As George W. Bush leaves office, pundits are reviewing "The Bush legacy" -- a legacy sure to be defined by the disastrous Iraq war (with financial meltdown as icing on the cake). In the new book Family of Secrets, a probing history of the Bush dynasty, investigative journalist Russ Baker, shows that George W. Bush was hatching ideas for war on Iraq not only before 9/11, but even before he was elected president.
Baker reveals that as early as 1999, Bush candidly said that being a victorious war president would be essential to securing his place in history. His father, he believed, had "wasted" the political capital from the first Gulf War, but "If I have a chance to invade . . . I'm going to get everything passed that I want to get passed." Tragically for Bush, he failed to contemplate the flip side of his fantasy: by launching a calamitous war, he assured most of his other big initiatives would be defeated or forgotten. In this excerpt, Baker gives us a look at the pre-presidential Bush, blowing smoke about his own abbreviated military service even as he daydreamed of sending other Americans to war:
During his presidential campaign, W. collaborated with a professional writer on A Charge to Keep, a book that was intended to introduce the candidate to the American public. Mickey Herskowitz was a longtime Texas journalist, known both as a sports columnist and as a prolific ghostwriter of biographies. He had worked with a wide range of political, media, and sports figures, including Texas governor John Connally, Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle, Reagan adviser Michael Deaver, and newsman Dan Rather.
The project originally had been his agent's idea. Herskowitz whom I interviewed in October 2004, considered himself a friend of the Bush family, and has been a guest at the family vacation home in Kennebunkport. In the late 1960s, Herskowitz designated President Bush's father, then-congressman George H. W. Bush, to replace him briefly as a guest sports columnist at the Houston Chronicle, and the two had remained close since.
In 1999, when Herskowitz called the George W. Bush presidential campaign, to propose a book "by W.," it was supposed to be Karl Rove's decision whether to green-light the book project. But Rove was busy with other things, and he said that if it was okay with W., it was okay with him. W. said he was amenable as long as he didn't have to do too much. Most of all, he wanted to know how much money was involved. Herskowitz, whom I interviewed in 2004, said that he and Bush quickly arrived at an agreement in which they would split the proceeds.
W. did have one other concern: he worried whether there would be enough content for such a book. He openly fretted to Herskowitz: what had he accomplished that was worth talking about? Bush thought it a better idea for the book to focus on his policy objectives. And what might those be? Herskowitz inquired. Ask Karl, Bush replied.
Finally, though, the two began what would total approximately twenty meetings so Bush could share his thoughts. As a writer, Herskowitz knew that too much canned, self-serving material could be commercially toxic. Even in a book intended to be self-serving, it could destroy the credibility -- and hence the marketability -- of the product. So he hoped to tease out some unguarded revelations, on the assumption that these would simply humanize his subject. At the beginning, Herskowitz had no idea the extent to which W. was treading on eggshells.
According to Herskowitz, W. was a confusing combination of cautious and candid. Sometimes, he would say something in an offhanded way that would later prove to be explosive. One such bombshell concerned his military service.
Herskowitz says that Bush was reluctant to discuss his time in the Air National Guard -- and inconsistent when he did so. Among other things, he provided conflicting explanations of how he came to bypass a waiting list and obtain a coveted Guard slot as a domestic alternative to Vietnam.
When the subject came up, W. sought to quickly deflect the conversation to the summer of 1972 -- when he moved to Montgomery, Alabama, to work on the Winton Blount senatorial campaign. And what did you do about your remaining military service? Herskowitz asked. "Nothing," Bush replied. "I was excused." [emphasis added]
It didn't take Herskowitz and Bush long to work through W.'s life story and accomplishments. Soon they were discussing what Bush hoped to achieve as president. While W. seemed somewhat hazy on specifics, on one point he was clear: the many benefits that would accrue if he were to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Herskowitz recalled that Bush and his advisers were sold on the idea that it was difficult for a president to realize his legislative agenda without the high approval numbers that accompany successful -- even if modest -- wars.
"He was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999," Herskowitz told me in our 2004 interview, leaning in a little to make sure I could hear him properly. "It was on his mind. He said to me: 'One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander in chief.' And he said, 'My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait, and he wasted it.' He said, 'If I have a chance to invade . . . 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.' "
Herskowitz said that Bush expressed frustration at a lifetime as an underachiever in the shadow of an accomplished father. In aggressive military action, he saw the opportunity to emerge from his father's shadow.
That opportunity, of course, would come in the wake of the September 11 attacks. "Suddenly, he's at ninety-one percent in the polls," Herskowitz said, "and he'd barely crawled out of the bunker." Just four days before, according to a Gallup poll, his approval rating was 51 percent.
Herskowitz said that George W. Bush's beliefs on Iraq were based in part on a notion dating back to the Reagan White House, and ascribed in part to Dick Cheney, who was then a powerful congressman. "Start a small war. Pick a country where there is justification you can jump on, go ahead and invade."
Bush's circle of preelection advisers had a fixation on the political capital that British prime minister Margaret Thatcher had amassed from the Falklands War with Argentina. Said Herskowitz: "They were just absolutely blown away, just enthralled by the scenes of the troops coming back, of the boats, people throwing flowers at [Thatcher] and her getting these standing ovations in Parliament and making these magnificent speeches." It was a masterpiece of "perception management" -- a lesson in how to maneuver the media and public into supporting a war, irrespective of the actual merits.
The above is an excerpt from the book Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, The Powerful Forces That Put it in the White House, and What Their Influence Means for America by Russ Baker (Published by Bloomsbury Press; 978-1596915572).