In The Shadow of Bush

We are all stars in the movies that play in our minds: not true-life stories, exactly, but life as we imagine it could or should be. Little imperfections are conveniently forgotten or smoothed over, messy relationships downplayed or deep-sixed. The future beckons brightly, even if the past was dark or dreary. This need to believe in an idealized self is especially strong in politicians. They must get up every day and sell a vision—fanciful, perhaps, but inspiring: Morning in America, or a Bridge to the 21st Century, a New Frontier or a New Deal. To fulfill these myths, our leaders must be Born in a Log Cabin, or be the Man From Hope, or Speak Softly But Carry a Big Stick. A certain amount of hooey is tolerated, even required. In real life, Teddy Roosevelt didn't speak softly at all. He more often brayed like a donkey. But he could make people listen out of fear and respect.

The modern Republican Party has indulged in more than a little mythmaking during the past 30 or 40 years. Its greatest hero was a Hollywood actor, Ronald Reagan. Morning in America was a brilliant bit of feel-good theatricality. Still, the GOP's core ideology—lower taxes, stronger defense, conservative social values—was a story that voters could follow. The GOP's long ascendancy in American politics was based on performance, not just showmanship.

President George W. Bush has squandered that trust. His presidency has been, in essence, faith-based—not just faith in God, but faith in Bush. After 9/11, he asked the nation to invest in his narrative of good versus evil. He seemed to be saying, "I'm taking care of this, you have to trust me." Critics and naysayers were scorned as ditherers or cowards. Bush wanted to appear resolute, but at times he just seemed bullheaded and oblivious. As Jacob Weisberg shows in the following excerpts from his new book, "The Bush Tragedy," the president constantly changed his rationale for invading Iraq—indeed his entire foreign policy—as inconvenient facts popped up or the mood moved him. Other crises, like Hurricane Katrina and more recently the sinking economy, seemed to catch him by surprise.

The Democrats have a fundamental advantage in 2008: none of them is George W. Bush. Whether promoting experience or change or populism, none of the Democrats can ever be the heir to the current president's legacy. For the Republicans, the matter is more complicated. The candidates are generally careful not to publicly disavow the president while scuttling away from his record. Mitt Romney is a case in point. Last Tuesday night, after he won the Michigan primary, Romney fulsomely praised Reagan and George H.W. Bush—but never mentioned the current president. Romney does somewhat limply praise the commander in chief for "keeping us safe for the last six years," but by making a hero out of Bush's father, Romney seems to be signaling that the elder Bush was the smart one when he decided not to march on to Baghdad in 1991. Romney does need the Bush family; he depends on former governor Jeb Bush's political network in Florida, though a Romney spokesman says Jeb himself "doesn't strategize with us." Rudy Giuliani's campaign manager, Michael DuHaime, insists to NEWSWEEK that his boss "refuses to pile on" the president. But one story you don't hear Giuliani repeat now is how, on 9/11, he grabbed the arm of his then New York City police commissioner, Bernie Kerik, and said, "Thank God George Bush is our president." As the choice of many evangelical voters, Mike Huckabee has no need to woo Bush's base, and he goes farthest in dissing the president. In an article in Foreign Affairs magazine, he accused Bush of having an "arrogant bunker mentality" on foreign policy, and has said, "I'm not trying to run for a third Bush term." Though John McCain harshly criticized Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's Iraq strategy, he has supported the Bush surge in Iraq. Still, he has never been fond of the president since getting slimed by GOP operatives allegedly linked to the Bush camp in the 2000 South Carolina primary. On the campaign trail last spring, McCain was asked: "Senator, you were defeated by Bush in 2000. With your stance on the surge in Iraq, is it possible that you will be defeated by George Bush again in 2008?" McCain stood silently for a few seconds, almost as if he were trying to keep himself from saying the wrong thing. He looked mad. Finally, he spoke. "I do not allow my views and my concerns about the future of the United States of America to be affected in any way by my personal ambitions," he said coldly and carefully. (Mark McKinnon, Bush's media strategist in 2000 and 2004, notes that Bush still has a 70 percent approval rating with Republicans, and argues that Giuliani and McCain have actually benefited by supporting Bush's immigration and Iraq policies.)

Political eras, in modern times, have not been wiped away in landslides. In 2000, ending eight years of Democratic rule, Bush did not even win the popular vote against Al Gore. In 1960, after eight years of Republican rule, John F. Kennedy eked out a narrow win against Richard M. Nixon, and some historians still suspect the Democrats had to steal votes to do it. This time around, however, the Republicans appear poised on a precipice. Their candidates have raised only about two thirds as much money as the Democrats (about $168 million to about $245 million), and GOP turnout badly lagged the Democrats' in both Iowa and New Hampshire. There's no clear front runner: McCain's victory in South Carolina last Saturday gave him two wins in early nominating contests; Romney's win on the same day in Nevada gave him three; Huckabee has one. It is possible that one of the GOP candidates will patch together the old coalition and at least make it close in November, and it's true that the Democrats have shown a knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But it is just as likely that the long run of Republican dominance in national politics is coming to an abrupt end.

What can the Republicans do to salvage their party fortunes and show they have learned from Bush's experience? It is too late to reinvent the party's core beliefs. But the GOP candidates can embark on a more humble mission: to show, in effect, some humility. By examining Bush's hubris, his almost willful disregard for annoying counterarguments, the Republican candidates can demonstrate a greater level of critical open-mindedness and self-awareness—they can show that they are not deluded by wishful thinking and Manichaean narratives. Come to think of it, that's not a bad standard for the candidates of either party. The test of a successful presidency, history shows, is the ability to project visionary self-confidence without, at the same time, brushing aside stubborn truths.

Visitors to the Oval Office have a tendency to become yes men. Bob Strauss, a cagey lobbyist and adviser to presidents, liked to tell a story about visitors intimidated by the power of the Oval Office. Before they went in, Strauss used to say, the president's men would posture and boast to one another, "I'm gonna tell that dumb s.o.b. a thing or two!" But once they were actually inside, face to face with the Leader of the Free World, all resolve would melt and they would meekly say, "Oh, Mr. President, you're doing such a fine job." Curiously, Bush has, from time to time, told that Bob Strauss story, or a variation thereof. And yet, by his snide prep-school teasing and bluff shows of resolve, he probably has done as much to discourage honest dissent among his advisers as any of his predecessors.

In realms of power, yes men (and women) are inevitable. The great presidents actively seek out diverse points of view. George Washington included in his first cabinet a pair of political polar opposites—Alexander Hamilton (who wanted to centralize power) as Treasury secretary and Thomas Jefferson (who wanted to diffuse it) as secretary of State. Lincoln's cabinet was a "team of rivals," as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has dubbed it. Franklin D. Roosevelt positively delighted in pitting his subordinates against each other in creative competition. That allowed Roosevelt to be the one in charge, of course, but he was always willing to listen to the bad news. In early 1938, the president's advisers cringed as they watched a young one-star general, George C. Marshall, telling FDR that his defense strategy was all wrong. They assumed Marshall's career was finished. Instead, FDR made Marshall his Army chief of staff, and was rewarded when Marshall became the "organizer of victory" in World War II.

The good presidents learn from their mistakes, however painful. John F. Kennedy dismissed the elaborate national-security structure set up by his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, as too stodgy and bureaucratic. Instead, JFK listened to the freebooting swells at the CIA—who promptly led him into the Bay of Pigs. In agony over his humiliation by Fidel Castro's Cuba, JFK threatened to "splinter" the CIA "into a thousand pieces" and moaned to his putative future GOP rival, Barry Goldwater, "So you want this f–––ing job?" But in October 1962, when crisis loomed again in Cuba—this time more dangerously, with the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles—Kennedy was ready. He convened an executive committee (an "Ex Comm") of diverse voices. Over the course of 13 days, these present and former high-ranking government officials argued, sometimes bitterly, but were able to avoid Armageddon with a facesaving secret missile trade with Moscow.

No one came to office with a clearer vision about America's role in the world than Ronald Reagan. He sometimes seemed to believe his own fables, but in his first term, he was clever enough to appoint a tough-minded chief of staff in James A. Baker to serve as a reality check. In Reagan's second term, Baker left the White House to become Treasury secretary, and Reagan allowed a couple of Marine colonels, Bud McFarlane and Oliver North, to cook up an absurd arms-for-hostages deal with Iran that also illegally funded a secret army, the contras, fighting the communist regime in Nicaragua. His presidency in near ruin from the Iran-contra scandal, Reagan was able to recover by bringing in moderate, experienced advisers and working closely with Congress—in time to continue the essential task of winding down the cold war.

Although he gets almost no credit from the mainstream press, Bush 43 has also learned from experience. During his first six years in office, he allowed his political guru, Karl Rove, to dominate weak policy advisers. (The low point may have come in February 2006, when Bush's domestic policy adviser, Claude Allen, resigned after being accused of shoplifting from a suburban mall; he later pleaded guilty.) Josh Bolten, who replaced Andy Card as White House chief of staff in April 2006, has quietly prodded a move toward moderation by the Bush administration. Last summer the White House almost pulled off a much-needed, middle-of-the-road attempt at immigration reform. But it was too late: the Bush White House was too weak to force its will on its own party in Congress.

Bush himself appears to be playing a movie in his mind of ultimate redemption. With the surge in Iraq doing more to reduce violence than most alleged experts had predicted, Bush can hope that his resolve will be vindicated and that future historians will regard him as a latter-day Harry Truman. Grover Cleveland, or some other 19th-century mediocrity, is probably more like it. Still, not long ago, Bush was being compared by some pundits to James Buchanan, Lincoln's pre-Civil War predecessor, generally regarded as low man on the presidential totem pole.

The current crop of presidential contenders may be only marginally more realistic than Bush in their self-assessments. Voters will have to look closely and ask whether the candidate who preens so confidently on the trail will behave with appropriate humility in the Oval Office. It is often hard to tell whether a good candidate will make a good president. But the small self-delusions of their campaign posturings can offer hints about how self-aware they'll later turn out to be.

Giuliani starred in a movie—a disaster film—we all remember too well. His calm and cool presence on 9/11 should be honored. But under scrutiny from the press, Giuliani's record has looked shakier. Why had the mayor of New York City located his crisis-command center in the World Trade Center—a well-known target that had been bombed by terrorists in 1993? And why couldn't the mayor who slashed crime in the city—no easy feat— perform the simple task of making sure the radios worked between the cops and the firefighters? Giuliani's response to questions about his leadership seems essentially to bluff and deny. He blames technological and bureaucratic obstacles for the problems with the radios. It is not reassuring that in New York City, the mayor's top aides and advisers were known as "Yes Rudies."

Mitt Romney is selling himself as Mr. Fix-It. He is the can-do guy from the world of business who will come in and repair the mess inside the Beltway. There is something practical about Romney; he does not seem to be unduly weighed down by ideology. On the other hand, he has been a little too eager to do whatever it takes to get elected. He clumsily flip-flopped on abortion and gay rights, intending first to please the voters of Massachusetts, where he served as governor from 2003 to 2007, then to appease the politically powerful religious right in the presidential campaign. Speaking through gleamingly white teeth, he has also rearranged his personal past, claiming to have seen his father march with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 (the two men were not even in the same city on the date in question). Romney later quibbled about the meaning of the word "saw," saying he used it in a "figurative sense."

Mike Huckabee has been in sales all his life, embarking on his career as an evangelical minister as a teenager. He has been an effective reaper of souls for the Lord, in part because he is more folksy and self-deprecating than bombastic. But his show of Christian remorse over a negative ad on the eve of the Iowa caucuses was greeted with hoots of derision. At a press conference, Huckabee played for guffawing reporters the ad he was pulling from the airwaves—thus guaranteeing it would be seen by millions of people on YouTube and the nightly news free of charge, without costing the strapped Huckabee campaign a penny. It is possible that Huckabee had made the classic mistake of falling in with cynical campaign consultants—especially his top adviser, Ed Rollins, a former boxer who delights in smash-mouth political gamesmanship.

John McCain may be showing more integrity than his rivals, which in a typical presidential campaign amounts to stepping over a fairly low bar. After suffering for five and a half years as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton, beaten and starved and forced into a phony "confession," McCain gives off the aura of a man who has nothing left to lose. Still, in October, when he entered the race as the front runner looking to shore up the support of the GOP establishment, he almost wrecked his campaign by pandering to the religious right. (McCain claimed, falsely, that the Constitution established the United States as a "Christian nation.") Since then, he has recovered his honest voice and made a virtue, of a kind, out of his unflinching support for the war in Iraq. In the Senate, colleagues sometimes warily regard McCain as a hothead. An impulsive, impetuous president could be dangerous. A key question is whether McCain calms down and listens after corking off; the anecdotal evidence on that seems to be mixed. He does have the capacity to apologize and forgive, and he has shown an unusual ability to reach across the aisle on controversial issues like fuel-emissions standards and campaign-finance and immigration-reform laws.

It is perhaps too easy to poke through the statements and campaign literature of candidates who are dizzy with exhaustion and caught up in a desperate race. In 2000, Al Gore was unfairly mocked as the man who claimed to have "invented" the Internet and served as the model for the hero of "Love Story." A recent Vanity Fair article, "Going After Gore," showed how Bill Clinton's former vice president became the victim of a jaundiced press corps as well as his own tendency to exaggerate. Still, the candidate who wins the 2008 election will be tempted to become less, not more, honest once he or she reaches the Oval Office. As soon as the pundits and the Washington insiders start baying and growling outside the White House gates (a process that starts on the afternoon of Inauguration Day), all presidents feel a desire to build a moat, if not pour boiling oil into the press room on the lower level of the West Wing.

The trick is to make sure that the next president will hear something beyond his or her own self-justifications and the cloying encouragement of handlers. Former ambassador David Abshire, a longtime Washington centrist and author of a new study of the presidency, "A Call to Greatness," has proposed the creation of a unity cabinet. Citing presidents like FDR and JFK, who brought in Republicans as advisers and cabinet secretaries, Abshire proposes that the next president name at least two major cabinet members from the opposing party. Such a bold move would send "an immediate signal," says Abshire, that the new president wants to reduce the angry partisanship that poisons Washington.

Of course, presidents can cut out even the most powerful cabinet officers. Just ask former secretary of State Colin Powell how much face time he had with Bush once it became known that he opposed an invasion of Iraq. Presidents have to be willing to seek out contrary advice, but they don't have to be showy about it. In fact, modesty works well. When Truman's advisers recommended that he create a plan to rebuild Europe after World War II, Truman wisely said, "Just don't put my name on it." Thus was born the Marshall Plan, named after the sainted General Marshall, who had become secretary of State.

Eisenhower was a master at creating consensus behind the scenes. After he was elected in 1952, he secretly gathered all the best national-security thinkers in the country to help him shape a strategy to deal with the Soviet Union. Three teams were created, each to argue a different point of view. Eisenhower could seem inarticulate, even a little dim, in public. But in the private "Project Solarium" (named after the room where the teams met in the White House residence), the man who was best able to sum up the opposing points of view was … Dwight Eisenhower. The next president of the United States faces challenges just as vexing as Soviet communism. He or she would do well to summon proponents of different strategies—and then truly listen to what they have to say. If George W. Bush had done something similar before the invasion and occupation of Iraq, his would-be successors might not be so standoffish, and the Republican Party might not be in such a precarious state.