Political correspondent to The New Yorker.
…His style as a politician is to just push and get as much as he possibly can -- knowing that he's getting out to and past the limits of his support -- because he wants to do so much. Rather than govern cautiously, he put through these big tax cuts, the most significant educational bill, the most increasing of federal power over local public schools, really ever, and several other things, including transformation of the Pentagon. He pushed really hard on that early in his administration.
A lot of these things he pushed right up to the point where he would win by one vote or two votes. He didn't want to go for a little and get a huge vote. He wanted to go for a lot, and get a narrow vote. So it's like that with the poll numbers -- he went for as much change as he possibly could, and then was prepared to take a hit in popularity because of it.
I think that's a lot of why his numbers weren't that good. I went out right before 9/11, 10 days before. It was on Labor Day weekend 2001. I was just kind of in a mood to check out President Bush out there on the stump. So I went to a steelworker event he held in a mill outside of Pittsburgh. It was quite interesting. You didn't have a sense of a presidency adrift or anything like that. He was doing just what he is now. He was out there, no tie, pressing the flesh for a really long time with the steelworkers, who were coming away very impressed.
He was clearly on the path to give big protectionist concessions to the steel industry in the hopes of getting the votes of the steelworkers, and particularly of getting Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, those steel states, back next time around. So what I saw was a guy thinking about politics, a real politician. Not a lost soul. ...
There are kinds of politicians … like John Kerry perhaps, and Nixon, who are policy-wonk politicians. They sort of get there less on relationships and more on their ideas. How is he on that side of things?
My sense of President Bush is that he is not a policy wonk, in the sense that he doesn't sit around and say, "Let's really get into deep detail on this government program and decide what would be best for the public interest." What I think he's quite good at is two things. First, sensing the politics in a policy. "If we do this, it will be good for the Democrats. But if we do that, it'll be good for the Republicans in the following way." My sense is his mind kind of naturally works that way.
The other thing is, I think he thinks big and thinks strategically, with some good results and some bad. But he's a very ambitious politician, more than a lot of us expected him to be. He wants to change the overall balance of forces between the Republicans and the Democrats. I think he spends a lot of time thinking quite artfully about how to, in effect, increase the market share of the Republican Party and decrease the share of the Democratic part in a big way.
But what is the core of him? What does he really care about? Is it just winning? Or does he have a core care, I mean, concerns about policy?
I'm obviously guessing somewhat here. I think he cares a lot about winning. I think, also though, he has tremendous policy ambition. I think he really wants to be what they call a transformational president, that grand ideas like transforming the entire Middle East or changing the entire relationship of citizen and state in the United States by fundamentally changing these basic building programs like public schools, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid -- that's tremendously appealing to him.
He really wants to leave a big mark. So in that sense, he doesn't just want to win. He wants to do big things. The big things that he wants to do usually have the quality of making the Republican Party much stronger vis-›-vis the Democratic Party. …
Observing President Bush make a stump speech in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Phillip Gourevitch writes, "Bush campaigns with the eager self-delight of a natural ham. There's an appealing physicality about him. When he says he wants your vote, he does not just mouth the words but follows them through with his entire body, rising to his toes, tilting toward you yearningly. When he works his way along the edge of the stage, waving, shaking hands, he has the concentration of an athlete in the thrall of his game. He seems to hold nothing back." (New Yorker, Sept. 13, 2004)
"Young Bush, a Political Natural, Revs Up"
Lois Romano and George Lardner Jr. go back to George Bush's first Congressional run and find the roots of his political persona that appeals to voters today. "His father's career, he would learn, would loom large over everything the son did for years to come," they write.
"But something else became apparent as Bush traipsed through the cotton farms around Lubbock and knocked on oil-field workers' doors in Odessa. He was a natural, and it wasn't long before his opponents knew it." (Part five of the Washington Post series, "Bush: The Making of a Candidate," July 29, 1999)
…Is he a dirty campaigner?
The pattern, when you look at President Bush's career, is one of very, very, very aggressive campaign tactics. There's a bunch of things. First of all, he clearly has said to himself, "I am not going to lose a election for being too gentlemanly and nice." There's a pattern of groups popping up like mushrooms who have no totally findable connection to the Bush campaigns, who come up right before the election and who spread basically dirty rumors about the opponent kind of slightly out of sight through things like leafleting. They do it in a way that serves the interest of the Bush campaign, but enables the Bush campaign to say, "We have nothing to do with these people."
It's happened over and over and over again. So what does that add up to? I'm not quite sure. It seems to occur more in Bush campaigns than in campaigns generally. Bush is regarded by his peers in politics as being more aggressive than the average, and more ruthless in campaign tactics.
Dick Cheney -- a wonderful remark that has not been forgotten -- said to Bob Woodward in about 1992 about George H.W. Bush, "The Bushes are unusually vindictive as politicians." George W. Bush is known to feel that his father is too nice. I think this is a family, with George W. Bush being the outstanding example, that isn't going to let itself be out-toughed in a campaign.
President of Americans for Tax Reform.
…You said that Bush is just perfectly in tune with where the Republican Party is. Can you talk a little more about that?
…When George W. Bush, the 43rd president, came of age and started focusing on politics, it was during the Reagan presidency -- of course, you're against gun control, and for lower taxes, and less spending, and for the Strategic Defense initiative, and skeptical of sending prophylactics all around the world….
…George Herbert Walker Bush was almost the quintessential pre-Reagan elected official. His son is a perfect Reagan Republican, just right in the middle of where the Reagan Republican Party was; so perfect that he edged out all competitors who had slight variations on the Reagan theme. George W. Bush was the one who had perfect pitch with the Reagan theme.
From what you can tell, is Bush, as president, getting this sort of fine-grained feel for Republican politics himself? Or is he getting it from Karl Rove, as many people think?
I think Karl Rove and President Bush both understand the nature of the Republican Party. I've talked to both, separately. They get the nature of the modern Republican Party. They understand it. So if one or the other sees something, the other doesn't disagree, they go, "Oh, yes. That's right." There's a reason they've worked together well for so long.
Can you give an example that comes to mind of dealing with Bush that makes you think, "Yes, he gets it?"
My first meeting with him, 10 days after the 1998 [Texas gubernatorial] election, I had five major issues that I wanted to talk to him about. I felt that a governor who acted on these five would be demonstrating to the conservative movement and the Republican base that he got it.
One was moving from defined benefit to defined contribution pensions for the state pension system, which foreshadows Social Security reform. Bush immediately understood it, and got it passed through one half of his legislature. The other half was run by Democrats.
Tort reform, that Bush had already led on, but that I thought was important. School choice, where he had staked out a position -- but also then fought for it. He understood the arguments as to why it was important. Tax limitation, requiring a super-majority to raise taxes. Then, tax cuts in general. Another issue was paycheck protection -- something he enacted once [he was] president, saying that labor unions couldn't take union dues and spend them on politics without written permission from workers.
Each of these issues I considered central to the conservative movement, to the Republican Party, to building the base of the Republican Party; and all being sound and good public policy. Bush understood both the political importance of them and the policy importance of them, and shared my view of their relevance and importance. It's not, "Oh, yes, it's a good idea." … He moved on all of those issues. Social Security reform, faster by about five years than I had expected. …
Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News..
…there really have been two George Bushes, maybe three, during the brief tenure he's had in the White House. One was this president adrift -- not quite knowing, succeeding, in policies that he was trying to pursue.
Second was post-9/11, when he became this person very much in charge, very much exactly what this nation needed. He not only succeeded in bringing the nation together quickly and easily -- maybe not so easily -- but defining what it is we need to do in ways that the American people wanted to hear as a leader. He did so in a way that helped him domestically.
So you saw the success of some of his domestic policies succeed at the same time. You saw him dealing not only with the war as a leader, a successful leader of that war early on, and it appealed to us. But [you also saw him as] a person who would work with a tax issue.
That's something that he has never gotten away from. He has never moved in one direction or another. He has pursued doggedly. Now he's successful. He has embraced Ted Kennedy, his ideological evil, and succeeded in a way that he did in Austin, by pursuing an issue on education. He was successful in so many ways. You had a president reborn. This was a very different George Bush.
Now we've reached a point where we've had maybe the third George Bush, and that is the president besieged -- besieged in a way that he's questioned whether he's going to be [reelected].
I've seen very little evidence that he's going to doubt himself. If he does that in the confines of the family quarters in the White House, I don't see it publicly. I see the guy who's very strong -- at least the public image is -- moving forward despite everything that's gone wrong in this episode. Because fundamentally, he says -- and he may believe -- fundamentally, what he's trying to do is the right thing. ...
The core of him is somewhat elusive. Certainly at the core of him is this personal relationship with God. But yet on policy questions, he seems susceptible to the opinions of those around him.
Well, you know you have a moral center and a political center, or a moral center and a policy center. Obviously, they're related. In terms of public policy, the issue of taxes is something he absolutely feels in his gut. That's why he's relentless in pursuing this tax cut.
It's exactly the kind of Republican politics that you would expect him to pursue. It's the kind of thing that he tried to do in Austin, in a different way. It's the kind of thing that he has been largely successful at in Washington, because it's one of those very few things in terms of policy that he's interested in.
But if you really talk to George Bush about the environment in great detail, if you talk to him about some other issues that are not directly part of the things he cares about -- issue of taxes, business, the success of business -- then he really isn't a very interested and curious person. He doesn't know that much about it. …
home · introduction · george w. bush · john f. kerry · what makes a good president?
teacher's guide · plan a campus event · FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi
posted oct. 12, 2004
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
some photos copyright © corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation