Cullen Murphy and Todd Purdum: An Oral History of the Bush White House





The threat of 9/11 ignored. The threat of Iraq hyped and manipulated. Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. Hurricane Katrina. The shredding of civil liberties. The rise of Iran. Global warming. Economic disaster. How did one two-term presidency go so wrong? A sweeping draft of history—distilled from scores of interviews—offers fresh insight into the roles of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and other key players.

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January 20, 2001 After a disputed election and bitter recount battle in Florida whose outcome is effectively decided by the Supreme Court, George W. Bush is sworn in as the 43rd president of the United States. In foreign affairs he promises an approach that will depart from the perceived adventurism of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, in places such as Kosovo and Somalia. (“I think the United States must be humble,” Bush said in a debate with his opponent, Al Gore.) In domestic affairs Bush pledges to cut taxes and improve education. He promises to govern as a “compassionate conservative” and to be “a uniter, not a divider.” He comes into office with a $237 billion budget surplus.

On the day of the inauguration the White House chief of staff, Andrew Card, declares a moratorium on the Clinton administration’s last-minute regulations on the environment, food safety, and health. This action is followed in the coming months by disengagement from the International Criminal Court and other international efforts. Nonetheless, the early presumption is that the administration’s affairs are in steady hands, though some disquieting signs are noted.

In the Oval Office on January 20 the first President Bush and the new President Bush greet each other with the words “Mr. President.”

Dan Bartlett, White House communications director and later counselor to the president: It was a bitterly cold day. They got back to the residence from the inauguration. The president was going over to have his first moment in the Oval Office as president of the United States. And he called for his father because he wanted his father to be there when it happened. If I recall correctly, George H. W. Bush was soaking in the tub trying to warm up, because it had been so cold on the viewing stand. Not only did the former president quickly get out of the tub, but he put his suit back on, because he was not going to enter the Oval Office without a suit. His hair was still kind of wet.

Joschka Fischer, German foreign minister and vice-chancellor: We thought we were going back to the old days of Bush 41. And ironically enough Rumsfeld, but even more Cheney, together with Powell, were seen as indications that the young president, who was not used to the outside world, who didn’t travel very much, who didn’t seem to be very experienced, would be embedded into these Bush 41 guys. Their foreign-policy skills were extremely good and strongly admired. So we were not very concerned. Of course, there was this strange thing with these “neocons,” but every party has its fringes. It was not very alarming.

Lawrence Wilkerson, top aide and later chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell: We had this confluence of characters—and I use that term very carefully—that included people like Powell, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, and so forth, which allowed one perception to be “the dream team.” It allowed everybody to believe that this Sarah Palin–like president—because, let’s face it, that’s what he was—was going to be protected by this national- security elite, tested in the cauldrons of fire. What in effect happened was that a very astute, probably the most astute, bureaucratic entrepreneur I’ve ever run into in my life became the vice president of the United States.

He became vice president well before George Bush picked him. And he began to manipulate things from that point on, knowing that he was going to be able to convince this guy to pick him, knowing that he was then going to be able to wade into the vacuums that existed around George Bush—personality vacuum, character vacuum, details vacuum, experience vacuum....


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