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The Largely Untold Story of George W. Bush

by Bill McGaughey

Our new President’s personal story has been told often and well, both by himself and others. The same is not true of the outgoing President, George W. Bush. I will attempt to fill in the blanks from scattered pieces of information.

My idea of a story has to do with the relationship between President Bush and his father, the 41st President. The elder Bush had a lackluster record as an elected official. After he lost an election to U.S. Senate to Lloyd Bentsen in 1966, the politically liberal chaplain at Yale University, William Sloane Coffin, told George W. Bush that “the better man had won.” It was an insult that remained lodged in the younger Bush’s memory, confirming his identity as a Texas conservative.

George H.W. Bush was appointed to various important positions in the Nixon and Ford administrations. His political fortune was made when Ronald Reagan picked him as a vice presidential running mate in 1980 despite misgivings that Bush was tough enough for the job. Reagan’s attitude was formed, in part, from an experience during the 1980 New Hampshire primary in which the Bush forces tried to exclude other candidates from a debate. When a moderator tried to cut off Reagan’s microphone, Reagan angrily noted that he had paid for it and had the power restored. George Bush looked comparatively weak.

Vice President Bush served loyally in the Reagan administration for eight years. Though a logical choice to become Reagan’s successor, he faced a formidable challenge from Senator Bob Dole. The main challenge was to demonstrate Bush’s masculine toughness. Dole was a wounded veteran from World War II. Though George Bush also was a veteran of combat, he had an elitist image. Son of a former U.S. Senator from Connecticut, Bush was a man, said Texas Governor Ann Richardson, who was “born with a silver spoon in his mouth.” This would not sit well with many voters. George Bush was too preppy. He used phrases like “being in deep doo doo.” In short, he was a wimp.

Enter Lee Atwater, Bush’s campaign manager. Audacity was his middle name. Atwater was a poor white boy from South Carolina who had joined Senator Strom Thurmond’s staff and then clawed his way into positions with the Reagan and Bush campaign. Atwater’s specialty was dirty tricks, often with a racial theme. A man of immense charm and good looks, he knew how to play the liberal media like a fiddle. He set to work remaking George Bush’s image, assisted by his disciple, Karl Rove, and the Vice President’s eldest son, George W. Bush.

To beef up the candidate’s masculine image, Atwater had Bush photographed while driving a double-rig trailer truck. Even more daring, George Bush ambushed Dan Rather during an interview. The other part of the game was to make Bush’s Democratic opponent, Governor Michael Dukakis, look weak. Bush ads ridiculed the Massachusetts Governor when he was photographed in the cockpit of a tank. Dukakis fell further into the trap when, asked how he would respond to his wife’s being raped, he failed to express the appropriate anger. But Atwater’s masterpiece was the “Willie Horton” ad. Dukakis had permitted a convicted murderer to receive weekend passes and this man had used the opportunity to commit further crimes. A photograph of Horton showed clearly that this was a black man. Dukakis was soft on such persons.

George Bush, who had once trailed Dukakis by double digits in the polls, was elected President in November 1988 thanks to Atwater’s image-making magic. At the inaugural ball, Lee Atwater entertained the crowd on a banjo while the President himself danced to the music. Clearly, Bush owed his election to this audacious alley cat from the South. Atwater then became chairman of the Republican National Committee. Not long afterwards, Atwater contracted cancer. After months of treatment, he grew fat and ugly. Then a remarkable thing happened. Atwater became remorseful over his past dealings. Before his death, he contacted many of his former adversaries, including Willie Horton, begging forgiveness.

I suspect that Lee Atwater was the political guru who made George W. Bush what he later became. He would become the self-styled political heavy, who made the tough decisions without regard to what other people thought. George W. willingly played the “bad cop” when it suited his weak-kneed father’s interests. For instance, it was the President’s son, rather than the President himself, who fired John Sununu as the White House chief of staff. When this son later became elected Governor of Texas, he burnished his “tough guy” image by failing to commute the sentences of any death-row inmates. As his political wizardry had made the 41st President, Lee Atwater also was the one who gave the younger Bush an identity.

Thanks to continuing good will toward former President Bush and his wife Barbara, Republican leaders backed the nomination of George W. Bush for President in 2000. He was elected by a narrow margin. The defining moment of the Bush presidency came on September 11, 2001. The President had to look and act tough; it was a part that he knew how to play. The critical decision of the Bush presidency was, of course, the invasion of Iraq based on false assertions that “weapons of mass destruction” were to be found there.

What really happened? The proximate cause of the invasion was a group of politically influential individuals called the “neo-cons”, including journalists and civilian advisers in the Defense Department. The most influential was Paul Wolfowitz, Secretary Rumsfeld’s deputy at the Department of Defense. These neo-cons had supported a more aggressive policy against the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein during Bill Clinton’s presidency culminating in the passage of the “Iraq Liberation Act of 1998”, which called for “regime change”. An organization called “Project for the New American Century” argued that the United States, the world’s only superpower, should project its values throughout the world by military force.

It was this group of neocons that stood poised to take advantage of the crisis created on September 11th. The American people could now be made to rally in support of an Iraq invasion if a plausible pretext existed. The existence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, despite UN inspections, and alleged contact between an Iraqi security official and one of the hijackers provided this pretext.

Considering that many of the neo-cons were Jews, it has been argued that this group was motivated primarily by a desire to enhance Israel’s security. Even if the weapons of mass destruction existed, Saddam Hussein posed little direct threat to the United States which was well out of range of Iraqi missiles. However, he did pose a threat to Israel. In response to a potential threat, Israeli pilots had bombed and destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in the mid 1980s; and Israeli security agents had assassinated scientists working for Iraq. However, George W. Bush was not Jewish. Neither were Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld. How did the neocons manage to persuade them to carry out a risky project that would mainly benefit Israel?

President Bush was the key decision maker. There have been many and various speculations about this. Certainly, the younger Bush bore a grudge against Saddam Hussein for having attempted to kill his father during a visit to Kuwait. He and others regretted that, in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf war, thousands of Iraqis had been slaughtered because the United States failed to follow up its military victory by overthrowing the government in Baghdad. Gaining access to Iraqi oil was another motivation. A later explanation was that the United States was interested in spreading “freedom and democracy” throughout the Middle East and the world, even by force of arms.

The Jewish connection is, perhaps, most plausible. George W. Bush was a devout Christian. He belonged to a type of evangelical Christian that no longer regarded Jews a “Christ-killers” but, instead, as a people mentioned in the Book of Revelation who would be converted to Christianity in the final days. Hostile kingdoms, including presumably ones given over to Islam, would attack the Jews in Israel, led by the Anti-Christ. Then, when the crisis became most difficult, Jesus would return to earth to defeat these forces and establish God’s kingdom.

In this scenario of events, anyone supporting the state of Israel would be playing a positive role. Did the Bible not say that God would bless whoever blessed the Jews and God would execrate those who cursed the Jews? Biblically well-informed Christians would know where they should stand with respect to protecting Israel. Personally, George W. Bush may also have admired the tough Israeli security forces.

However, there has also been plausible speculation related to George W. Bush’s presidential aspirations. A “great president” is necessarily one like Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt who serves during war time. George W. Bush admitted this to his campaign biographer in so many words. According to the biographer, Mickey Herkowitz, he said: “ One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief ... My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it ... If I had that much capital, I’m not going to waste it. I’m going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I’m going to have a successful presidency.”

A report in Salon.com provides another glimpse into influences upon President Bush. On February 28, 2007, the President held a “literary luncheon” in the White House to honor historian Andrew Roberts, author of a book praising British and American imperialism that was titled “History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900”. The guest list of fifteen included prominent neo-cons. The theme of this conference was to explore the “lessons of history”.

The first lesson was that the U.S. government should be primarily concerned with its relations with governments of other English-speaking nations and not worry what the other nations think. Second, the President should absolutely refuse to set a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. When the British set a deadline in India, more than 700,000 people were slaughtered. The lesson of history is that great empires collapse because, under pressure, they lack the will to power. Democracies are especially prone to this weakness. When war casualties mount, the public clamors for an end to the war. A great leader can avert catastrophe by remaining steadfast under pressure.

Another thing: The administration should not “hesitate to intern our enemies for long, indefinite periods of time. That policy worked in Ireland and during World War II. Release should only follow victory. In the mind of Andrew Roberts, ‘appeasement’ is the main trap that the President should avoid. ‘We’re fighting an enemy that cannot be appeased; were that possible, the French would already have done it,’ quipped Roberts. The President chuckled at this witticism.”

On a more serious note, “the neoconservatives left Bush with an overarching instruction - namely, the only thing that he should concern himself with, the only thing that really matters, is Iran. Forget every other issue - the welfare of the American people, every other region around the world - except the one that matters most. Roberts said that history would judge the president on whether he had prevented the nuclearization of the Middle East. If Iran gets the bomb, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other countries will follow.”

Winston Churchill is one of the neo-cons' principal icons. In Britain’s darkest hour, this great prime minister stood up to Nazi power and, with much grit and determination, prevailed. A witness to the luncheon told Salon.com that “the president confided to Roberts that he believes he has an advantage over Churchill ... He has faith in God, Bush explained, but Churchill, an agnostic, did not. Because he believes in God, it is easier for him to make decisions and stick to them than it was for Churchill. Bush said he doesn’t worry, or feel alone, or care if he is unpopular. He has God.”

The picture we get from this is of a group of sycophants playing upon President Bush’s presidential vanity and, of course, upon his religion. Bush needed to “stay the course” despite the evident suffering generated by the Iraq war and its resulting unpopularity. Great presidents remain steadfast in the face of (other peoples’) adversity. Being a Christian who was friendly to Jews and to Israel’s interests, President Bush also enjoyed divine favor. And we also had eminent historians and neocon intellectuals telling Bush that the “lesson of history” favored what he was already doing. How could he fail to heed their advice? President Bush was, after all, a “tough guy” who followed his own inner compass and the beguiling voices of flattery.

The irony is that President Bush’s own father, the 41st president, and his national-security advisers were opposed to the Iraq invasion. The elder Bush, the “wimp” who had actually served in combat, was comparatively cautious about wars. When asked about this, the younger Bush said that he was listening not to his biological father but to his “higher father” or to the heavenly father as communicated by politically motivated Jews and Christians whispering in his ear.

The Iraq invasion took place in April 2003. The quick military victory was followed by a costly occupation lasting through the end of Bush’s second term. Yes, George W. Bush had outdone his father in several respects: First, he had acted decisively to end the regime of Saddam Hussein. Second, he had been reelected. But, as events dragged on during his second term of office, the younger Bush, I think, began to see things in a different light, though he never admitted it in public.

The continuing casualties from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, resurgence of the Taliban, failure to capture Osama bin Laden, plummeting poll numbers, huge budget deficits, a crash of credit markets, and finally the two shoes hurled at him at a news conference in Baghdad to cheering audiences around the world could not have failed to have an impact on the President’s mood and thinking. Maybe his earthly father was not such a loser after all.

I think that a significant part of the story of the Bush presidency may have taken place in the President’s own mind. What tangible evidence is there for that belief? First, the expected U.S. military attack on Iran, which had seemed likely in 2006 and the next two years, never took place. Shortly before President Bush left office, it was disclosed that President Bush denied Israel’s secret request for bunker-busting bombs that could be dropped on Iran’s nuclear facilities. He also denied Israeli requests to fly over Iraq to reach the Iranian uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. His administration did, however, assure Israel that covert action was being taken against Iran’s nuclear program.

Second, at the tail end of his presidency, George W. Bush honored his earthly father in a most conspicuous way. On January 10, 2009, the younger Bush was on hand, along with his parents and other honored guests, to help dedicate U.S.S. George H. W. Bush, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, in Norfolk, Virginia. The President told the assembled audience that his father, the former president, was “an awesome man” (a phrase usually reserved for God) who had received many blessings in life and now this, an aircraft carrier. The 84-year-old former president described the ship as “the last big thing in my life."

And so the humbled president, his attention now focused on legacy, had made a certain peace with his father. Ten days later, he graciously turned over the reins of government to his Democratic successor, Barack Obama, and then flew back to Texas to establish a presidential library and write his memoirs.

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