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‘I Want This for George’

On December 23, 1990, President George H.W. Bush slept restlessly. The extended Bush family had gathered at Camp David for the holidays as they did every year of his presidency, boosting his spirits, but this year especially, he had a lot on his mind. A ground war in Kuwait looked increasingly likely as Saddam Hussein continued to ignore the warnings of the U.S. and allied nations. It preoccupied Bush, running continuously through his mind. On Christmas Eve morning, he awakened with the remnants of a dream in his head: He was driving into a hotel near a golf course. Across a fence was another golf course, a lesser one. He heard his father, the banker and senator Prescott Bush, was there and went looking for him, finding him in a hotel room just as he remembered him, “big, strong, highly respected.” The two men embraced. “I miss you very much,” the son told his father.

A dozen years later, during Christmastime of 2002, the extended Bush family once again found themselves at Camp David, as President George W. Bush was faced with the possibility of a war with Saddam Hussein, just as his father had been. But while 41 had unconsciously yearned for his father in 1990, 43 had his own father to lean on—and he was right there. As 43 labored to find a diplomatic solution to his standoff with Saddam, he briefed his father on the situation and solicited his view. “You know how tough war is, son,” 41 told him, “and you’ve got to try everything you can to avoid war. But if the man won’t comply, you don’t have any other choice.” The elder Bush’s advice went no further. “[H]e didn’t need to tell me, ‘I hope you’re concerned about the troops,’” 43 said of his father—in one of several interviews the two men gave for my new book on their relationship, The Last Republicans. “He knew me well enough to know that I’d be concerned.”

It was unprecedented. Never before in American history had a president had a father and presidential peer whom he could draw on immediately for counsel. When John Quincy Adams took office in Washington in March 1825, 24 years after his father left office, the decrepit elder Adams, at 89, was in Quincy, Massachusetts, in his last 15 months of life. John Quincy learned of his father’s death days after his passing on July 4, 1826, arriving in Massachusetts just in time for his funeral. “It is among the rarest ingredients of happiness,” he wrote a friend, “to have a father yet living till a son is far advanced in years.” Distance hadn’t allowed the elder Adams to be an active resource for his son during his first year and a quarter in the presidency. But the younger Bush’s father—big, strong, highly respected—was accessible to offer guidance. Regardless, by both Bushes’ accounts, 41’s succinct advice at Camp David was the only time 43 solicited his view on anything of consequence regarding Iraq—and it seemed to belie concerns 41 quietly harbored about a war.

By all inside accounts, George H.W. Bush was first and foremost a loving father during his son’s White House years, refraining from imparting unsolicited advice even as he worried about 43’s administration, especially later as the war in Iraq got mired in mission creep. “I would definitely not characterize 41 as counseling his son in a reproachful way,” said Jim Baker, his former chief of staff and secretary of state. “If he were counseling him, he would say, ‘Are you really sure this is something you want to do?’ Now, I know that 41 thought that some of the advice that 43 was getting in the foreign policy was not the right advice. … But he had the view that, ‘Look, we had our chance; now it’s [his] turn.’” Forty-one also conceded that the world had changed since his administration. “He always said to me, ‘Well, the world was different when I was there,’” 43’s national security adviser and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said. “People who try to say, ‘Well, 41 would have been more circumspect,’ or ‘Jim Baker would have handled it differently’—with al Qaeda having blown up the World Trade Center, really?”

It was in large measure because 41 had been president that he didn’t tender advice more readily. “George Bush knew what it meant to be briefed as president,” 43 said. “He also knew presidents don’t need frivolous, shallow advice: ‘Even though it may not be as informed as your aides’, here’s my opinion …’”

George Bush knew what it meant to be briefed as president,” 43 said. “He also knew presidents don’t need frivolous, shallow advice.”

It was a lesson 43 himself had learned during his father’s presidency. “At one point in time, I said something that was clearly an extra burden,” he recalled, “and he’s not a lasher, but you could just tell by his body language that what I said was clearly unnecessary. And I said to myself, ‘Wow, I’m not going to do that again.’ I just wanted to be part of an environment that [made] him relax.”

Forty-one strove to do the same. Mainly, he played the paternal role of comforter for his son, who explained it this way:

If you’ve been president, you can see the stresses of the job; if you’ve been around a president you can see the stresses of the job. And most of the conversations were between father and son. “Son, how are you doing?” “Aw, I’m doing fine, Dad.” A loving father is one who understands it’s important to comfort in times of stress. To provide love in an environment that frankly is not very loving at times. To be a listener. That’s the crux of the role. … [N]ever before have there been conversations like this between two people who’ve both been president, who love each other. It gave me comfort to talk to someone who knew what I’m going through, to hear, ‘I love you.’ Because of all the people in the country, he knew the pressures of the office. Nobody knows what you’re going through. They just don’t know.

Forty-three allowed that “few are going to believe” that his father’s influence on his presidency wasn’t deeper, adding, “It’s so simple, it’s going to be hard for people to grasp the truth.” He conceded, “the big speculation” about his father’s involvement was “about Iraq.” Indeed, Iraq and Saddam, echoes of his father’s presidency, cast Shakespearean overtones onto 43’s presidency. He stared down the same enemy who had been his father’s chief antagonist—the malevolent dictator who had been driven out of Kuwait by his father and who later plotted to kill his father.

Yet the father had declined to overturn Saddam’s regime to avert the risk of alienating member states in the U.N. coalition and creating “more instability in Iraq,” he said, which would have been “very bad for the neighborhood.” And the son, it would soon become known in 2003, fatefully chose otherwise.

The world was unaware of the conversation that transpired at Camp David between the father and son presidents, but great speculation arose among the public and in the media as to 43’s motivation behind the war. Was he trying to prove something to his father? Or avenge Saddam’s attempted assassination of his father? In September 2002, 43 had played into the latter conjecture by stating of Saddam, “There’s no doubt his hatred is mainly directed at us. … After all, this is a guy that tried to kill my dad at one time.” The statement left many to surmise that 43’s targeting of Saddam was a vendetta.

At the same time, the media speculated that the elder Bush was sending his son a message to abstain from war with Iraq using his friend and former national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, as a proxy. On August 15, 2002, Scowcroft, joining a growing chorus of those opposed to the war, rendered his view in a stinging Wall Street Journal op-ed headlined “Don’t Attack Saddam.” In the piece, Scowcroft challenged 43’s rationale for the war by asserting that it would represent a diversion from the war on terror and that Iraq was not linked to al Qaeda in any direct way. Unlike the Gulf War, he contended, international opposition against the war would necessitate “a virtual go-it-alone strategy” that risks “unleashing an Armageddon in the Middle East” and would “seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign.”

Scowcroft said 41 “knew nothing about” the op-ed ahead of time, pointedly sending him a copy as a courtesy at the same time he submitted the piece to the Journal. But he “did seek [41’s] permission to go public with his misgivings,” according to 41’s chief of staff, Jean Becker. “Forty-three would have loved if his dad had said, ‘Put a muzzle on it,’” she said. “But [41] felt, ‘That isn’t fair.’” Scowcroft, he believed, had “earned the right” to express his opinion.

But while 41 had no hand in the content of Scowcroft’s piece, Scowcroft was confident that he saw the war similarly. “I think I know 98 percent of what he thinks about foreign policy,” he said. “I can guess his reaction to most things. Do I think it reflected his view? Yeah. Yeah.” Baker said Scowcroft’s frankness “gave 41 some heartburn,” adding, “in retrospect, [Brent] was right about a lot of it, and I felt the same way, too, but I wasn’t gonna go out there and say it. I didn’t think it was my place.”

“The question people will be asking is, ‘Is this your opinion?’” Bush told his father in a phone conversation after the piece ran. “You don’t need a PhD in political science to know the ramifications. He didn’t do us any favors, Dad!”

“Brent’s a friend,” 41 countered.

“Some friend,” 43 said.

To his staff, Bush raised the question: “Why did [Scowcroft] feel he needed to do [the op-ed] in the first place?” Scowcroft was, after all, the chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, an independent body formed for the express purpose of weighing in on the quality of intelligence that reached the president’s desk. “He’s in my administration, and he communicates to me through an op-ed piece!” 43 vented incredulously to his chief of staff, Andy Card. “Why didn’t he call Condi or [her deputy Stephen] Hadley?”

“It’s an interesting incident reflecting Washington,” 43 said later. “It’s interesting that a former national security adviser to [my dad] would express his opinion, which of course delighted the chatterers. ‘Even Brent Scowcroft can’t believe what’s taking place! [George W. Bush is] clearly captured by the Neocons!’ I can hear it all.”

In the end, Bush chalked up the incident to “how it works inside the Beltway.” Scowcroft became something of a pariah in 43’s White House, even though he had been a mentor to Rice and Hadley and had helped to school Bush on foreign policy during the campaign. But tellingly, Scowcroft’s relationship remained intact with 41 and Barbara, who had pulled away from friends and aides in the past for perceived disloyalty. Forty-one, while largely circumspect in his own views on his son’s administration, would continue to carefully consider those of Scowcroft and Baker, his closest friends and confidants. “They’re very close to George,” Barbara said in 2014, describing her husband and them as “like brothers.”

Ten days after the publication of Scowcroft’s piece, Baker wrote his own op-ed, which appeared in the New York Times on August 25. Less of a rebuke than Scowcroft’s, Baker’s commentary urged the president not to “go it alone” in Iraq, but to “reject the advice of those who counsel doing so” and secure U.N. authority as a means of occupying “the moral high ground.” He warned, “Unless we do it in the right way, there will be costs to other American foreign policy interests, including our relationships with practically all other Arab countries (and even many of our customary allies in Europe and elsewhere) and perhaps even our top foreign policy priority, the war on terrorism.”

Baker’s piece drew less fire than that of Scowcroft, but while it didn’t give 41 “heartburn,” it did, along with Scowcroft’s, give him pause. As Card put it, alluding to Baker and Scowcroft, “I think people around 41 were disappointed” about the path that 43 was taking in Iraq, “which made 41 disappointed.” But 41 reserved judgment. He had faith that his son “made the decisions he thought he should make given the information he had,” Card said. Forty-one also remained largely silent in the media. “What I want to do,” he said, “is support [him], period. And because of that [I don’t] get into the depths of these issues as I might otherwise be inclined.”

The elder Bush lamented the fact that the media tried to “read” his relationship with his son as “some sort of competition.” “It wasn’t. Ever,” he said flatly. “Just love between a father and a son.”

Still, 41 fretted privately about the course his son was charting in Iraq. “I know that [41] was worried about the beating of drums for war, and worried about how Iraq would turn out,” Baker said. “Now, how much of that did he communicate with 43? I’m not privy to that.” There was another thing Baker observed in his longtime friend and former boss: “The one thing that stuck in 41’s craw was when someone would ask, ‘Why didn’t you take care of Saddam Hussein when you had the chance?’”

The answer would come soon enough.

***

By the waning months of 2003, even before Saddam’s capture, the critics of 43’s actions in Iraq would be vindicated. Rumsfeld’s plan for waging the war had worked, but there was no clear strategy in place for rebuilding the country. The tide turned to a postwar quagmire, unleashing insurgency and stirring up ancient tribal hatred between Sunni and Shiite Muslim sects that resulted in terrorism, violence, and political dispute that no one in the administration seemed to anticipate. Chaos swept the country. In October 2003, Time magazine published a cover story titled “Mission Not Accomplished,” as the military operation in Iraq dragged on perniciously and inconclusively. A year later, with the U.S. death toll exceeding 1,000, Time delivered a follow-up feature headlined “Mission Still Not Accomplished,” while Newsweek ran a story titled “It’s Worse Than You Think.” Car bombs, kidnappings, beheadings, and suicide bombs in Iraq became staples of foreign news coverage. By the middle of 2006, an average of 120 Iraqis would be killed daily.

The promise that U.S. troop involvement would diminish after Iraq’s liberation was dashed due to the power vacuum created by the dismantling of the Iraqi Army. There was also the matter of weapons of mass destruction. Though Saddam Hussein had been found, WMDs—the impetus for the war—had not, manifesting a glaring intelligence failure and eroding Bush’s credibility. By 2004, only one in five Americans believed Bush was telling the entire truth about Iraq. Conversely, while Saddam had been toppled to prevent the threat of global terrorism, al Qaeda found Iraq fertile ground for the recruitment and training of terrorists.

The war’s mounting price was also at issue. In September 2002, Bush’s director of the National Economic Council, Lawrence Lindsey, guessed the cost of the war to be between $100 to $200 billion, an estimate Rumsfeld called “baloney,” asserting that it would be more like $50 to $60 billion. In fact, five years after the war began, the Washington Post reported that its tally had topped $3 trillion, making it the second-most costly American war after World War II. Finally, there was the unexpectedly high cost in blood: As of 2017, a total of 4,424 American soldiers died in Operation Iraqi Freedom, while another 31,942 were wounded.

Among those who were disquieted about the situation in Iraq was George H. W. Bush. Though he declined to express his concerns to his son, he conveyed anxiety privately about the influence of his former rival Donald Rumsfeld, and the neoconservative Elliott Abrams, whom he had pardoned in his own administration for misdeeds in the Iran-Contra affair, a decision, according to Bush insiders, he came to regret. At the same time, he worried about Colin Powell’s diminished role as secretary of state, as Powell’s more moderate voice on foreign affairs was drowned out by those of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the neocons.

Forty-three harbored his own concern that Powell was sounding off to the 41 camp about his marginalization and lack of presidential access. He also had his own view: It wasn’t that Powell didn’t have access to him, but that he simply “didn’t agree” with him. During the latter days of Bush’s first term, Powell was increasingly at odds with Cheney and Rumsfeld as tension in the White House mounted. Rice and Hadley were put in the middle of the conflict, 43 contended, but “didn’t know how to handle it.” It was no great surprise when Powell stepped down as secretary of state after Bush’s first term, replaced by Rice, who in turn was succeeded as national security adviser by Hadley.

The influence of Cheney on Bush’s presidency took on a life of its own during Bush’s first term. The media often depicted the vice president as a Machiavellian puppet master who pulled the strings on policy decisions, straying from the more moderate path he had tread in 41’s administration and leading 43 down the garden path on Iraqi regime change.

The fact that there was any doubt in anyone’s mind about who the president was blows my mind,” Bush said years later, adding that Cheney and Rumsfeld “didn’t make one fucking decision.”

Cheney’s conservative drift was a matter of some debate. Some chalked it up to his heart condition affecting his mind. Scowcroft, who had known Cheney since the two worked together in the Ford administration 30 years earlier and who went on to work with him in 41’s administration, said in 2006, “I don’t know him anymore. He’s not the same guy.” Cheney, for his part, said in 2013, “I don’t think I changed ideologically. What happened was 9/11 … that was a sobering moment.”

Well after his son had left office, 41 observed that “Cheney had his own empire and marched to his own drummer.” If so, it wasn’t something 41 addressed with his son during his administration. Any feelings 41 had about the matter were outweighed by his confidence in his son and his inherent optimism that everything would turn out all right. He “didn’t worry” about Cheney’s influence on 43’s presidency, he said in 2013. “It’s true,” Barbara Bush confirmed in the same interview, “he didn’t worry about that. He had great faith in George.” Instead, 41 used whatever sway he had with his son to gently question Cheney’s recommendations, not Cheney himself.

“I never talked to him about it,” Cheney reflected. “He never expressed views of it one way or the other. I’ve assumed that 41 and 43 talked about it, but I wasn’t there. … He didn’t come in and say, ‘Dick, you need to do X or Y.’ That just wasn’t his style.” Tellingly, though, 41 said in a 2006 interview that he and Cheney “used to be close,” while he remained more closely connected to other alumni in his administration who were then serving 43.

Barbara Bush was more vocal in her criticisms of Cheney, citing her belief that he had changed discernibly between her husband’s administration and her son’s due to the heart attacks he had suffered. “I think his heart operation made a difference,” she maintained, indicating that her view was largely influenced by Baker and Scowcroft. “I always liked him, but I didn’t like him so much for a while because I thought he hurt George. … I think he pushed things a little too far right.”

The president was aware of his parents’ wariness of the influence of Cheney and the neocons on him. “I’m confident they concerned Dad and Mother,” he said, believing that they, in turn, were influenced by the “inside-the-Beltway chatterers” he grew to disdain. Forty-three was appalled by his mother’s privately stated belief that he was “unduly influenced” by the neocons “clearly steering him to the right.” “Surely, you’ve got more confidence in your son that I would make up my own mind,” he told her on more than one occasion. “If you don’t agree with it, it’s one thing, but I’m plenty capable of making my own decisions.”

Barbara recalled her son’s admonishment. “Mom, when you’re criticizing someone in my administration, you’re criticizing me,” he had said. Afterward, she kept her doubts to herself.

Mom, when you’re criticizing someone in my administration, you’re criticizing me,” Bush said. Afterward, she kept her doubts to herself.

Forty-three was incredulous that anyone—let alone his mother—would believe that he wasn’t the one calling the shots of his presidency. “I hear the voices and I read the front page and I hear the speculation,” an exasperated Bush said in mid-April 2006, as Washington buzzed that he should replace Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. “But I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best.” As he put it six years after he left office, “The fact that there was any doubt in anyone’s mind about who the president was blows my mind,” adding that Cheney and Rumsfeld “didn’t make one fucking decision.”

Still, why hadn’t 43 further sought his father’s advice on Iraq? “I was content with the informed advice I was getting,” he said, “and it’s not like I wasn’t getting advice on both sides. … I was getting ample advice, and maybe it didn’t occur to me to ask him because circumstances had changed. He had never been confronted with an issue like 9/11.” Forty-three surmised that his father didn’t openly question his Iraq policy because his “disclose, disarm, or face serious consequences” ultimatum made clear his intention. “A lesson he taught me was, if you say something, you’d better mean it,” said the younger Bush. “And I meant it.”

As the 2004 presidential election neared and 43’s approval rating fell below the 50 percent mark, 41 did offer his son some political advice. Without specifically counseling him to dump Vice President Cheney, he suggested that he might consider “shaking up the ticket” by tapping a new running mate. Forty-three considered it—just as his father had considered his suggestion that he replace Quayle in 1992—but chose Cheney again when he couldn’t think of a better replacement.

But while Cheney would remain Bush’s vice presidential pick, his influence would wane. Throughout the balance of 43’s presidency, as he settled further in the office, the “decider” would move in a decidedly different direction.

***

On February 21, 2017, George H.W. Bush and Jean Becker, his longtime former chief of staff, had lunch in the Grille, a cozy, elegant dining room at Houston’s Forest Club, next door to Bush’s office on Memorial Drive. Forty-one was now back in good health and good spirits after a bout with pneumonia that had landed him in the hospital for more than two weeks in January.

Less than a week after his release, on February 5, he was well enough to toss the coin at the Super Bowl in Houston’s NRG Stadium, where the former president earned a standing ovation from a crowd of more than 70,000, including Mike Pence, the vice president of just over two weeks. As 41 dug into a prodigious slice of apple cobbler with vanilla ice cream, Becker talked of how beloved he was. “You’ve become an icon,” she would often tell him, and the old man would roll his eyes. When asked how he would like to be remembered, he would say repeatedly, “Let history be the judge.” Now, history’s indebted nod was clear. “I’m glad that the judgment of history has come in your lifetime,” she told him as he enjoyed his dessert.

At that moment, George H.W. Bush’s thoughts were less about his own presidency than that of his eldest son. George W. Bush hadn’t concerned himself with his legacy while he was in the White House, nor did he have illusions that he would see a binding verdict in his lifetime. One of the lessons from his father that helped to guide his decisions in the White House was that “history will ultimately sort things out, so one shouldn’t worry about legacy.” But George H.W. Bush, whose now-lauded presidency was stunted by the verdict of American people, was worried about his son’s legacy.

“What about George?” the 41st president asked Becker plaintively, his heartbeat as palpable as at any point in his 92 years. “I want this for George.”

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