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Bush under fire, friendly and otherwise
President gets low marks at a campus retrospective, and his former re-election strategist is the toughest grader of all

| 16 April 2008

As a panel of experts sifted through George W. Bush’s waning term of office last Thursday evening, the colloquy was punctuated occasionally by the yipping of a small dog toward the back of the large Dwinelle lecture hall. Had the president been looking for a friend on campus that night, the canine might have been his best bet.

Not that anyone could ever mistake Berkeley for Bush country. In this case, though, two of the four panelists spent most of the past seven years as staunch allies of the president. And it was the evening’s friendly fire that spoke most eloquently to the changing American zeitgeist.

Matthew Dowd, who joined the Bush team in 1999 and became the top strategist for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in 2004, first went public about his loss of faith in the president a year ago in the New York Times; his disappointment was palpable during his campus appearance. Bemoaning what he called the “missed opportunities” of the Bush presidency, he described his former boss as “a high-noon sheriff” unable to find a way to engage the American people in the wake of 9/11, and unwilling to bother with foreign leaders or members of Congress unless he needed their help.

Neoconservative writer Byron York, a White House correspondent for National Review, charged Bush with wasting crucial time and political capital pushing social-security reform after his re-election “while Iraq burns,” adding that he “had no idea what to do” about the floundering occupation as recently as late 2006. He also complained that the commander-in-chief “can’t put two sentences together sometimes,” and generated laughs with impressions of Bushisms like “Fool me once… can’t get fooled again” and his compassionate-conservative pitch from the 2000 race, “You’re working hard to put food on your family.”

It fell to Stanford historian David Kennedy, an Obama supporter, and Berkeley alumna Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times, to find something nice to say about President Bush.

“He does read,” allowed Kennedy, recalling how Bush and Karl Rove, his former political adviser, used to compete to see who could plow through more history books. Then, fearing he’d gone too far, perhaps, he added: “How deeply he understands, I don’t know.”

And Kennedy — who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in history for his study of the Great Depression, Freedom From Fear — begged off on an audience member’s invitation to declare Bush the worst president in U.S. history, saying only that he “belongs down in the basement” with the likes of Ulysses S. Grant, Warren G. Harding, Andrew Johnson, and Richard Nixon.

Sweet, a columnist and blogger who has reported extensively on the Obama campaign, noted that Bush’s legacy includes the appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court and his AIDS/Africa initiative. But the war in Iraq, she said, is “an overshadowing event.”


Matthew Dowd, a one-time member of George W. Bush’s inner circle who publicly broke with the president, explains his disenchantment as Ethan Rarick, of the campus’s Institute of Governmental Studies, looks on. (Peg Skorpinski photo)
 

Dismissing the suggestion that the steady plunge in Bush’s popularity might stem from his problems as a communicator, she added: “When you have a war that’s going on as long as we do, there’s nothing you can do that can change that story line.”

Not surprisingly, the war in Iraq held center stage throughout the evening.

Bush’s weaknesses on the domestic front, York said, “were there all along, because he really didn’t have all that much of a reason to be president” prior to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. “September 11 gave him something to do,” said York, following eight months of what had promised to be “a meandering and pointless presidency.” Still, despite what he called the “enormous failure” to find Osama bin Laden — “a sacred responsibility” — he said Bush would deserve credit if there isn’t another terrorist attack on his watch.

Iraq, he argued, is what turned the tide of popular opinion against the White House. “I think 100 percent of his problem was [that] he didn’t win,” he said. Had the thousands of deaths of U.S. soldiers come “in that year in which the United States won the war,” added York, “he’d be fine.”

“You start a war of choice, you convince people you gotta do it — you gotta win.

But Dowd — a former Democrat who, like much of the country, responded to the Texas Republican’s appeal as a candidate willing to reach across the aisle, only to grow disillusioned — put the blame for Bush’s plummeting popularity on his refusal to engage the public in his “war on terror,” both in the immediate wake of 9/11 and throughout the war in Iraq.

Bush, he noted, had a 90 percent job-approval rating after the al Qaeda attacks, and the political capital to “move the country” and “transform Washington.”

“And by and large, the country was told to go shopping and get back on airplanes,” Dowd said. “I think if you took some of the people in the White House and gave them truth serum… they would say that was probably one of the biggest missed opportunities in the past 50 years.”

Bush’s real problem lay not in the stars, Dowd suggested, but in himself. The president, “in his heart,” said, “I’m gonna take this burden on myself, and I’m not gonna ask people to do it because this is gonna be on me and I’m gonna do it myself,” Dowd said. “That’s part of who he is.”

That attitude, he added, extended beyond refusing to call upon non-military families to make sacrifices — such as paying higher taxes — on behalf of the war effort. Bush, he said, disdained state dinners and “speed-traveled” through foreign countries. And he rarely bothered to build social relationships with members of Congress, Dowd said, contacting them mainly to “barter for votes.”

Sweet recalled that soon after 9/11, Karl Rove met with journalists at a Christian Science Monitor-sponsored breakfast, and was asked, “What should we be doing?”

“And that would have made a good story — Karl Rove, top adviser to the president, says we should be planting victory gardens, or ‘Don’t drive as much, save oil.’ People wanted to be involved, and he said, The president wants you to go about your day — and go shopping,” she said. “Just the idea that you were starting a war, and no one was asked to do anything in particular different in their life….”


Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Sun-Times — and a Berkeley alum — offers a journalistic perspective on the Bush White House. (Peg Skorpinski photo)
 

Kennedy, the evening’s designated scholar, was asked by moderator Ethan Rarick, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies’ Center on Politics — which co-sponsored the event with UC Berkeley Extension — to comment on Bush’s efforts to expand executive authority at the expense of other branches of government. “He’s pushed the envelope, it seems to me,” Kennedy replied. “And if I can make the leap, the effort to concentrate more and more power in the office of the executive, and to enable the executive to act more unilaterally … has its analog in the way the Bush administration has behaved in the international arena.”

Over the course of many different presidencies, Kennedy observed, the historic approach in American foreign policy was that “we acted multilaterally when we could, and unilaterally when we must. And Bush has reversed that…. He’s put at serious risk, I think, the accomplishments of a half-century or more of building and nurturing multilateral institutions.”

To Dowd, the success of Barack Obama’s run thus far for the Democratic presidential nomination is a sign of Americans’ longing — thwarted since the 2000 presidential election — for “a uniter, not a divider,” as Bush once referred to himself. “Barack Obama would not exist today … were it not for the Bush presidency,” he declared.

As for where it all went wrong, he added, the devastation of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was “the tipping point” in the Bush presidency. “The country was like, wait a second, something’s wrong here, something’s wrong here, something’s wrong here, Katrina, bad reaction, didn’t go well, a lot of different reasons, and they basically said, ‘Run, turn it off.’ ”

York, agreeing that Katrina was “a terrible mark” on the Bush presidency, chalked up the president’s plunging approval ratings to weariness. Bush “has had an unbelievably consequential presidency,” he said, “and people are tired of all that stuff.