Columns » Ernest Dumas

Father knows best (almost)


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What Papa Bush hoped to achieve by blaming the catastrophic failures of George W. Bush's presidency on his advisers, including Vice President Dick Cheney, we can only guess, but you can be sure his purpose was not to harm either political son, the former president or the one whose presidential ambition is becoming more forlorn by the day.

My take is that George H.W. Bush was following a noble fatherly instinct in wanting to see a son's failures cast in a better historical light, ones that would be better understood by acknowledging human frailty. His son's instincts were to have done things much differently (he had promised to have a humble foreign policy and to avoid "nation building") but he was overmatched by the strong personalities he assembled around him for the job of guiding Western civilization. The elder Bush apparently mentioned only two — Cheney and Bush II's defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld — in interviews with his biographer, but he implied that there were others, no doubt among them political chief Karl Rove and economic wizard Glenn Hubbard.

George H.W. Bush's misgivings about both the major economic and foreign-policy directions of his son have long been known, but here in the midst of Jeb Bush's campaign for president he publicly articulates them for the first time.

Dad's account of his son's misdirections follow a popular narrative that was formulated by former advisers of the younger Bush, among them Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and counter-terrorism czar Richard A. Clarke, who later wrote about the unusual sway that Cheney and a few others had over Bush, mainly in his first term.

But the problem with Papa's version is that it makes George W. look weak. Whatever history's verdict, whether it is helped or hurt by the father's ruminations, it doesn't look so good now. The swaggering Bush of "Mission Accomplished" was a puppet? Say it ain't so, W! And Bush II said it was not so, that he never caved to Cheney or anyone else.

It is established beyond doubt that the invasion of Iraq was an objective from day one of the Bush presidency, if not in Bush's mind then in the minds of a big contingent of advisers. Papa Bush made it sound like Cheney, who had been his own secretary of defense, was a thoughtful man who must have been radicalized by the horrors of 9/11, which accounted for his decision to push George W. into the invasion of Iraq over the phony issue of weapons of mass destruction.

But that's not how and why the obsession with conquering Iraq started.

Remember that Cheney, after heading Bush's vetting team, made himself the vice presidential nominee. Cheney required 11 potential candidates to fill out long, intrusive questionnaires and submit boxloads of documents, including years of tax returns, medical records and speeches. He told Bush that none of them met the test and that he would take the job. But he never submitted the same questionnaire or documents.

When Cheney was nominated, a troubled history teacher sent me the manifesto of the Project for the New American Century, a neoconservative think tank started by writer William Kristol to criticize Bill Clinton's foreign policy and to "promote American global leadership." The United States was to magnify its position as the pre-eminent world power by taking over one of the oil-rich oligarchies of the Middle East, preferably Iraq, and turning it into a democratic ally. The other nations would fall under our domination.

Cheney was a signatory of the manifesto. So was Rumsfeld. (For what it is worth, so was Jeb Bush.) Ten of the 25 signers took major jobs on Bush's national security staff or the State or Defense departments.

From the day Bush took office until Sept. 11, the security agencies sent the president more than 40 daily briefings warning of Osama bin Laden's intentions to launch a major terror attack inside the United States. Cheney and others argued that bin Laden was no threat and that it was a smokescreen organized by Saddam Hussein to divert America's attention from him.

When the 9/11 commission sought copies of the briefings in 2002, Bush and Cheney eventually agreed to release only one, the famous Aug. 6 briefing a month before the attacks headlined "Bin Laden Plans Attack On U.S." Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, testified that it was simply a historical report on Osama bin Laden's activities, not really a warning. CIA agents told reporters off the record that it was an effort to make it clear to Bush that Cheney was wrong and that Saddam was not orchestrating the intelligence reports of bin Laden's plans to attack America, perhaps through commercial airplanes. No one in Congress has ever demanded to see the other briefings, even secretly, as might happen today if Hillary Clinton had been in office. Those who saw some of the briefings said they were urgent and more specific than the Aug. 6 report.

Clarke, the president's terrorism czar, said Cheney and Bush were certain on Sept. 11 that Iraq was behind the attacks and that, though it was soon proven that it was not, the planning for the invasion began in earnest that day.

The elder Bush made only veiled references to his son's catastrophic economic record, in which he must suspect that Cheney played a role. When Ronald Reagan in 1980 promised to cut taxes dramatically and vastly increase military spending while protecting Social Security and the safety net and also balancing the budget, George H.W. Bush called it "voodoo economics." Though Reagan put him on the team, Bush knew that it was still voodoo economics. As president in 1991 he raised taxes to help put the nation on the road to a balanced budget again.

When George W. Bush made Reagan's pitch for big tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations and bigger defense budgets in 2001, 2002 and again in 2003, daddy must have mourned again. This time, Cheney did play a role, according to O'Neill's book. When Cheney and Hubbard proposed another round of tax cuts in 2003, Bush said he thought they had already taken care of their friends in the business community but Cheney and Hubbard corrected him. When O'Neill approached Cheney, expressing concern that another $640 billion of tax cuts over 10 years would magnify the mushrooming deficits, Cheney rebuked him.

"Reagan proved deficits don't matter," he said. "We won the midterms. This is our due."


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