George W. Bush

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Ah, to be a fly on the wall in the White House in the aftermath of 9/11, once President Bush finally rested his copy of The Pet Goat and returned to the business at hand. If Al-Qaeda’s destruction of the World Trade Center was merely Step 1 of its plan to damage America, it was a scheme ultimately realized on a grand level. Our decisions in response to the large-scale terrorism, for the better part of the decade, did more harm to us than even the initial attack. Of course, in retrospect, there were potential reactions with even more far-reaching implications that went unrealized.

In a Spiegel Q&A, René Pfister and Gordon Repinski ask longtime German diplomat Michael Steiner about an alternative history that might have unfolded in the wake of September 11. An excerpt:


The attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001 came during your stint as Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s foreign policy advisor. Do you remember that day?

Michael Steiner:

Of course, just like everybody, probably. Schröder was actually supposed to hold a speech that day at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. My people had prepared a nice text for him, but when he was supposed to head out, he — like all of us — couldn’t wrest himself away from the TV images of the burning Twin Towers. Schröder said: “Michael, you go there and explain to the people that I can’t come today.”


What was it like in the days following the attacks?

Michael Steiner:

Condoleezza Rice was George W. Bush’s security advisor at the time. I actually had quite a good relationship with her. But after Sept. 11, the entire administration positively dug in. We no longer had access to Rice, much less to the president. It wasn’t just our experience, but also that of the French and British as well. Of course that made us enormously worried.



Michael Steiner:

Because we thought that the Americans would overreact in response to the initial shock. For the US, it was a shocking experience to be attacked on their own soil.


What do you mean, overreact? Were you afraid that Bush would attack Afghanistan with nuclear weapons?

Michael Steiner:

The Americans said at the time that all options were on the table. When I visited Condoleezza Rice in the White House a few days later, I realized that it was more than just a figure of speech.


The Americans had developed concrete plans for the use of nuclear weapons in Afghanistan?

Michael Steiner:

They really had thought through all scenarios. The papers had been written.•

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“Mission Accomplished,” the words that hung like nooses behind our most unwitting President, George W. Bush, in 2003, as he prematurely announced “victory” in Iraq after invading the wrong country for no good reason, may be the phrase most associated with the gross incompetence of his Administration, but “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” is just as damning and telling.

That’s what Dubya uttered in support of FEMA administrator Michael D. Brown as New Orleans sank not only in the waters of Hurricane Katrina but also in federal fecklessness and neglect. All while the President fiddled–or, more accurately, strummed.

Historian Douglas Brinkley believes it was the latter tragedy that was Bush’s greatest undoing. An excerpt from his writing in Vanity Fair:

What a weird moment in U.S. presidential history.

Hurricane Katrina, a Category 3 storm, had smashed into the Gulf South. People were drowning. And the president of the United States played guitar in San Diego, egged on by country singer Mark Wills.

Even George W. Bush’s most stalwart supporters cringed at his disconnect from reality. Bush, like Michael Jackson in his days at Neverland Ranch, was living in a bubble. By contrast, when Hurricane Betsy had struck the Louisiana coast in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson had immediately flown to New Orleans to see the flood zone firsthand. The difference was glaring. Bush was, quite simply—as Coast Guard first-responder Jimmy Duckworth phrased it—“out of the game.”

On the 10th anniversary of Katrina, with the advantage of hindsight, it’s clear that Bush’s lack of leadership in late summer of 2005 cost his presidency mightily. Unlike Ronald Reagan, after the Challenger explosion, or Bill Clinton, after the Oklahoma City bombing, Bush had failed to feel the profound implications of the moment as his predecessors had. He didn’t scramble into action. He didn’t touch the nation’s heartstrings by using epic oratory to inform the disaster. What we got, instead, were guitar chords and terse speeches void of human pathos. No matter how the Bush library in Dallas tries to spin Bush’s Katrina performance, we all know he deserved an F in crisis management.•

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As The Colbert Report fades to black on Comedy Central, it’s a good time to recall that the year before “truthiness” laughingly made its way into the lexicon in 2005, Ron Suskind introduced the concept into the American consciousness in one of the best pieces of political journalism in memory, his jaw-dropping New York Times Magazine article, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush.” So inconceivable was the story’s idea that our government was being run by something other than a “reality-based community,” that those in power were operating in willful denial of facts, that many questioned Suskind’s work, but it all, sadly, turned out to be true, so true. Two excerpts follow.


In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Who besides guys like me are part of the reality-based community? Many of the other elected officials in Washington, it would seem. A group of Democratic and Republican members of Congress were called in to discuss Iraq sometime before the October 2002 vote authorizing Bush to move forward. A Republican senator recently told Time Magazine that the president walked in and said: ”Look, I want your vote. I’m not going to debate it with you.” When one of the senators began to ask a question, Bush snapped, ”Look, I’m not going to debate it with you.”

The 9/11 commission did not directly address the question of whether Bush exerted influence over the intelligence community about the existence of weapons of mass destruction. That question will be investigated after the election, but if no tangible evidence of undue pressure is found, few officials or alumni of the administration whom I spoke to are likely to be surprised. ”If you operate in a certain way — by saying this is how I want to justify what I’ve already decided to do, and I don’t care how you pull it off — you guarantee that you’ll get faulty, one-sided information,” Paul O’Neill, who was asked to resign his post of treasury secretary in December 2002, said when we had dinner a few weeks ago. ”You don’t have to issue an edict, or twist arms, or be overt.”

In a way, the president got what he wanted: a National Intelligence Estimate on W.M.D. that creatively marshaled a few thin facts, and then Colin Powell putting his credibility on the line at the United Nations in a show of faith. That was enough for George W. Bush to press forward and invade Iraq. As he told his quasi-memoirist, Bob Woodward, in ”Plan of Attack”: ”Going into this period, I was praying for strength to do the Lord’s will. . . . I’m surely not going to justify the war based upon God. Understand that. Nevertheless, in my case, I pray to be as good a messenger of his will as possible.”

Machiavelli’s oft-cited line about the adequacy of the perception of power prompts a question. Is the appearance of confidence as important as its possession? Can confidence — true confidence — be willed? Or must it be earned?

George W. Bush, clearly, is one of history’s great confidence men.


There is one story about Bush’s particular brand of certainty I am able to piece together and tell for the record.

In the Oval Office in December 2002, the president met with a few ranking senators and members of the House, both Republicans and Democrats. In those days, there were high hopes that the United States-sponsored ”road map” for the Israelis and Palestinians would be a pathway to peace, and the discussion that wintry day was, in part, about countries providing peacekeeping forces in the region. The problem, everyone agreed, was that a number of European countries, like France and Germany, had armies that were not trusted by either the Israelis or Palestinians. One congressman — the Hungarian-born Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress — mentioned that the Scandinavian countries were viewed more positively. Lantos went on to describe for the president how the Swedish Army might be an ideal candidate to anchor a small peacekeeping force on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Sweden has a well-trained force of about 25,000. The president looked at him appraisingly, several people in the room recall.

”I don’t know why you’re talking about Sweden,” Bush said. ”They’re the neutral one. They don’t have an army.”

Lantos paused, a little shocked, and offered a gentlemanly reply: ”Mr. President, you may have thought that I said Switzerland. They’re the ones that are historically neutral, without an army.” Then Lantos mentioned, in a gracious aside, that the Swiss do have a tough national guard to protect the country in the event of invasion.

Bush held to his view. ”No, no, it’s Sweden that has no army.”

The room went silent, until someone changed the subject.”•

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In a New York Times Magazine Q&A conducted by Jim Rutenberg, satirist Garry Trudeau describes his classmate George W. Bush’s undergraduate dalliance not with water(boarding) but fire:


You went to Yale with George W. Bush.

Garry Trudeau:

When I was a sophomore and W. was a senior, I illustrated an article for the newspaper about hazing at Bush’s fraternity — D.K.E. had been branding initiates with a red-hot iron. It became a national story. The Times assigned a reporter, who came up to New Haven and interviewed Bush. And Bush described the branding as no worse than a cigarette burn. His first interview in the national media was in defense of torture.”

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I recall during the greatest heat of the war in Iraq seeing TV interviews with one parent after another of a dead American soldier, saying that they didn’t want the U.S. to pull out of Iraq because that meant their child would have died for no reason. It would have been a cruel thing to tell them that their loved one was lost for no reason regardless, that a surge wasn’t going to mean anything in Iraq in the long run, that it was just meant to help the White House save face. Perhaps because more weren’t willing to say the truth aloud–or maybe because not too many would listen anyhow–the same thing kept happening to other soldiers and their parents. And, of course, we hardly ever heard from the family of the perhaps 100,000 Iraqi dead. 

From Tell Me Again, Why Did My Friends Die In Iraq?a pained, exasperated Business Insider piece by USMC veteran Paul Szoldra:

“The invasion of Iraq was predicated on the notion of ridding the Hussein regime of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ of course. But in 2004, the game was changed to counterinsurgency — ridding the world of “the terrorists.”

And we sure were successful. Until the U.S. pulled out, American soldiers and Marines certainly killed their fair share of terrorists, insurgents, bad guys, and the like. They in turn, killed plenty of us.

Yet for all the blood spilled — of 4,488 military men and women to be precise — there’s no good reason why.

The proof of how pointless the entire endeavour was — if you even needed more — came Friday morning, with a report from Liz Sly in the Washington Post.

‘At the moment, there is no presence of the Iraqi state in Fallujah,’ a local journalist who asked not to be named because he fears for his safety told Sly. ‘The police and the army have abandoned the city, al-Qaeda has taken down all the Iraqi flags and burned them, and it has raised its own flag on all the buildings.’

Fallujah has fallen, and the same scenario is about to happen in the even-larger city of Ramadi.

It shouldn’t be such a surprise the place my friends fought for is falling back into civil war. I shouldn’t be surprised when the same thing happens in Afghanistan. But it still is, because I don’t want it to happen.”

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Spy magazine existed during the ’80s mostly to ensure that Tama Janowitz didn’t get away with too much. You see, Tama Janowitz wrote novels that were more successful than their merit suggested they should be, so she needed to be put in her place. Thankfully, a bunch of jackasses with fancy educations who wished they were writing crappy books that sold a lot of copies were there to ridicule her. Take that, Tama Janowitz!

Seriously, Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter chose just the right moment to publish Spy. New York was in the midst of a decade of greed that rivaled the Roaring Twenties for excess but with none of the earlier era’s panache. The publication was there to take the piss out of the whole stupid thing–the Milkens, the Helmsleys, the Trumps. (I will always feel indebted to Spy for dubbing Donald Trump a “short-fingered vulgarian.”) I can’t say I ever read the magazine much at the time, but the only things that came out of that decade that ended up influencing comedy more were Letterman and the Simpsons.

I got my grimy, grubby fingers on a copy of the October 1989 issue that is built around the “Spy 100,” the snarky mag’s annual takedown of insider traders, political advisors and all manner of irksome cretins that made NYC break out in hives. It features a fairly famous cover that shows President Bush (the sleepy one, not his son who gave the entire planet a vigorous rogering from behind) with words carved into his hair, as was the idiotic custom of some kids of the time. (The idea was later borrowed for this Newsweek cover.) The list skewers the expected (political hit-man Lee Atwater was number one), the unexpected (people excessively grieving the late Lucille Ball) and, yes, Tama Janowitz. An excerpt from the passage about hotelier horror Leona Helmsley:

“Caught billing more than $4 million in personal expenses to the real estate empire she gold-dug out of her now-enfeebled husband. Convicted of tax evasion (conspiracy and mail fraud; acquitted on charges of extortion of kickbacks from cowering business vendors). Continued running self-reverential ads. Anticipating the horror stories about her routine terorization of employees, Leona’s lawyer admitted in opening remarks–boasted even–that she was a ‘tough bitch.’ Trump called her a ‘disgrace to humanity in general.'”

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Sen. John Cornyn: Also fondly recalls his 2006 colonoscopy.

Sen. John Cornyn: Bush’s stock has gone up a lot since he left office.

Decoder: I mean the stock market has gone up a lot since he left office. It tanked during his administration. When it comes to Bush’s own stock as a leader, 71% of Americans who were recently polled by Time think Bush’s policies were responsible for the Great Recession.

Sen. John Cornyn: I think a lot of people are looking back with a little–with more fondness on President Bush’s administration.

Decoder: Even I can’t believe we’re going to try to push the Bush administration as the “good old days.” The Siena Research Institute recently released a poll of leading Presidential scholars and W. was named as the worst President of modern times and one of the worst in U.S. history.

Rep. Pete Sessions: We need to go back to the exact same agenda that is empowering the free enterprise system rather than diminishing it.

W.: Available for children's parties.

Decoder: Having so little regulation is what led us into this colossal financial mess. Why would return to that exact same agenda? Why not try something better?

Rep. Pete Sessions: People had jobs when Republicans were not only in charge but George Bush was there.

Decoder: Well, weapons inspectors had jobs, but we didn’t actually use them. Most other people lost their jobs when Bush was President.

Sen John Cornyn: I think history will treat [George W. Bush] well.

Decoder: WMDs; Iraq War; “Mission Accomplished”; waterboarding; America despised abroad; attempts to destroy Social Security; “Heckuva job, Brownie”; economic collapse; relentless partisanship; the failure to pronounce the word “nuclear”; etc.

More Decoders:

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It appears that Butterbean has written a book.

Karl Rove: But if [Obama] passes this health care reform, I think [the Democrats] lose the House of Representatives this fall.

Decoder: And I am something of an expert on how lose the House of Representatives.

Karl Rove: Embedded in that view is the belief that the American people can be easily manipulated by those kind of [smear] tactics. And frankly, I got greater respect for the voter than that.

Decoder: My career has proven time and again that I have zero respect for voters. I used to pander to the Christian conservative base even though I’m agnostic.

Karl Rove: If you’re going to attack somebody, it has to be seen as fair and appropriate and relevant and credible.

Decoder: I steadfastly defend the TV commercials that were used against former Georgia Senator Max Cleland, the ones that had footage of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and claimed Cleland didn’t have the courage to lead. You know, the Max Cleland who lost three limbs while fighting for our country in Vietnam, while I was doing everything possible to avoid the draft.

Karl Rove: Oh, I think the world of [Colin Powell]. I think he is a great leader and I think he was a terrific secretary of state. But I did get under his skin.

Decoder: He’s apparently allergic to doughy, lying pricks.

Karl Rove: Harry Reid and I share a common Nevada root. I tried to develop a cordial relationship with him but he was, as you will see in episodes in the book, breathtakingly political in his approach to virtually everything and unreliable even when he was with you.

Decoder: He’s almost as partisan as I am. I hate people like that.

Karl Rove: [Waterboarding] is not torture. But reasonable people can disagree.

Decoder: But if they do, I will torture them.

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Evan R. Goldstein has a really interesting article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about computer-science genius, conservative polemicist, Jewish scholar, Yale professor, artist and Unabomber target David Gelernter. In one passage, Gelernter addresses his odd-duck assortment of ideas and interests:

“‘I’m a misfit,’ he said. ‘Most people fit in a groove and focus on one thing, but I cut across the grain of different areas.’ In conversation, the eclecticism of Gelernter’s mind is immediately apparent. An opinionated raconteur, he seamlessly transitions from literary criticism (‘Deconstructionists destroy texts’), to trends in the art world (‘Modern museums are devoted to diversity as opposed to greatness’), gender roles (‘Women mainly work because of male greed’), contemporary politics (‘Anti-Semitism in Europe is so intense that, I think, Hitler would have an easier time today then he did in 1933’), and earthier topics (‘I am obsessed with sex and sexuality as much as anyone I have ever met’).” Read the rest of this entry »

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