the Scooter one, but he didn’t bite the bullet on that one…. At the end [Libby] asked to see the President. I discussed this with the President. I said to him (Scooter), and to his lawyer, “That’s not going to happen. I’ll meet with you.” I met with him on a Sunday and had lunch with one of my deputies and we just sat there and talked for about two hours and he pleaded his case. But I had gone through the thing and in my judgment the conviction was maybe unfortunate but it was valid, it wasn’t a goofy conviction. It wasn’t a political conviction. It was a solid conviction.
People say, “Oh, the reason that the President didn’t grant it was because he wanted to know if Scooter showed remorse.” … I mean he did ask me if he seemed remorseful at all and I had to say no because he didn’t. He was defiant. I’ve known Scooter for years and I like him. I’ve worked with him in private cases and I had a client in the Marc Rich hearings when he was testifying, so the final decision was made, but it was really at the very end of the term….
The commutation was done and seemed to be [based on] a ground that was defensible in my mind for somebody that had given years of public service. And the case itself. He was convicted, but I’ve got to tell you that for a prosecutor to continue a case when he knows that whoever he’s grilling wasn’t the source and he knows it because he knows who the source was, that’s bothersome to me. But nonetheless, he did establish perjury. But it was perjury to no avail, and that’s what bothered me about it.
On Bush’s White House staff:
Kevin Sullivan, White House communications director: One thing I should say that I didn’t mention, from the [job] interview with the President: He talked about the atmosphere that he and Mrs. Bush try to create for the staff. He said, “We don’t have backbiting; we don’t allow it.” He talked about how, in his father’s White House, there were different factions that caused all kinds of upheaval and was not a good environment at times. “We don’t have that here.” It was really true.
Stephen Hadley, National Security Advisor: [President Bush] used to have a little joke. He would say to folks if you’re a C student you get to be President; if you flunked out of college you get to be Vice President; and if you’re an A student you get to work for the other two. [laughter] … He always felt that if I get smart people around me, I give them some direction, I empower them, and then I let them go do smart things. That was his view. It was not fire and forget.
On Bush’s reliance on strong women:
Margaret Spellings, domestic policy advisor and secretary of education: I think women have an important leavening power in an organization. They can say, “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” Karen and I and Mrs. Bush and others played that role. Laura Bush used to say in her speeches, “Condi Rice is in charge of all national security policy, and Margaret Spellings is in charge of all domestic policy, and that seems about right to me.” That was a standard line in her speech….
Not to be too psycho-babble-y, but obviously his mother is an extremely strong personality and his sister. I think he was used to having that kind of relationship with women. I don’t know that it is more complicated than that. We worked with him for a very long time, had a level of comfort with him and just an ease with him as to personality. Karen and I, Condi—we’re women who are at ease with men in a professional way. I have a salty demeanor and Bush liked that. He acted differently around—traveling on Air Force One, especially in the campaign days, they would play cards…. There was all this frat-house type stuff that went on that didn’t go on when Karen and I or Condi were around. When women showed up, they were on their better behavior. Nothing completely unsavory but just juvenile behavior.
On the private George Bush:
Dr. Mark Dybul, United States Global AIDS Coordinator: He is actually a fun guy to be around. Part of it gets back to this thing about Africa. He detests elites who look down on other people because of their socioeconomic background, their education. He almost has a studied antielitism, which I find very endearing, given my background. If someone is good, they’re good, and I don’t care—including by the way when Karl [Rove] was adamant I not be appointed because I’m openly gay, voted for a Democrat, and had a history of giving money to Howard Dean in the 2000 election. [laughter] He really—There is kind of a studied antielitism, which is part politics and part he really doesn’t like elitism. Really, he is incapable of looking down on someone.
It’s remarkable how humble and self-deprecating he is. When you’re just with the family it’s pretty remarkable. The girls just beat the living crap out of him; they just jokingly abuse him nonstop. He sits there and laughs and takes it all in. But there is a Texan—His line at the convention is true: “In Texas it’s called walking,” you know, “People say I swagger, but in Texas it’s called walking.” There is that Texan piece, which is very different.
On Bush’s much-criticized praise for his beleaguered director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina:
Kevin Sullivan, White House communications director: Certain things, like the “Heck of a job, Brownie” criticism is totally unfair. It takes too long to explain to ever effectively change anybody’s mind. It wasn’t New Orleans; it was either Alabama or Mississippi. He’s walking from the helicopter with Governor [Robert] Riley of Alabama and Riley says, “Your guy Michael Brown has done a great job for us.” Literally seconds before the President goes to the microphone, the Governor is praising Michael Brown and the job he did in their state. He steps up to the microphone and as part of his thing, he turns around and says, “Heck of a job, Brownie,” and it ends up being used against him to mean that he thought the response in New Orleans was praiseworthy. They weren’t even in New Orleans. But again, the old thing in Washington is, if you’re explaining you’re losing, so there was just nothing that could be done. That ship had sailed.
On the life of a White House speechwriter:
William McGurn, White House speechwriter: On Air Force One what would happen is they have comfortable seats, but it’s not luxurious. It’s like sitting in a nice easy chair rather than an airline seat. That’s nice, and there’s a table in front of you, but there’s no place to sleep, or you’re on this long thing. A lot of times I’d be on the floor sleeping with my face where someone spilled a diet Coke and someone kicks you in the face and says, “The Mexican trade minister is going to be greeting the President. We need a speech on that. We need you to write something on that.” Then you go in the back and try to do something.
So on the foreign speeches there’s a lot more work and adjustments. What we try to do is give the President—there would be 20—there would be dinners where he has to give a toast. As I say, any public thing. So you try to do most of them. The big speech we probably would have worked out long before, but there are always little things along the way. So there are lots of speeches. You always want someone on the ground with him who can handle some of that stuff.
On Bush’s approach to the physical demands of the presidency:
Josh Bolten, White House chief of staff: I think most Presidents in that kind of position go in and they do the job the best they can without a lot of reflection about how am I behaving as a leader. Bush, I sensed, always had some consciousness of that issue in his head. He was very careful about keeping himself fit and alert. That’s in his nature anyway, but he was really doubly conscious about it because he thought it was important to his ability to make good decisions. Most people will stay up the extra hour if they’re worried about some decision or something like that, reading and so on. Bush, if he had important decisions to make, would make sure that he got exercise and rest, and one of the few ways you could make him angry as a staffer was to interfere with his ability to stay as healthy and clear-minded as he could be to make the big decisions.
He went to bed, he got up. He always tried to exercise every day. I don’t want to give the misimpression that he’s not a hard worker. He is actually—I would bet—among our hardest-working modern Presidents. From 6:45 when he would walk into the Oval Office until he left, he was moving; he was doing stuff. He wasn’t wasting time. Lunch would be an opportunity for fuel and literally last seven or eight minutes. This would have been a leisurely lunch by Bush standards. [laughter]
I had lunch with him fairly often when I was Chief of Staff. We didn’t particularly schedule lunches for him because he didn’t really like that; it was interfering with his ability to do stuff. Somebody he would meet with was the Vice President and that was an opportunity to talk. He would have [Alan] Greenspan in once a month just to talk. But if it was just like, “Let’s get a sandwich,” I’d order a sandwich; he would have already ordered his. We’d sit in the private dining room and he would have finished before I’d gotten my sandwich. He’d say, “OK, let’s get back to work.” [laughter] So I had many a hungry afternoon.
He was very disciplined in that way. He was also conscious of what his own behavior was saying to other people. He was very conscious of how his demeanor would affect other people. He spoke often about—beginning in the campaign he spoke about that you can’t be a leader if you’re not optimistic. He said you cannot go in front of people and say, “Follow me, things are going to get worse.” I think that’s a direct quote. He said you have to have the ability to go before people and say—and mean it, because they can tell—“Follow me, I think we can make this better.” So that was the attitude that he absorbed for himself.
I have to say, especially during the three years when I was Chief of Staff, when I would see him a lot, every day, I have to say there were very few days where you could describe him as down. I remember coming into the Oval Office—I used to walk into the Oval Office every morning—I think I told you this when we visited three years ago. I would begin every morning by thanking him, thanking the President for the privilege of serving, in some words or another. Just maybe, “Mr. President, good morning, thanks for the privilege of serving.” That wasn’t intended as brown-nosing or anything like that, it was intended really as a reminder to myself that here we are starting a day and we get to work in the White House. He would always sort of barely acknowledge that.
I remember it was a particularly bad morning—something really bad had happened the night before. It might have been the defeat in the 2006 elections, which was a real fun day. I came in in the morning and I said, “Mr. President, it’s a privilege to serve even today.” He looked up and he said, “Especially today.” You could see that he was setting himself to be in the right demeanor to be a good leader at the time his party—in the time of adversity. So he was conscious of all these things….
He was a very disciplined guy, a very disciplined guy. You go back to where he begins his book. The first major decision was quitting drinking. Clearly he had some kind of drinking problem in his youth or up until exactly age 40. Then he sort of had a moment of clarity and decided that this was undermining his ability to be the person he could be. So he quit drinking and has not had another drink since then.
He wakes up without an alarm clock every morning at 5:15 and goes through the same routine. He exercises almost every day that he can. If he said he was going to do something—if he said, “OK, I’ll read that tonight,” all of us are human. You’d say, “Oh, man, I got too tired, I didn’t get through it.” He wouldn’t say he was going to read it unless he was going to read it. I never encountered anyone who was more faithful to fulfilling any commitment or even assertion that he made about his own behavior. I think that is substantially the answer to the question—it’s as much a question of character as it is of training or experience.
On President Bush’s religious beliefs:
Pete Wehner, speechwriter and director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives: What I think a lot of people don’t understand, critics of the President never understood about him, was how religion affected him. It sanded off some of his rougher edges and made him a more empathetic person. The idea of human dignity, including the language we were talking about … in the first State of the Union in 2002, about the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity—Something important he used to do that was never paid sufficient attention to was he would bring in dissidents—Chinese dissidents, Burmese dissidents, North Korean dissidents—and was very animated by that kind of thing, very touched by it. The whole issue of human rights and human dignity was shaped in part by his faith. The malaria initiative, which nobody thought he was going to get any political credit for, he was the one who thought very boldly about this. The [budget] numbers that were coming in for recommendations were much lower than he eventually endorsed.
For him as a human being and as an individual—he has been explicit about how faith played a role in ordering his life as related to alcohol, but it created in him an empathy and compassion and tenderness and sympathy for vulnerable people in society that I don’t think would have been there had he not become a Christian. It informed his political philosophy …
Those elements of him were real, but if you’re on the left you’re thinking his faith caused him to go to war in Iraq because he wanted to usher in the return of Jesus, because of Israel or some weird conspiracy eschatology, which was just silly. He didn’t think in those terms about the end times. Ronald Reagan actually did to some extent. But that never drove Reagan’s policy. But the idea of how people thought faith affected President Bush versus how it actually did struck me as one of the bizarre cartoonlike images that emerge. If you actually know what is going on, you’re thinking, What weird books are people reading?
Harriet Miers, White House counsel, on President Bush’s decision to nominate Miers to the United States Supreme Court, and then to retract that nomination:
Well, as time passed, there was this sense that I was under consideration, which came as quite a revelation, to say the least…. made a trip home because he had asked me to review certain speeches and papers and locate all of that stuff. I made that trip home and gathered materials and brought it back, and then obviously at some point I talked to the President. It’s been said that at first I didn’t think this was the direction to take. It’s been said that at first I didn’t think this was the direction to take. It’s my recollection that I had expressed reservations, and that would have been like me. I don’t have a specific conversation in mind, but it was just kind of out of the blue.
Q: Can I ask? Reservations about whether you wanted to do this? Or reservations about the advisability of the President deciding to do this?
Miers: It would have been kind of a combination of those things. It just wasn’t something I had ever contemplated. It wasn’t something that was worked up. I mean I had been through the process, so you know it’s just not something that was even within the realm of contemplation….
I think the predominant thought would have been that if the President asked you to do something, that you’re going to do it. If the President of the United States decided you should serve on the highest court in this land you’re going to say yes, sir. So I think at that point, even though being a judge had not been my objective, if he made that decision and I had been through this process where the advisors all had to come together and if my colleagues came to that same conclusion, I think that was at that point my major consideration. If asked, you are going to serve, or in this instance, if asked, you are going to be nominated. I certainly had to know that I was an out-of-the-box option that could cause a lot of issues to be raised.
Q: This is the only position for which anybody can be asked to serve that is for life, which puts it in a different cast….
Miers: So yes, the commitment would be to do that for the rest of your life, and I had friends who knew me very well who said, “Are you going to really be happy doing that?” And the answer was, “This is not about my happiness. This is about doing what you’re asked to do and that people conclude you should do.”… [My nomination] was going to be compacted into a very short period of time, which meant we were doing everything or trying to do everything at the same time, which you couldn’t do. You couldn’t work on the questionnaire and prepare, you were just jammed into this time frame, and I had 30 years of practice to research and answer under oath. I don’t think that was fully appreciated, and looking back, it’s probably something that if I had been thinking, I would have raised, and it would have been a good reason why I should not have been chosen, because it’s one thing to look back at 10 cases that a judge had decided. It’s another to re-create the practice of someone for more than 30 years.
Q: And the speeded-up process, of course they wanted to have someone in Justice O’Connor’s place, but she, somewhat unusually I think, had not left the bench…. Was there anything else pushing this rapid process that you’ve described so well that was so difficult?
Miers: You’re going to have to ask those who made those decisions, because once the process focused on me, then I was out of it. I wish I could have been out of body. [laughter] …
But when I talk about out of the box, and you zeroed in on political, Russell, you’ve kind of focused on political a lot in this day and a half, and I’ll have to say that’s not what I meant. What I meant is somebody who had gotten people out of jail, who had experienced what it’s like to have someone in jail and to need a lawyer and be a youngster or somebody else in the middle of the night sitting in a drunk tank with people reaching out and touching them, you know? Or somebody who’s handled immigration matters or handled some of the things that really touch people’s lives, as opposed to things that are pretty removed from individuals.
I represented businesses whose entire wherewithal was at stake in class actions, and I know what that’s all about. Class actions sometimes have a very valuable role to play when they’re used in the manner that they should be used, but they can be quite foreboding just by their nature. That’s on the business side. I’ve taken a child away from its mother. These are things that are experiences that I doubt many of the Justices have had to deal with; maybe they have. But I think that’s more what I meant, as opposed to political experience or political awareness….
I think we passed by what was driving the President. The President—and this is just my own opinion—had come to the conclusion that he wanted to nominate a woman but he wanted to nominate someone who he had confidence would not disappoint him in their service on the Court, and I wound up his choice. I think a painful part of the way this all unfolded for me, of course, was to have disappointed him and the others that supported me. That is disappointing in yourself that you didn’t see their wish come true. However, I took comfort in that there was no doubt in my mind at any time that were I not going to be the nominee, that we would have someone who would serve with distinction, and that’s what mattered….
The bottom line, I guess you’ve got to think—You’ve been nominated by the President for the highest court of the land, so what’s bad about that? Even though you’re going to read about yourself in novels for the rest of time, it is not a bad thing that the President of the United States thought you could serve and that people surrounding him thought you could serve. There were instances, I know, that not everybody around him did support me. I wasn’t part of that….
I did what I did when I thought it was the right thing to do, and one of the things that Andy Card had taught us, if we needed to be taught it, was that at that level of our government everything is done with dignity, and having a continuation of the focus on me and my nomination rather than the other functions that were so vital was just not tolerable to me…. I was not a victim at all. I had the ability to function in that job. I had all of the background. I know the President received unjust criticism by some for having “subjected me” to the nomination. That’s ridiculous. It’s totally ridiculous. It worked well for everybody that I stayed, and I hope that that’s the truth. I hope to high heaven.
On how a seasoned political professional reads the tea leaves:
Ed Gillespie, political advisor managing the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito, on how he knew that they had won the crucial vote of Republican Senator Arlen Specter: Alito was a Phillies fan and Specter got him to sign a baseball for him. I told him afterward, “That’s great.” He said, “Why?” I said, “You’re going to get confirmed.” He said, “Why?” I said, “What do you think the value of a baseball signed by a circuit court judge is?” [laughter]
On President Bush’s humor:
Dr. Mark Dybul, United States Global AIDS Coordinator: One of the people on the [White House] tour [with President Jakaya Kikwete of Tannzania] … asked, “Have you ever seen [Abraham] Lincoln’s ghost?” because there is this myth that Lincoln’s ghost walks around. Without missing a beat, he said, “Nah, I quit drinking 20 years ago.”