Nicholas D Kristof. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
George W. Bush was charming the second graders in a classroom in Sarasota, Florida, when the White House chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., walked over to the president and whispered into his right ear. It was 9:05 A.M. on 11 September 2001, and Bush abruptly tensed and his smile vanished. While arriving at the school thirty minutes earlier, he had been given a muddled account of an airplane striking the World Trade Center, but that initial report made it sound like an accident involving a small private plane. Now Card told the president that a second plane had struck both World Trade Center towers, that both were large commercial jets, and that the United States was under attack.
Demonstrating remarkable acting skills, Bush stayed in the classroom, calm and focused on the children. He listened to them read and arched his eyebrows in mock surprise. “Really good readers,” he told them warmly. “This must be sixth grade!” After seven more minutes, he finally excused himself and retreated, grim faced, to take over a changed presidency.
The terrorist attacks had a transformative effect on the United States as a whole—indeed, on most of the world—and certainly on the Bush administration. A presidency that had been generally popular but that had seemed, in the words of some aides, “small,” suddenly had an enormous embrace. Within weeks, Bush was leading a war in Afghanistan, forming an international coalition against terrorism, pushing for a military tribunal to judge terrorist cases, redirecting national resources to combat germ warfare and build up the armed forces, and enjoying extraordinary popularity across America. He had found a new mission for the presidency: to protect the West from terrorist threats. Ever since the British invasion during the War of 1812, the continental United States had remained impenetrable to hostile incursions from outside its borders, and it seemed that the nation was truly vulnerable only to one such threat—Soviet missiles—but now there were new fears: anthrax, smallpox, nuclear weapons, poisoned reservoirs, hijacked planes, and other threats stemming from foreign terrorists on American soil. In leading the West to fight such dangers, Bush reassured America and revitalized his own administration.
In early 2002, it was still far too soon to cast judgment on his presidency. But what is clear—and what historians will have to tangle with—is that in assessing George W. Bush, one encounters countless paradoxes.
He assumed the presidency in an extraordinary way, with a minority of the popular vote and the outcome in the electoral college determined in effect by a close and controversial decision of the Supreme Court. Many pundits thought that he was acquiring a poisoned chalice, that the doubts about his legitimacy would tie Washington in knots and undermine his hopes of creating a meaningful legacy. Yet a year after that disputed election, Bush enjoyed 85 percent approval ratings, the highest of any modern president.
President Bush came into office remarkably un-informed about international affairs, provoking amusement, for example, with his references to Greeks as “Grecians.” There were jokes about his vice president, Dick Cheney, being the real decision-maker behind the scenes. But after a year, those jokes had largely vanished: no one doubted that Bush was in control, and his most impressive achievements were in international affairs.
He is a man who sometimes tortures the English language, puzzling audiences with references to the “vile” (instead of “vital”) hemisphere and tailpipe “admissions” (instead of “emissions”), and mystifying a group of New Hampshire schoolchildren celebrating “Perseverance Month” in January 2000 when he earnestly counseled them, “You’ve got to preserve,” as if they should all rush out to can tomatoes. Yet he has a dazzling charm, tremendous social skills, a bold self-confidence, and growing political savvy. Most who have worked with Bush, Democrats as well as Republicans, say that contrary to the jokes that prevailed during the campaign about his intellectual shortcomings, he is smart, shrewd, and a quick study.
Early in his presidency, he scored significant accomplishments, including passage of a far-reaching tax bill that cut rates more than at any time since the Reagan tax cut twenty years earlier. He also set the national agenda on education, bolstered military spending, and successfully resolved his first international crisis, the seizure of a military surveillance plane and its crew by China. Yet Bush was also bedeviled by missteps, including—mystifyingly, for a leader who had emphasized how he was going to work well with Congress—perceived disrespectful treatment of a Vermont senator, James Jeffords, a veteran Republican who responded by quitting the party in May 2001, and in the process turning control of the Senate to the Democrats. Bush also worried many American allies, who feared that he planned to establish a unilateralist course and abandon international cooperation on everything from the Balkans, a region plagued by civil war since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, to global warming. And at home, Bush’s close association with the energy industry left many middle-of-the-road voters worried that he would pillage the environment in pursuit of oil. His greatest domestic success, the tax cuts, also led to a plunge in the federal budget surplus within months—and to accusations from Democrats that he was endangering the Social Security system with tax breaks for the wealthy.
The paradoxes go on. He is the law-and-order man, the preacher of traditional moral values, and yet he avoided military service in Vietnam, abused alcohol until middle age, and dances around questions about whether he ever used illegal drugs. His administration, at least initially, steered a decidedly conservative path, and yet his speeches often show concern for traditionally liberal audiences: the poor, immigrants, single mothers, and so on. At times he comes across as profoundly ideological, a deeply-rooted conservative whose political values were shaped by the self-reliance and can-do spirit of the Texas oil business. At other times, Bush seems to lack not only an ideology but even a deep interest in public affairs; he can be surprisingly uninformed about the details of public policy and quite flexible about fundamental issues.
When George W. Bush ran for governor of Texas in 1994, his own parents expected him to lose. It was his younger brother Jeb who held the family’s confidence and aspirations, who had diligently prepared for his bid to become governor of Florida that same year. George W., in contrast, had come to his ambitions haphazardly, and his mother, Barbara, flatly tried to discourage his seemingly quixotic resolve. Friends and family members remember that the elder Bushes worried that young George would be forced to bow again, as he had repeatedly in his life, to failure.
But that story had a surprise ending: while Jeb lost, George won. And in the process, George Walker Bush launched himself, without any grand plan or intricate forethought, on a most unusual path to the White House. Looking at the trajectory of his life, he comes across—far more than his predecessors—as an almost accidental president, a cocky and cheerful fellow who drifted through much of his life and who was largely unknown in the United States until he assumed his first political office just six years before becoming president.
He is casual and unpretentious, sometimes goofy. Once, before mealtime on a flight during the 2000 presidential campaign, the flight attendant handed him a piping-hot towel, and he did what passengers typically do, rubbing his fingers and mouth. But then he draped the towel over his face and leaned toward the person next to him as if playing peekaboo. Hiding under a square of terry cloth, he pursued an office that embodies gravitas and dignity. Bush has always been quick to lampoon bigwigs, and he used to entertain friends with splendidly cruel impressions of some of his father’s more haughty cabinet members. And then this man who delights in deflating important people found himself the most important person in the world.
The fourth-grade classroom in Midland, Texas, erupted in titters as George W. Bush, one of the class clowns, turned around and faced his friends. He had quietly used a blue ink pen to draw long Elvis Presley–style sideburns down his cheeks.
Frances Childress, the fourth-grade teacher, was a strong disciplinarian who believed that children should be seen but not bearded. She grabbed George by the arm, yanked him out of class, and marched him down the long outside corridor to the principal’s office near the main entrance to Sam Houston Elementary School. “Just look at him,” Childress told the principal, John Bizilo. “He’s been making a disturbance in class.” The next step was pretty obvious for anyone in the 1950s version of the West Texas oil town of Midland: Bizilo told George to bend over and then reached for his paddle, a long wooden device the thickness of a Ping-Pong paddle but narrower and twice as long. George got a standard three whacks, and his shrieks filled the office. “When I hit him, he cried,” Bizilo later recalled. “Oh, did he cry! He yelled as if he’d been shot. But he learned his lesson.”
So he did.
Many of the roots of Bush’s policy and political philosophy as president—including his belief in “tough love” for juvenile offenders—seem to go back to his childhood. George W. Bush was born on 6 July 1946, in New Haven, Connecticut, while his father was an overachieving student at Yale, but the family moved to Texas just two years later, in 1948, settling in Midland in 1950. And while George W. packed an impressive family tree (he is a distant cousin of Queen Elizabeth and a relation of President Franklin Pierce on his mother’s side, as well as, of course, the son of the forty-first president of the United States, George H. W. Bush), none of this seems to have mattered much in Midland. His grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a senator from Connecticut, but neighbors were only hazily aware of that.
Midland, a conservative, up-from-the-bootstraps town that has grown from 25,000 when he was a boy to almost 100,000 today, mirrors Bush’s optimism and his skepticism about government. While playing Little League baseball, or even sobbing in the principal’s office, Bush absorbed values that many old friends say are central to understanding who he is today. “I think his political philosophy comes completely from the philosophy of the independent oilman,” said Joe O’Neill, a fellow rapscallion in childhood. “His homage to his parents, his respect for his elders, his respect for tradition, his belief in religion, his opposition to abortion—that’s the philosophy he grew up with here.”
Even in the 1960s, people raised in Midland generally stood with the establishment rather than rejecting it. Very few seem to have been active in the civil rights or anti-war movements, and the generation gap was much smaller in Midland than in American cities. Midland also seems to have bred an optimism about and a faith in capitalism, in part because it rewarded so many people—like the Bushes—with wealth for hard work. For many young people, the moral of childhood was that anybody who struggled in the baking desert of West Texas had a good chance of striking oil, and that capitalism worked. Government was disdained, and churches and civic groups like the Community Chest looked after local needs. Business was what helped people, while government was usually reviled as something in the way.
“What’s important for George W. and where he is today is that he was in an isolated environment where there was almost an anti-government streak running through the region,” said Bill Minutaglio, a Texan who authored a 1999 biography of Bush. “He felt that people succeeded because they worked hard, they punched holes in the ground and won the lottery. The lesson lasted with George W. for years, and I think he truly believes that people can win the lottery if they work hard, that if they put their nose to the grindstone it’ll all work out without government help or intrusion.” The values of Midland sometimes seem to emerge in Bush’s talk of “compassionate conservatism” and “faith-based initiatives”—that is what his childhood was all about.
Bush has often said that “the biggest difference between me and my father is that he went to Greenwich Country Day and I went to San Jacinto Junior High (in Midland).” That is an exaggeration of the younger Bush’s populist credentials, because he is also a product of Andover, Yale, and Harvard. But there is still something to it. The father, chauffeured to and from the private school in Connecticut, suffered politically because of the perception that he was a blue blood who could not relate to ordinary people and their ordinary lives; a famous 1992 news story related Bush’s perceived surprise at encountering a supermarket scanner. The younger Bush had a much more ordinary childhood, biking around in jeans and a white T-shirt, and it left him with a common touch that is one of his greatest assets as a politician.
Midland is not the kind of place, though, that generates a lot of postcards. Even its residents, searching for a kind analogy, think of “moonscape.” Oil made it a boomtown, attracting ambitious businessmen like the elder Bush and many other out-of-staters as well. Midland had a large proportion of geologists, engineers, lawyers, and accountants, and Ivy League college graduates were everywhere at the country club. George W. recalls it in Norman Rockwell pastels, and so do many other citizens. Kids bicycled everywhere on their own, crime was almost nonexistent, and if anyone suspicious—say, someone with a beard—showed up in town, then Sheriff Ed Darnell (known as Big Ed) would stop him, escort him to the edge of town, and tell him to get out.
Midland was also rigidly segregated in those days. The town was mostly white, but black children went to their own school rather than to Sam Houston Elementary. The bus station and train station had separate waiting rooms for blacks and whites, and there were different drinking fountains marked “colored” at the stations and at the courthouse. Racial slurs were routine, and Bush picked up the habit of using them as a boy. Once when he was about seven years old he let one slip in his living room in front of his mother, Barbara. She grabbed George by the ear, pulled him into the bathroom, and washed his mouth out with soap as he spluttered indignantly. “His family was probably the only one around that didn’t use racial slurs,” said Michael Proctor, who lived across the street. “I probably didn’t realize it was wrong until I saw that.”
By all accounts, life was idyllic, although there was one terrible interruption: in 1953, when George was seven, his younger sister Robin died of leukemia. The loss staggered the elder Bushes, and some writers have described the episode as a crucial turning point that profoundly shaped young George’s personality, forcing him to be funny and goofy to help his family get over the grief. It is an interesting and plausible theory, but childhood friends do not remember it that way. They say that Bush recovered relatively quickly, seemed little changed, and in the long run was emotionally unscathed. He has spoken only rarely to friends about his sister’s death.
In the summer after Bush finished the seventh grade, the Bush family moved from Midland to Houston, a wrenching transfer for young George. From the nurturing cocoon of rustic Midland, George found himself in the much more competitive world of urban Houston. Things started off poorly when George was rejected by St. John’s, the best private school in the city. (During the 2000 presidential campaign, an older acquaintance recalled the rejection, but in an interview, then-Governor Bush said he knew nothing of this. Later, after checking with his parents, he went out of his way to confirm—without any apparent embarrassment—that he had indeed been rejected.) Instead, George W. attended the Kinkaid School, another top-flight private school, for the eighth and ninth grades.
Andover and Yale
Houston seemed to touch his soul much less than Midland had, and in any case, it was understood in the family that George would be attending Phillips Academy in Andover, the Massachusetts prep school where his father had compiled a splendid record a generation earlier. Andover was far more competitive than St. John’s, however, and a magazine article from that time says that 80 percent of Andover applicants were then being turned down. It seems unlikely that George would have been admitted to Andover entirely on his own merits.
But he did not need to be. It was at this juncture that he first got a helping hand from the kind of affirmative action that, particularly in those days, helped many wealthy blue-blood offspring. The Andover admissions process calculated a numeric score for each applicant, ranging from 4 to 20, and then gave a three-point bonus to any son of an Andover graduate. This may diminish young George’s achievement in getting into Andover, but it does not take it away entirely. Even among sons of Andover graduates, fewer than half were admitted at that time. Bush says he has no recollection of his grades at Kinkaid, but a friend from that time says he was an A student, and it was those grades and his activities as a class officer and athlete that, along with the fact that he was George Bush’s son, put him over the top at Andover.
The adjustment to Andover in the tenth grade was a rough one for young George. At Andover, George’s first grade on an essay (about his sister’s death from leukemia) was a zero, boldly written in red ink along with the teacher’s scrawled comment: “disgraceful.” Clay Johnson, a fellow Texan in the class of ’64, recalled of Andover: “It was a shocking experience. It was far away from home and rigorous, and scary and demanding. The buildings looked different, and the days were shorter. We went from being at the top of our classes academically to struggling to catch up. We were so much less prepared than kids coming from Massachusetts or New York.”
Yet despite the pressure, young George seems to have remained remarkably sunny. Classmates remember him as cheerful and exuberant. When snow began falling in October of his first year, he bounded outside in excitement to catch the snowflakes and try to gather enough for a snowball. “My memory of living with George was that it was probably the funniest year of my life,” recalled Donald E. Vermeil, a roommate. Andover was rife with cliques, and George fell into the jock crowd, which was disproportionately made up of boys from beyond the Northeast. Those who played basketball, baseball, or football remember George as moderately talented but scrappy—sometimes excessively so. Once the coach had to pull him out of a basketball game when he became angered at a referee’s call and hurled the ball at an opposing player. Yet there was one important area where young George did excel: people skills. It was in high school that he first seemed to cultivate them and exhibit them, using wisecracking showmanship to carve out an identity for himself, an identity that is more subdued today but otherwise intact.
Bush in his stump speeches today comes across not as a policy maven or intellectual but as motivated rather by somewhat hazy ideals, optimism and a yearning to “lift the spirit of America,” as he puts it. In all this, there is perhaps an echo of the boy at Andover who long ago finally found his niche by building coalitions across cliques and lifting the spirits of his school. In an institution that respected brains and brawn—excellence in the classroom and on the athletic field—George overflowed with neither. He was a mediocre student and no more than a decent athlete, and he paled in comparison to his father and namesake, who had been excellent at everything he did. Yet in the end, George found alternative ways to claim the stage and become popular. Against the odds, he emerged by force of personality as a significant figure on campus. No one thought of George W. Bush as a future politician, and he seemed oblivious to the civil rights struggle and other issues of the day. But he worked hard to remember everybody’s name and managed to worm his way into the limelight. Very early on, he demonstrated one of the most fundamental political skills: the ability to make people feel good. “You can definitely see the germination of leadership there, even though the activity was not anything you would call political,” Randall Roden, a childhood friend of George who also attended Andover, told The New York Times. ”He was learning those skills, or perfecting them, at Andover.”
George was chosen head cheerleader, which gave him a chance to ham it up in front of crowds. More than cheerleading, though, George’s claim to fame at Andover was organizing an intramural stick-ball program. At the weekly assembly in April of his senior year, George stood up and announced the formation of a new stickball league. He was wearing a top hat like a circus showman, and instead of a brief announcement, he offered a twenty-minute speech that had much of the audience in stitches. As his time at Andover wound to a close, George fretted among friends about the pressure to get into Yale, which his father and grandfather had attended, and he hit the books largely with that goal in mind. The dean looked over George’s transcript and college boards and then suggested in a kindly way that he apply to some less competitive colleges in addition to Yale. So George applied to the University of Texas as his “safe school,” but in the end Yale accepted him.
Yale, like Andover, gave a helping hand to alumni sons in the admission process—far more than now—and it seems unlikely that Bush would have been admitted into Yale otherwise. There were no class rankings at Andover, but George never made honor roll even one term, unlike 110 boys in his class. His SAT scores were 566 for the verbal part and 640 for math. Those were far below the median scores for students admitted to his class at Yale: 668 verbal and 718 math. As he graduated from Andover, George was not a finalist in voting for “most likely to succeed,” “most respected,” “politico,” or any of the other main categories. But, in a reflection of his people skills, he did come in second for “big man on campus.”
At Yale, George W. Bush distinguished himself primarily as a hard partier, and he managed to be detained by police twice during his university years: once for stealing a Christmas wreath as a fraternity prank and once for trying to tear down the goalposts during a football game at Princeton. Those episodes underscored Bush’s approach to rebellion in the 1960s: At a time when university students denounced police as “pigs,” Bush stood with the establishment (yet still got himself arrested for pranks). Pressed at Yale to take sides in the great battles then unfolding over politics, civil rights, drugs, and music, Bush mostly was a noncombatant in those great upheavals, but when forced to choose he ultimately retreated to the values and ideals established by his parents’ generation. In short, while some students took to the barricades, Bush took to the bar.
Unlike others of his generation including Bill Clinton, Bush never wore his hair long, agonized over Vietnam, wrestled with existentialism, or cranked up Rolling Stones songs to annoy his parents (instead of hard rock music, he listened to soul). Many young people of privilege who came of age during the 1960s began to question the system and their own values; Bush seems to have grasped his more tightly than ever. He may have broken the law, but he never questioned it. And today, much of his underlying political philosophy rests on the belief that the nation still needs to reverse the psychology of permissiveness and liberalism that began to take root in the country in the late 1960s.
Bush’s transcript at Yale shows that he was a solid C student. Although a history major, he sampled widely in the social sciences and did poorly in political science and economics while achieving some of his best grades (the equivalent of a B+) in philosophy and anthropology. The transcript indicates that in Bush’s freshman year, the only year for which rankings were available, he was in the twenty-first percentile of his class—meaning that four-fifths of the students were above him. Yet at the same time that he was earning Cs at Yale, Bush displayed a formidable intelligence in another way. At his induction into the Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity, he and others were asked to name all fifty-four pledges in the room. Most were were able to name only five or six. When it was Bush’s turn, he named every single one. Later he rose to become president of DKE, and he was also tapped into Skull and Bones, an elite secret society to which his father had also belonged.
Back to Texas
After graduating from Yale in 1968, Bush moved back to Texas and joined the Air National Guard. Bush has said that he wanted to learn how to fly, and the position had another merit: it kept him away from the war in Vietnam. There are many murky aspects to Bush’s service in the Air National Guard, and critics believe that his family pulled strings to get him the position and that once in he did not complete his requirements. He denies the charges and insists that he applied for a program that could have sent him to Vietnam as a pilot; in fact, his plane was being phased out, and there was almost no chance that his application would be accepted.
What followed were what Bush has called his “nomadic years,” when he partied hard, held a series of jobs, showed little ambition, drank too much, and worried his parents. In one incident, he drank before driving and—when reproached by his father—challenged the elder Bush to a fight. He applied to law school at the University of Texas and was rejected, but Harvard Business School accepted him. And so in the fall of 1973 he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and buckled down to study. This seems to have been a turning point, for afterward he seemed to settle down to some degree and worked reasonably hard in his studies.
After graduating from Harvard Business School in 1975—he is the first president with an MBA—Bush moved back to his childhood stomping ground in Midland, Texas, and entered the oil business. He worked hard, impressed people, and lived so frugally that, according to his friends,his bed was held together with an old necktie. Friends set him up with a young woman whom he had been dimly acquainted with in the seventh grade, Laura Welch, and after a whirlwind courtship, they were married on 5 November 1977. Instead of a honeymoon, they set off together on Bush’s next project, to run for an open congressional seat.
Bush campaigned hard and did well in winning the Republican nomination against a prominent local man who had run two years earlier. But in the general election, Bush found himself matched against a popular state senator, Kent Hance, who was from the more northern populous part of the district and who portrayed Bush as an alien from Yankee country. At candidates’ forums, Hance would tell the following yarn: As he was working in a field along a rural road, Hance saw Bush driving along in a Mercedes. Bush rolled down the window and asked for directions to a certain ranch. Hance gave Bush directions, telling him to turn right after the cattle guard (a metal grate, ubiquitous on rural Texas roads, that keeps livestock from straying). The yarn ends with Bush asking: “What color uniform is that cattle guard wearing?”
In retrospect, Bush ran an energetic but deeply flawed campaign. He chose a race that may have been unwinnable from the start, and then he muffed up and allowed himself to be portrayed to many voters as an overeducated phony out of touch with ordinary voters—ironically, a bit the way Bush supporters perceived Al Gore during the 2000 presidential campaign. For example, there was the television commercial Bush dreamed up to show how energetic he was: it showed him jogging on a track. In those days, joggers were about as common in West Texas as Martians, and the commercial reinforced the perception of Bush as an affable alien. “The only time folks around here go running,” Hance told audiences, “is when somebody’s chasing ’em.”
The audio text of one of Hance’s most effective radio spots is as follows: “In 1961, when Kent Hance graduated from Dimmitt High School in the Nineteenth Congressional District, his opponent George W. Bush was attending Andover Academy in Massachusetts. In 1965, when Kent Hance graduated from Texas Tech, his opponent was at Yale University. And while Kent Hance graduated from University of Texas Law School, his opponent”—the announcer’s voice plunged—”get this, folks, was attending Harvard. We don’t need someone from the Northeast telling us what our problems are.”
When the election came, Hance defeated Bush by a solid 53 percent to 47 percent. The defeat seemed to cause Bush to lose interest in public service, but many years later when he returned to politics he remembered a lesson from that election. As Hance put it in an interview with The New York Times: ”He wasn’t going to be out-Christianed or out-good-old-boyed again. He’s going to be the good old boy next door.”
After the electoral defeat, Bush threw himself into the oil business. At first he called his company Arbusto (arbusto is Spanish for “bush”), but when times grew difficult there were too many jokes about the company going ar-BUST-o. So he renamed the enterprise Bush Exploration. Any assessment of his time in the oil business would be mixed: he proved effective at recruiting investors, but had difficulty running a company profitably. Then as now, he was a brilliant fund-raiser, and through his family and father’s friends he raised millions of dollars to drill for oil. But he never found much petroleum, and oil prices virtually collapsed, so that his investors—like many others—did poorly. Bush raised $4.67 million from his limited partners, but his company returned only $1.55 million in distributions (plus hefty tax write-offs). Meanwhile, Bush structured the deals in part to give himself certain financial advantages: His longtime friend and accountant, Robert A. McCleskey, says that his net worth rose from $50,000 in 1975 to more than $1 million by 1988.
But those were tough years for the oil business, and the strains showed in Bush’s private behavior. He drank too much, and he often came across as more offensive than amusing. The “bombastic Bush-kin,” as friends called him, sometimes seemed out of control. While visiting the family retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine, he was cited for drunken driving, and he also managed to insult an old friend of his parents, a prim, well-dressed matron who had recently turned fifty. He wobbled up to her at a cocktail party and, according to a relative, asked her by way of conversation: “So, what’s sex like after fifty, anyway?”
It was a vintage Bush moment, the kind that made Bush’s friends laugh and cringe at the same time. He could be hilarious company, but also often outrageous and childish. Some acquaintances were offended by what they saw as Bush’s arrogance and immaturity, by his penchant for drinking too much and thinking too little. Even Laura wanted him to grow up, old friends say, and by some accounts she signaled that she was so sick of his boorish behavior that she might leave him and take his twin daughters with her. Bush himself has said that he does not know whether he was an alcoholic, and old acquaintances generally concur that he was a borderline case. But he did get drunk regularly, and while he was not a mean drunk, he could be loud and obnoxious.
These pressures, instead of breaking Bush, changed him. There is no neat one-sentence explanation for how he came to terms with himself. It was a gradual process, stretching from his arrival at Harvard Business School in 1973 until after his fortieth birthday in 1986. One turning point, by Bush’s own recollection, came in the summer of 1985 when he met with the evangelical religious leader Billy Graham in Kennebunkport. Bush was inspired to begin reading the Bible daily, and back in Midland he began attending a Bible study class. Ever since then, Bush’s Methodist faith has been a pillar of his life. Then in July 1986, the Bushes went with a half-dozen friends to celebrate their collective fortieth birthdays at the luxurious Broadmoor Hotel resort in Colorado Springs, Colorado. On one evening, they all stayed up late, drinking a bit too merrily. The next morning, Bush woke up feeling befuddled—and quietly resolved that he would never touch alcohol again. As far as anybody knows, he never did. After that, Bush worked harder and mellowed a bit, so that while he remained mischievous he was less likely to offend people. He did better at controlling his temper. He became a better father. He grew up.
Learning about National Politics
When George H. W. Bush announced his candidacy for president in the 1988 campaign, George W. set aside his oil business and moved to Washington, D.C., to work for his father. It was his first real taste of national politics, and he both enjoyed and demonstrated a talent for it. He also learned from a master strategist, Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater, how to woo baby boomers and how to undercut opponents. Yet one paradox stands out: Bush managed to be immersed back then in national politics while remaining largely oblivious to its substance, the policy issues. Some people get into politics because they feel passionately about certain issues; Bush joined the 1988 campaign because he felt passionately about his father. He did not push any particular agenda, and no one seems to recall instances when he of his own volition pressed for one policy or another. Likewise, as revealed by the correspondence between father and son during the elder Bush’s presidency, George W. often asked his father to send autographs to Texas friends, and occasionally to consider particular people for federal jobs—but in virtually none of the letters does he suggest that his father take a particular position on an issue.
“He’d come in to a meeting with a cup”—his spittoon—”and stick out his hand with a big smile and say, ‘Hi, I’m George Bush, and thanks for what you’re doing for my dad,”’ Richard Bond told The New York Times. Bond was then the national political director for the campaign. Bush won over doubters on the campaign in part by poking fun at his own role, sometimes calling himself “Maureen,” because Maureen Reagan was then notorious in her father’s White House for forever telling staff members what to do. He also sometimes mocked those he regarded as the more pretentious associates of his father, like Nicholas Brady, the future Treasury secretary. Bush was also deployed in the field to make speeches and press the flesh, and he impressed campaign officials with his willingness to slog through Iowa and Michigan snow to meet with groups of voters.
Bush gave the impression that he did not much like Washington, D.C. The 1988 election ended in victory for the Bushes, of course, but George almost immediately moved back to Texas. Still, he visited the White House periodically and became a troubleshooter. “He had a good sense of what wasn’t going right,” Alan Simpson, a longtime family friend who was then a senator from Wyoming, told The New York Times, ”and when things weren’t going right, George would suddenly be on the front porch.” In particular, Bush became disenchanted with the White House chief of staff, John Sununu, and played a role in firing him.
With his father ensconced in the White House, a new opportunity came to George: running a baseball club. An old family friend, Eddie Chiles, was preparing to sell the Texas Rangers and wanted to sell to Bush—if the latter could raise the money. Bush helped put together an investor group, including an old friend from Yale, Roland Betts, and became the general partner responsible for managing the investment. As a baseball owner, Bush proved himself an outstanding manager, still remembered fondly by the players who batted for him, the fans he courted, and even by the executives he fired. Bush helped turn the Rangers into a greatly improved team, and he presided over the complex arrangements for a new ballpark, one of the finest in major-league baseball. He became a multimillionaire in the process, setting himself up financially for his run for the presidency. In one blow, he acquired not only wealth but also the resume he would need to triumph in politics.
Yet the investment was immensely profitable in part because he and his co-owners were shrewd bargainers who charmed and bullied the city of Arlington into giving them a great deal, with the local taxpayers picking up most of the cost—including more than $135 million to help build the Rangers a stadium. Bush and his fellow owners even got the local government to seize the property of landowners for a new stadium and, in effect, hand it over to the Texas Rangers so that they could make a profit on it. In such business dealings Bush displayed both savvy and vision, but critics complain that his actions at the time are hard to reconcile with his later speeches about limited government and private property rights.
Bush’s path to becoming a baseball owner was remarkable, because initially he did not put up a cent of his own money. Instead, he borrowed $500,000 from United Bank of Midland, a Texas bank of which he had previously been a director, and used those funds to buy a stake in the Rangers. Bush eventually raised his investment in two stages to an eventual total of $606,000, or 1.8 percent of the team. In 1988 he and his fellow owners sold the Rangers for $250 million. It was a good deal for all the principals, but Bush did particularly well: his cut was $14.9 million.
A Popular Governor
Bush’s role with the Rangers was as its public spokesman and cheerleader, and he used the position to give speeches around Texas and win friends. It was in some sense a political role, shorn of policy, and he was very good at it. Increasingly, he also began to think of using it as a springboard to statewide office. His mother had discouraged him from running while his father was still in the White House, but as the 1994 governor’s race approached, that was no longer an issue. Rather, the main concern was whether Bush had any chance to win. Ann Richards, the incumbent Democratic governor, was a national figure and media star with high popularity ratings. Yet Bush, against the advice of friends and family, took her on and ran an artful race.
Richards, who knew that Bush had had problems with his temper, tried to aggravate her opponent into self-destruction by needling him and belittling him as a dull-witted Daddy’s boy who never accomplished anything on his own. But Bush simply grinned when Richards goaded him as a “shrub” and a “jerk.” One of Bush’s insights was that while Texans liked Richards as a person, they often did not agree with her. And so he ran an exceptionally focused, tightly disciplined campaign that hammered home his themes day after day: a tougher juvenile justice system to reduce crime, better schools, tighter restrictions on welfare, and new limits on tort suits.
In the heat of the campaign, Bush went dove hunting, with some thirty reporters in tow. A bird flew up, he blasted away with his shotgun, and proudly held up the prize for the news photographers. The reporters pointed out that he had shot not a dove, but a protected songbird known as the killdee. Bush promptly confessed, paid a $130 fine, and began his news conference that afternoon by saying: “Thank goodness it wasn’t deer season. I might have shot a cow.” The humor and discipline of the campaign worked: Bush defeated Richards with a healthy 54 percent of the vote. Almost immediately, as the Republican governor of a major state, as a man with a formidable war chest and superb political connections, he was regarded as a national figure.
Bush went out of his way in Texas to work with Democrats and to build bridges with groups that he had offended in his gubernatorial run. During the campaign, Bush had told a reporter of his own belief that the path to Heaven comes from acceptance of Jesus as one’s personal savior. Some non-Christians, particularly Jews, were upset that Bush was effectively consigning them to hell. One of the first things he did after becoming governor was to meet a group of Jewish leaders in Houston and soothe the ruffled feelings. Likewise, from the beginning Bush worked exceptionally closely with the Democratic kingmaker of Texas, Bob Bullock, who was nearing the end of his career and came to look on Bush as a protégé and close friend. This spirit of bipartisan cooperation was one of the most striking features of Bush’s years as governor, and it maximized his effectiveness.
Bush did not appear to put in long hours as governor—he typically went home at 5:00 P.M. and allocated only fifteen minutes to review death penalty cases and decide whether or not to grant a stay of execution, according to detailed schedules of the governor’s time obtained by The New York Times under the Texas freedom of information law. But he dominated the legislative agenda, won an education reform package, and attempted unsuccessfully to pass an even more far-reaching tax-restructuring proposal. He also became steadily more popular, and by 1996 he was being mentioned as a potential presidential contender for 2000. In the summer of 1997, one of his aides, Karen Hughes, informed him that there had been an opinion poll of potential Republican candidates for the 2000 race. “You’re leading,” she told him.
The prospect of a presidential race depended on Bush winning reelection as governor in 1998, and this he did by a landslide. He won 68 percent of the vote and became the first Texas governor reelected to a second consecutive four-year term. Once he was reelected, Bush turned to the question of the presidency and began grappling with what friends say were his two main concerns: his family and his past. Associates say that his wife Laura and his twin girls, who were in high school when he was governor, were not exactly opposed to him running, but that they worried about what the race would mean for their privacy. The girls, the more studious Barbara and the more outgoing Jenna, already were sensitive to the impact on their lives of having a prominent politician as a father.
Bush was also reluctant to face the scrutiny of his past that is the fate of any presidential candidate. Already, he was facing persistent questioning about drug use—he declined to say whether he had used illegal drugs, but his circumlocutions seemed to suggest that he had—and he had never disclosed his arrest for drunken driving in Maine.
Yet in the end Bush did run, and from the beginning he was the overwhelming favorite, both in polls and in fund-raising. His strength extinguished some candidacies in their infancy—like those of Elizabeth Dole, Dan Quayle, and Lamar Alexander—and so his main rivals in the Republican primaries were Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, Orrin Hatch, Alan Keyes, and John McCain. Of these, McCain was the only one who had a chance, appealing to a mix of liberals and conservatives alike with his background as a war hero and his calls for campaign finance reform. In contrast to McCain’s dynamism, Bush initially ran a hesitant campaign in which he was perceived by voters as aloof and somewhat arrogant. The result was a crushing defeat in the New Hampshire primary on 1 February 2000, with Bush getting just 31 percent to McCain’s 49 percent.
After New Hampshire, Bush refurbished his campaign, seizing the reformer label from McCain and becoming far more energetic. He went out of his way to cultivate reporters, whom he had previously seemed to disdain, and he charged into the fray and recovered his footing. Steadily Bush gained states in his column for the Republican nomination, including a decisive win in South Carolina on 19 February and again in nine more states on Super Tuesday, 7 March. By then Bush was effectively the Republican nominee, but the animosity between his staff and McCain’s took months to ease.
Bush had asked Dick Cheney, his father’s secretary of defense, to lead the effort to find a running mate, but in the end Bush chose Cheney himself to be the vice presidential candidate. It was politically an odd choice, for Cheney was, like Bush, a Texas oilman and did not bring new geographic support to the ticket, but Cheney did bring solidity and experience to the ticket.
The Republican convention in Philadelphia, 31 July to 3 August, was a milestone for the Bush campaign. It sought to reassure the nation that Bush was a centrist, rather than the hard-line conservative depicted by the Democrats, and inclusiveness was a constant theme. Some speeches were given in Spanish, and the large number of African Americans who appeared on the podium led some comedians to joke that the event looked like a Black Entertainment Network broadcast. At the end, Bush gave perhaps the finest speech of his career until that point, a warm and visionary talk that praised President Clinton’s talents but suggested that they had been used for no great purpose. Bush managed to raise issues of moral leadership without sounding shrill, and he called for cooperation with Democrats to address traditional Democratic issues like poverty and education. Republicans, he said, are “not the party of repose, but the party of reform.” He declared: “We will extend the promise of prosperity to every forgotten corner of this country: to every man and woman, a chance to succeed; to every child, a chance to learn; and to every family, a chance to live with dignity and hope.”
The campaign against then-Vice President Al Gore unfolded largely as expected and was tight all the way. Gore’s political strength was that he was an incumbent of sorts at a time when the United States was enjoying the longest economic boom in its history, but he also came across as wooden and, to some, as shifty and untrustworthy. Bush was far less knowledgeable about policy issues (he famously mixed up Slovakia and Slovenia, among other lapses), but he impressed many voters as honest and amiable. In a series of campaign debates that perhaps made the difference, he came across to many voters as more knowledgeable than they had expected, while Gore did poorly.
The Bush Presidency
The result was an election that in effect was a tie. Gore won the popular vote but was one vote short in the electoral college of the majority he needed. And with all the other states decided, it was clear that the outcome of the presidential election would depend on Florida, where Bush had the slenderest of leads. After furious rounds of recounting, haggling in the courts and in the media, Florida’s secretary of state certified that Bush had won the state. There were indications, though, that more people had tried to vote for Gore in Florida than had tried to vote for Bush, but that enough of their votes were set aside for mistakes (such as punching the wrong hole, or double punching) that Bush had a slight edge. As the battle over whether to recount entered the courts, the dispute was ultimately resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court, which on 12 December 2000 decided—by a 5 to 4 vote on the key issue—that further counting would be impractical and unfair. In effect, the White House was Bush’s.
Gore conceded the next day, and Bush accepted the presidency in a speech on 13 December in the Texas House of Representatives—chosen, he said, as a symbol of bipartisan cooperation. “After a difficult election, we must put politics behind us and work together to make the promise of America available for every one of our citizens,” he declared. “I am optimistic that we can change the tone in Washington, D.C. I believe things happen for a reason, and I hope the long wait of the last five weeks will heighten a desire to move beyond the bitterness and partisanship of the recent past.”
That did not happen, at least not immediately. Many Democrats were outraged, feeling that the election had been stolen from them. But Bush continued to reach out, and in his inaugural address he sounded again the theme of inclusiveness: “While many of our citizens prosper, others doubt the promise, even the justice, of our own country. The ambitions of some Americans are limited by failing schools and hidden prejudice and the circumstances of their birth. And sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent, but not a country. We do not accept this, and we will not allow it.” And Bush, always much more welcoming to immigrants than other elements in the Republican Party, added that every immigrant “makes our country more, not less, American.”
Upon taking office, Bush selected aides who were generally respected for their experience and competence and who in some cases came from the corporate world: Paul O’Neill, who had been chairman and CEO of the world’s largest aluminum manufacturer, Alcoa, was chosen treasury secretary. Politically, the cabinet ranged from John Ashcroft, the conservative attorney general who survived a bitter fight over his nomination, to Norman Mineta, a Democrat, as transportation secretary. Many key figures in the government were recycled from the earlier Bush administration, although there was no evidence that the first President Bush himself played a crucial role in policy formation. Colin Powell, as secretary of state, and Donald Rumsfeld, as secretary of defense, both came across as surprisingly weak until the terror attacks of 11 September—after which they assumed enormous importance. George Tenet, the CIA director, became a close adviser, briefing the president in person for twenty to thirty minutes each morning (he had given Clinton, by contrast, a written daily briefing). But the crucial adviser, in many cases, was Karl Rove, Bush’s longtime political strategist. When opposition grew to U.S. military bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, for example, the Pentagon opposed conciliation, for fear of losing an important site for target practice. But with Hispanics an increasingly important constituency, Bush sided with Rove and announced that the bombing would eventually be halted.
Bush’s early focus of attention was the tax cut, and he was successful in getting a landmark cut through Congress. This lowered the top personal rate from 39.6 percent to 33 percent, and started the country on a path toward eventual elimination of the estate tax, a tax on assets held by an individual at the time of death (though this of course could be changed by future Congresses). He also pushed for “faith-based” programs to administer social services, and helped put the issue on the national agenda. Bush was unable to get Congress to institute a system of educational vouchers, in which as an alternative to keeping their children in failing public schools, parents could redeem vouchers to help pay for private or parochial school tuition. As part of his plan for educational reform, however, Bush was able to push through legislation requiring mandatory yearly testing of students in grades three through eight, as a way of making schools accountable for their children’s proficiency in reading, math, and science.
One of the toughest issues he faced in his first summer was whether to approve federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells. Proponents urged that stem cells offered immense promise in treating a broad range of diseases, while critics—many of them on the Right—noted that extraction of stem cells destroyed the embryo and a potential human life. Bush discussed the issue widely with aides and outsiders and ultimately came down in the middle. He declared that federal funding of stem cell research would continue, but only for existing stem cells—extracted for the purpose of in vitro fertilization and stored in labs—that otherwise would be destroyed. It was a nuanced position that, while attacked by some on both sides of the issue, seemed to win respect among many in the middle of the road.
Rather less successfully, Bush pushed for a sweeping new energy policy that would put emphasis on increasing production. His assumption of office coincided with a series of power shortages in California, and he argued that the only way to address the power crunch was to increase drilling. In particular, he called for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. But these proposals made little headway, and polls found voters deeply suspicious that Bush was too close to big oil and too prepared to destroy the environment. After Enron, a multi-billion dollar energy company headquartered in Houston, collapsed into bankruptcy at the end of 2001, the Bush administration was also embarrassed by the close ties between the company and senior Bush aides, and between the president and Kenneth Lay, the former chairman of Enron.
Foreign relations were initially a mixed bag, reflecting Bush’s lack of confidence in foreign affairs. After initial missteps, he generally was credited with sound handling of his first crisis, the collision in April 2001 of an American spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet off the southern coast of China. The American plane made an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan, but eventually the Bush administration won the return of both the crew and the plane. Bush was given high marks by political analysts for his first overseas trip, to Europe in June, but he benefited from the fact that expectations had been low. He charmed some audiences, but also left many allies infuriated by his insistence on two points: abandoning the Kyoto Protocol to curb global warming, and continuation with America’s national missile defense system even if it meant U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which had been signed with the Soviet Union in 1972. The Bush administration gave further evidence of its doubts about multilateralism by opposing a treaty establishing an International Criminal Court, by threatening to withdraw from a July 2001 United Nations conference that sought to devise a treaty on small arms trafficking, by rejecting enforcement measures for the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, and by declining to send a senior delegation to the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. The Economist of London, which generally took a pro-Bush stance, asked in its pages on 28 July 2001: “Has George Bush ever met a treaty that he liked?”
In his approach to the presidency, Bush closely followed the Clinton model of constantly campaigning. While he left details of his first budget to others, Bush traveled frequently around the country, making campaign-style appearances to promote his policies. He devoted less attention to states like California and New York that would probably be unwinnable in 2004 and focused on crucial states that might go either way in a reelection fight. Yet for all the energy he showed as a campaigner for his policies, he was not nearly as intricately involved in policy development as Clinton had been, and Bush often took off on Friday afternoons to head for Camp David or his beloved ranch near Waco, Texas. Bush made some inroads with Congress, but his policy there failed catastrophically in one sense, when control of the Senate passed to the Democratic Party due to Senator Jeffords’ abandonment of the Republicans.
One of Bush’s first challenges was an economic slowdown, and ultimately his reelection prospects may depend on his handling of it. He presented the sagging economy as a problem that he inherited, and in large part he was right: the extraordinary high-tech bubble, which left markets and the real economy buoyant, peaked in the spring of 2000 and steadily deflated after that. Bush sold his tax cut partly as an antidote to the economic weakness, and many economists approved of the tax rebates (up to $600 for a couple) that were sent out in the summer and fall of 2001 and that offered a fiscal stimulus. At the same time, the markets were unnerved by the prospect that America’s tremendous progress on reducing the federal debt might be coming apart.
Bush insisted that the tax cut would not threaten the Social Security part of the budget surplus. But he had to tweak accounting rules and come up with very optimistic projections to avoid delving into those retirement funds. In contrast, the Congressional Budget Office, which is nonpartisan, projected that substantial amounts would have to come out of the Social Security surplus between 2001 and 2004. Bush presented the tumbling budget surpluses as desirable—a straitjacket that would prevent Congress from squandering taxpayer money—but they also meant less money available for his priorities, such as education and military spending. And if the United States slips off its sound fiscal track of the mid- to late-1990s, that would be a far-reaching legacy that would force fundamental rethinking within the Bush administration about its priorities.
Six months after taking office, Bush had an approval rating in a Gallup Poll of 57 percent. That was better than the comparable Clinton figure of 41 percent and impressive considering the tumultuous, controversial way in which he had assumed office. But it was well behind the figures for predecessors including his father, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, and John F. Kennedy (who had the highest six-month approval rating, 75 percent).
Responding to Terrorism
Bush’s initial response to the attacks on the World Trade Center was inauspicious. He seemed shaken and halting in his first statement, at 9:30 A.M., shortly after stepping out of the classroom in Sarasota. He described the incidents as “an apparent terrorist attack” and vowed “to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act.” The Secret Service then rushed Bush onto Air Force One, and the presidential jet roared off into the sky without delay, headed for Washington.
Once on the plane, according to the Washington Post, Bush told aides: “That’s what we’re paid for, boys. When we find out who did this, they are not going to like me as president. Somebody is going to pay.”
Meanwhile, Washington was in chaos. When the Secret Service learned that an airplane was barreling toward the White House, agents burst into the vice president’s office, grabbing him by the arms and belt and rushing him downstairs into an underground bunker built to withstand a nuclear blast. Staff were evacuated from key government buildings, with women in the White House and Eisenhower Executive Office Building told to take off their high heels and run for their lives to Lafayette Park. Aides were told to remove the security badges from around their necks, in case snipers were posted to shoot them. Top aides were in the bunker, but it was poorly prepared and at first the audio did not work on the televisions.
The plane that had been thought headed for the White House ultimately crashed into the Pentagon, but now another airplane was detected heading for Washington. Bush, traveling on Air Force One, and Cheney briefly discussed what to do, and Bush gave the order for the Air Force to shoot down passenger planes if necessary. Soon afterward, the second plane heading for Washington, United Flight 93, went down in Pennsylvania. Bush asked, “Did we shoot it down or did it crash?” According to a lengthy reconstruction of 11 September and its aftermath by Bob Woodward and Dan Balz in the Washington Post, no one could answer him. (Eventually, it turned out that passengers had fought with the hijackers, causing the plane to crash).
False and exaggerated reports added to the alarm. There were accounts of explosions at the Capitol and State Department, of many more planes hijacked and headed for Washington. Transportation Secretary Mineta ordered all airplanes across the United States down at once, but that took hours to implement. Meanwhile, a phone threat came in to the White House against Air Force One, and because of a mistake in relaying the message it was believed erroneously that the caller had used the plane’s code word, “Angel.” The term gave the threat credibility, suggesting some knowledge of security procedures, and the Pentagon scrambled fighters to escort Air Force One.
Cheney and Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, both urged the president not to return to Washington, citing continuing security concerns. Air Force One eventually landed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where it was immediately surrounded by U.S. troops carrying machine guns. Reporters on the plane were prohibited from describing the location. Bush made a brief television appearance shortly before 1:00 P.M., reading a two-minute statement and taking no questions. His eyes were red-rimmed, he mispronounced words, and the tape of the appearance was jumpy and grainy. “The resolve of our great nation is being tested,” he declared.
Soon afterward, Bush was in flight on Air Force One again, this time headed for Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, which had an underground bunker and first-rate communications capabilities. While en route, he called his father; on finding out that the former president was in Milwaukee, George W. asked: “What are you doing in Milwaukee?”
“You grounded my plane,” his father replied.
Once at Offutt, President Bush convened a tele-conference meeting of the National Security Council and then insisted on returning to Washington. There had been a growing chorus of grumbling by politicians, even some Republicans, at the fact that the president was fleeing west when the East Coast was under attack, at his failure to offer a constant reassuring presence to the American public. The Secret Service resisted Bush’s desire to return to Washington, but his political aides strongly agreed that he needed to address the nation from the Oval Office. On the evening of 11 September Bush flew back to Washington, arriving at the White House at 7:00 P.M. and addressing the nation live at 8:30.
“None of us will ever forget this day,” he declared, “yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in the world.” He then outlined what came to be regarded as the Bush doctrine: “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” Even Bush’s advisers acknowledged that the speech fell flat, out of tune with the historic nature of the day. But Bush at least conveyed that he was back at the White House, back in command. And from then on, he seemed to regain his footing and sound the right notes in reassuring the nation and responding to the terrorist challenge.
Evidence immediately accumulated that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida (“The Base”), a radical Isla-mist terrorist organization, were responsible for the attacks. For years the United States had pursued bin Laden for suspected involvement in terrorist activities; the wealthy Saudi exile had found refuge in Taliban-run Afghanistan. That evening, President Bush and his National Security Council decided to apply all possible pressure on Afghanistan—and its backer, Pakistan—to hand over bin Laden. Otherwise, the United States would use its armed forces to go into Afghanistan itself.
On the morning of 12 September, when Bush and his aides met in the White House Situation Room, Tenet presented the outlines of what would become the strategy in Afghanistan: bomb Taliban positions heavily, send in CIA officers and special forces to bolster the Northern Alliance that had feebly been battling the Taliban, and arm and organize the Alliance so that it could function as a proxy ground force. Also that morning, Bush read a statement that escalated the stakes. “The deliberate and deadly attacks which were carried out yesterday against our country were more than acts of terror,” he declared. “They were acts of war … This will be a monumental struggle between good and evil. But good will prevail.”
The speech was much more effective than his previous public appearances, and Bush followed it up with meetings with the congressional leadership and with phone calls with foreign leaders. He asked for and received support from heads of state the world over. Even Russia and China, which normally were anxious about American military deployments near their borders, gave Bush surprisingly strong backings. Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin used 9/11 to cement a warmer, more cooperative relationship with the United States, one that was remarkably little disturbed even when Bush announced that he would withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Likewise, the Bush administration—which had its share of hard-liners who saw China as the major long-term threat to the United States—ended up working closely with Chinese leaders and ushering in a period of civility between Washington and Beijing.
The days and weeks following 11 September were wrenching for American citizens, and Bush—who has a deep emotional streak—was no exception. A reporter asked him in front of television cameras on 13 September about his prayers and thoughts, and he struggled to collect himself as he answered: “Well, I don’t think about myself right now. I think about the families, the children.” His eyes flooded with tears, and he paused. “I am a loving guy, and I am also someone, however, who has got a job to do, and I intend to do it.” Bush later said: “Presidents don’t particularly like to cry in front of the American public, particularly in the Oval Office, but nevertheless I did.” He added, quite rightly, that his “mood reflected the country in many ways.”
On the following day, Bush presided over a prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., with three former presidents, much of the Congress, and many other leaders in attendance. At Bush’s insistence, a Muslim cleric had also been invited to speak, to underscore that this was not to be a war against Islam. Bush delivered a speech prepared by his most poetic speechwriter, Michael Gerson, and for the first time he hit all the notes perfectly. “We are here in the middle hour of our grief,” he began, and he tried to comfort and console the nation. But, although the setting was a house of worship, he also delivered what was close to a declaration of war: “This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at a time, of our choosing.”
On 20 September, Bush spoke to a joint session of Congress to outline his plans. Fighter aircraft circled overhead to defend the Capitol, and some 80 million Americans watched on television. An exhibition professional hockey game in Philadelphia was suspended so that fans could watch the speech on the stadium’s screens. Bush delivered a powerful speech that won overwhelming support. He urged Americans to “hug your children” and touched all the emotional bases, but he also outlined a new kind of struggle against global terrorism as a whole, not just against Al Qaida. “Americans should not expect one battle but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success.” He also gave a pledge: “I will not yield. I will not rest. I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.”
When the Taliban did not respond to Bush’s ultimatum—give up bin Laden and end support for Al Qaida—the United States moved quickly to bolster the Northern Alliance and begin bombing targets. At first the fighting was anemic, and for a time there were ominous articles in the American press about an emerging “quagmire.” But then supplies worked their way to the forces on the ground and, most helpfully, American Special Forces arrived in Afghanistan to guide the bombing. The result was that the Taliban began to crumble and retreat from northern cities. And once they began to retreat they kept going. There was never a battle in the contested capital city of Kabul; the Taliban fled in the middle of the night.
European and Arab grumbling about the bombing subsided to some degree with the victory in Afghanistan, partly because of scenes of elated Afghans celebrating their newfound freedoms. And the victory itself was a remarkable achievement for the Pentagon. While small numbers of American troops died in friendly fire and in accidents during the liberation of Afghanistan from Taliban control, only a few soldiers were killed by enemy fire (along with one CIA officer). The United States quickly oversaw the installation of a new interim government, led by Hamid Karzai, handpicked by Washington.
The first few months in the war on terrorism had gone remarkably well. But then the picture grew more complex. Osama bin Laden remained at large, along with the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, and Bush administration officials grew increasingly frustrated at the inability to track them down. There was also no immediate success in finding and prosecuting the perpetrator of a series of mailed anthrax attacks in Washington, New York, and Florida, although the FBI came to conclude that the person was probably an American rather than a foreigner. Another attempted attack on a U.S. airliner, in December 2001 by a man with a bomb of plastic explosives built into his shoe, was foiled but reminded Americans of their vulnerability.
There was also a vigorous debate about how to deal with Taliban and Al Qaida prisoners from Afghanistan. President Bush proposed the creation of military tribunals, and he also oversaw the transfer of prisoners from Afghanistan to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba, where they could be interrogated without the protections that would apply if they were on American soil. The administration initially asserted that the Third Geneva Convention, on prisoners of war, would not apply to them, but after an uproar in Europe—and a lesser one in the Pentagon, which did not want precedents that could harm Americans taken prisoner—the White House said that the conventions would apply, but that in any case none of the captured were prisoners of war.
Coverage of the war on terror also became more skeptical. Reporters in Afghanistan began writing about cases in which Americans apparently bombed the wrong targets, killing civilians. After Pentagon officials boasted that they had killed a man whose height made it possible that he was the six-foot-four-inch bin Laden, reporters confirmed that the man was not bin Laden but an impoverished Afghan trying to make ends meet collecting scrap metal. Another raid, initially described by the Pentagon as successful, turned out to have killed anti-Taliban fighters and to have seized guns that had already been confiscated and stockpiled. Afghanistan began to show the strains of rivalries, and there was growing pressure on Washington to provide troops for an international security force in the major cities.
The United States expanded the war on terror by sending troops to the southern Philippines, ostensibly to train Filipino soldiers in counterterrorism techniques. In practice, there were some signs that the Americans intended mainly to pursue the Islamist group Abu Sayyaf, a criminal gang that had kidnapped two Americans but that had few ties to Al Qaida. Doubts began to be raised about the Philippine venture.
By far the most controversial step was the discussion of taking on Iraq. Within a few days of 11 September, there was a push within the administration—led by Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, to begin planning the overthrow of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, a longtime adversary of the United States—especially during the 1991 Gulf War—who was known to be trying to accumulate weapons of mass destruction. The Pentagon and National Security staffs generally approved, while the State Department was alarmed at the idea. And those in the world opposed to American unilateralism watched with dismay as the Bush administration began to talk more openly about invading Iraq.
When President Bush addressed these themes in his State of the Union address in January 2002, two paradoxes were striking. First, for a man who took office often denigrated as bumbling and inarticulate, he has often been remarkably eloquent in his prepared speeches. That was evident in the first words of the address: “As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers. Yet the state of our Union has never been stronger.”
Second, for a president who initially seemed relatively uninformed and uninterested in international affairs, his presidency has come to focus on matters abroad. Indeed, the most striking aspect of Bush’s speech was its hawkish tone—it owed much more to the Pentagon than to the State Department—as it described an “axis of evil” consisting of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. And, although officials said they had no plans to go after Iran or North Korea militarily, it caused jitters in Europe for what foreigners saw as its jingoism. Bush in effect expanded the list of adversaries from states that support terrorism to those that pursue covert nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons programs: “Our second goal is to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction. Some of these regimes have been pretty quiet since 11 September. But we know their true nature. North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens. Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom. Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror. The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade … States like these, and their terrorist allies… [are] arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.”
Bush’s budget proposal included the largest increase in defense spending in two decades, allowing a push toward new kinds of weaponry and platforms in the coming decades. Other elements of government spending were tightly restrained, creating a measure of dissatisfaction. Early proposals to revise Social Security spending, by allowing workers to put their money into investment accounts, also lost momentum, because of the difficulty in winning consensus on any specific proposal. The administration’s economic stimulus package also encountered difficulties, partly because of signs that the economy was recovering in the spring of 2002 on its own and partly because the dramatic decline in the fiscal picture made further tax cuts seem questionable. From an outlook of huge surpluses as far as the eye could see, allowing the complete retirement of America’s debt within a dozen years, the picture changed to one of continued deficits. That was partly because of the Bush tax cuts, and partly because of the recession, but it amounted to one of the challenges for the administration in the remainder of its time in office.
This essay takes the reader only up to the State of the Union address in early 2002, and at this writing it is far too early to offer a firm assessment of President Bush. Only the most tentative summation is appropriate: He grew in the job, particularly in his handling of the events of 11 September and overseas terrorism; his public speaking improved dramatically, as a onetime bumbler gave ringing speeches that touched the nation and elevated his own standing; he was immensely popular in the aftermath of 11 September but by early 2002 there was a growing willingness at least among Democrats to criticize administration policies at home and abroad; one of his greatest achievements was an enormous tax cut, but critics charged that it would erode American economic strength and undermine his legacy. Ultimately, the Bush presidency continues to revolve around a series of paradoxes that it is too soon to resolve.