Wolffe: Bush's Wayward Biographer

Early in Robert Draper's new biography of President Bush there's a brief sketch of the tensions that plagued the Bush campaign as its lieutenants trudged through the snows of New Hampshire in 2000.

The Texas aides surrounding Bush were unfailingly loyal and disciplined, while the New Hampshire team wanted to run things its way. The Texans won the battle—and lost the primary by 19 points to John McCain. But their spirit lives on to this day. "The Texans," Draper writes, "were having a hard time getting the locals to understand: There was a strategy, and it would be followed. Period. Must Stay on Message."

This week the team that now surrounds President Bush (almost entirely Texan-free at this late stage of his second term) is seriously off message. After staging a third super-secret trip to Iraq—this time to Anbar province—they hoped to frame the latest Iraq debate that will soon begin in Congress.

Instead, Team Bush is once again fending off stories that the president had no idea about the policies his own staff was executing in post-Saddam Iraq, especially the disastrously bad idea of disbanding the Iraqi army. For that diversion from message discipline they can thank one Robert Draper, whose new book, Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush, hit stores this week.

According to Draper, Bush was unaware that his own viceroy in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer, was going to stand down the Iraqi army. "Well, the policy was to keep the army intact," Bush told the author. "Didn't happen." Since then the White House has tried to explain that Bush was actually referring to the melting away of the army, not the disbanding order. And Bremer himself has taken the rare step of justifying his own position by releasing letters showing administration approval of his actions.

So in a week when the administration had hoped to rally support for the "surge" by touting select improvements in security, the White House is once again playing defense in a conversation about the ill-fated early days of the postwar planning. At this point even the most hard-core Bush loyalists—and, arguably, the president himself—have trouble working up much enthusiasm for that conversation.

That's the reward the president gets for granting six sit-down interviews to Draper. Bush only spares that kind of time for reporters he really likes, and Draper, a GQ writer who used to work for Texas Monthly, used his Lone Star State connections, especially his ties to former Bush adman Mark McKinnon, to win his entree. Bush has rarely granted that kind of access since the heady days of the 2000 campaign. These days the president tends to save his interviews for reporters perceived to be sympathetic; surely he will be disappointed by what appears in Draper's pages.

But in many ways Draper confirms our most basic perceptions of Bush as a strong-willed leader absolutely convinced of the certainty of his path—and a man who does not much care for the messiness of policy debate. Bush also shows off a Lyndon Johnson-like tendency to lord his office over those around him and keep advisers in their place. During one economic adviser's session in 1999, Bush creates what Draper calls "a sickly silence" when he brings conversation to a halt by ordering Karl Rove, his close friend and trusted political guru, to hang up the president's coat up for him. And Bush, a stickler for punctuality, once locked Colin Powell, his then-secretary of state, out of a cabinet meeting early in 2001; when Powell arrived and turned the handle, the room "erupted with laughter," Draper writes.

If Bush is in fact unhappy with the Draper book, it won't be the first time he's felt a sense of betrayal by a writer. In 1987, Margaret Warner, then a reporter for NEWSWEEK, did a cover story on Bush's father headlined "Fighting the Wimp Factor." Bush 43 has often told journalists—including this one—what a searing experience that story was, especially coming from a reporter viewed at the time as a family favorite. That's the problem with pesky writers. They don't stay on message.

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