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nicholas lemann

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As a political correspondent for The New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann has written about George W. Bush over the years. In this interview, he reflects on some of the defining aspects of Bush's life and career and draws together the threads of core traits in his nature and character. These traits, says Lemann, help explain the aggressiveness of Bush's campaigns, his bold domestic and foreign policy, and most importantly, the decision on which he has staked his presidency, the Iraq war. "I see President Bush as somebody who has an enormous, and sort of slumbering, ambition and self-confidence," Lemann says, "… I think this is a president who wants to leave a really, really big footprint if he can, both internationally and domestically." Lemann is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and reporter for "The Choice 2004. " This interview was conducted in September 2004.

I see President Bush as somebody who has an enormous -- and sort of slumbering -- ambition and self-confidence. The more he lets out who he really is, the more conservative he gets, partly because conservatism is the path of maximum ambition for him.

Can you talk about the period when John F. Kerry and George W. Bush were coming of age as young men in college? What's happening ... in the country with the two parties and what is happening to the Republican Party?

Remember that in 1964, the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, a full-throated conservative, and he got crushed by Lyndon Johnson. In retrospect, most political observers took exactly the wrong lesson from that, which was that conservatism has died. 1968 was a crazy, tragic, horrible year. The 1968 [election] was a very, very close election, and Nixon was thought of by most people as having become relatively moderate over the years. So people still thought the conservative movement was dead.

Even though Nixon had won the election, politics in America seemed in the late 1960s to be moving to the left. In governing as president, Nixon, at least in domestic affairs, moved to the left and adopted a lot of liberal ideas such as creating the Environmental Protection Agency. He didn't cut a lot of poverty programs at that time.

The conservative movement, we now know, was in fact growing and thriving, particularly in the South and Southwest, which were themselves growing and thriving. But Washington missed what was happening. So what looked like the triumph of liberalism looks, in retrospect, like the sort of growth period of modern conservatism.

Why was conservatism growing?

Well, a couple of reasons. The reason that the South was Democratic for so long was the Civil War and Reconstruction. From the Southern perspective, the Republican Party was identified with the bad guys in the Civil War and particularly Reconstruction. That was all anybody needed to know, for about three generations.

That really changed dramatically in the 1960s, when the Democratic Party embraced the cause of Reconstruction, renamed "civil rights." Everything in the civil rights revolution legislatively had already been done during the Reconstruction period, and it got undone, and then it was done again. Instead of being done by the Republicans, as it was in the 1860s and 1870s, it was done by the Democrats in the 1960s. Much of the South, at least the white South, rebelled very much against that, and started to become much more sympathetic to the Republican Party. So that was a big thing helping the Republican Party.

Another thing was the anti-war movement -- just the general picture of student protesters, which many people in the country reacted against very strongly. They thought, if you don't like these people, then Republican Party is the place to [go].

The South, and particularly the Southwest, were growing very rapidly. Those areas tended to be historically Republican, and they remained more Republican than the rest of the country. You always have the phenomenon that when people move to already Republican areas, they tend to become more Republican themselves. So the growth of the Southwest -- Texas being a prime example -- helped conservatism and the Republican Party.

What would the world have looked like to a young George Bush in 1970, when he goes to work with his dad's campaign?

I don't want put to put thoughts into his head. But when Bush went to Yale, Yale was itself, like many establishment institutions, in heavy transition, and the center at a place like Yale was moving way to the left during that time. This is why you have somebody like Hillary Clinton starting as a Goldwater Republican from Illinois, getting to Massachusetts and Connecticut, where she was educated in the 1960s, and coming out as liberal Democrat. That's the typical thing that happens.

For some reason, Bush got to this institution that was going through this process and thought, "I don't like this. I don't like the direction this is moving." It seems to have deepened a resolve that was already there to become more conservative, not more liberal.

So he rejected the place that he saw Yale going, and the whole Northeast going, and went back to Texas at a time when Texas was becoming more conservative. He embraced the conservatism of West Texas, where he grew up, and also the newer conservative rebellion against the anti-war movement, which he saw at Yale.

Do you know much about him in that period where he's working for his father in 1970? He's apparently a liaison to youth groups, and talking on campuses?

Well, with the caveat that I didn't know Bush, but I did live in Texas for some years, and it's a small world, I know people who knew him. One thing I've heard from friends of his at the time that's interesting is that he was very hawkish on the Vietnam War, and that he was in the camp that thought, "We're fighting this war with one hand tied behind our back. The real problem here is not that we're engaged, but that we're not really fighting." People have told me that almost the only developed political opinion they would hear from him was hawkishness on the Vietnam War.

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Some of Nicholas Lemann's New Yorker articles:

As you noted earlier, we think of that period of time as kind of moving to the left and being anti-war. But in fact, it's not quite that way. George W. Bush would have found sympathy.

Right. The student right in the 1960s got absolutely no national publicity. It was all sort of invisible from that standpoint. But it was in fact a growing movement. You know, William F. Buckley founded Young Americans for Freedom in the early 1960s in Sharon, Conn. It created a whole world that was growing all through that period. So they were a lot of young people, and they were more in places like the South and the West than in places like the Northeast, who really became entranced with conservative ideas.

By the way, I don't mean conservatism just in reaction to liberals, but they were entranced with anti-Communism -- aggressive anti-Communism -- as a cause. The wonders of capitalism, tax-cutting, smaller government -- all of these were sort of positive goods for these folks. It wasn't a mass movement, but it was a really significant and real movement of activists who came into the Republican Party at that time and are now senior people in the party. ...

It's useful, in a way, to think of many of the leading people in the Bush administration, including the president himself, as children of the 1960s -- just as much as the Clintons and Kerry and so on are children of the 1960s -- but they're children of the other 1960s.

I wrote a story about Vice President Cheney, where he described being a young government official and going in a suit to a SDS rally in Wisconsin just to kind of inspect. His politics were very much formed in opposition to what we think of as the 1960s. Donald Rumsfeld, who worked very closely with Cheney way back then, same. President Bush, one senses, same.

A lot of these people got into politics right around the same time, and [with the] same kind of young, change-the-world spirit, but they were on the opposite side of the people we identify with the 1960s. But they're still carrying the old crusade forward now that they're running the country.

There's this dark period where [Bush] goes to Harvard Business School, he decides after working a few campaigns that he's going to be a businessman. What's happening with him?

Well, I don't really know. I actually met Bush at Harvard for about three seconds. I was an undergraduate and he was a business student. Our paths crossed at the apartment of a mutual friend from Texas. He looked like a standard-issue preppy of the time with the Izod shirt with the collar turned up and the Topsiders and so on. My sense is that you have to understand that in the world that he was -- well, big cultural difference between Democrats and Republicans is the ethos among the Republicans is, first you go out and make your fortune, then you enter public life.

The ethos among Democrats is, first you enter public life, then you make your fortune, which President Clinton is doing now. The Bush family, on both the Bush side and the Walker side, had a long, long history as businessmen. Texans in general, and West Texans in particular just worship the business entrepreneur.

So in the world that he was from, you really needed to be a businessman to get respect. That was the honored position in life. It's totally unsurprising that he would decide to sort of get himself set up to be an independent businessman in West Texas, because that's the place of honor.

How good of a businessman was he?

It seems, from what we know, that President Bush was not particularly good at business. He sort of was cruising along, brushing the treetops in his career in the oil business. This is in a world where everybody wants to really make a fortune, and a lot of people were making fortunes. For whatever reason, luck or skill, he just wasn't. He never took off as a businessman.

By far, in his most successful experience as a businessman, which was with the Texas Rangers, he was kind of businessman-as-politician, in effect. He was the public face in a way, a front man for the Rangers franchise. He sat in the box at the Rangers games and shook hands. There was a big political component to that, because they had to get the stadium built with public money.

It didn't escape notice that he was the son of the president. Then, he was surrounded with people like Roland Betts and Tom Bernstein and others who were very seasoned and experienced businessmen, who invested and piloted the project. So it wasn't something he was doing as a solo act on the business side. That was the one deal in his business career that he really did well on.

When he is debating Ann Richards [during his first Texas gubenatorial race, she makes some attacks on how all the businesses that he was involved in basically lost money. He makes a very spirited defense, pointing out that he was on the board of several oil companies that were all viable concerns. I don't know if he was a good businessman or not, but he gets into politics and he's got a natural skill for it.

I think who he is deep inside -- he's a politician. He's not a businessman. To his credit, the president has not gone around very much at all in recent years trying to claim, "I'm a businessman who just wondered into politics." He clearly was fascinated with politics from a very early age. He worked passionately in his father's campaigns, didn't think of it as a burden, thought of it as a crusade.

The truth is, politics and business are just very different. Most people who are good at politics aren't that good at business and vice versa. They require a different skill set. The president has much more the political skill set than the business skill set.

What do you think makes him a good politician?

The material politicians work with, their medium, is people. This isn't true for all politicians -- for instance, it wasn't true for Richard Nixon -- but it's true for most politicians. If you're around them, what they do is relate to people in an almost physical way. When you're with a politician, including President Bush, at least before he was president, they want to look you in the eye. They want to touch you. They want to be with you. They're comfortable with people. They remember people's names. They like having the one-on-one transaction and winning people over. They think of life in personal terms.

In that way, he's a real politician. He can spend a little bit of time with a person and work with them, in the same way, although with a different style, as President Clinton. You can have 60 seconds with President Bush and you come away sort of glowing. That's a classic politician skill that, in fact, his father didn't have nearly in the measure that he has.

There are kinds of politicians, though, 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, I think, is that 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 Party 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 core 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.

...The decision to run for the presidency in 2000 -- do you know anything about how he came to that?

First of all, in my experience, [for] virtually any politician who has any success, this little thought pops into his or her brain at some point -- "Maybe this will lead all the way to the top." If you're elected to the governorship of one of the four big states in America, it's likely that the thought of running for president will have crossed your mind at some point. That's just the way life is.

The official story here is that Karen Hughes came to Bush one day and said, "Governor, there's a poll out that shows you're the number one choice of Republicans for the nominee," and that this came as a complete surprise to Bush. It had never crossed his mind before. This is in Bush's autobiography ghosted by Karen Hughes.

I'm sure the incident literally happened. But it's pretty hard to believe that the thought of running for president would have never crossed his mind before that day, given that he's the son of a president, he's grown up around politics, particularly presidential politics. He's been elected governor of a very big state. My guess would be it was floating around in his mind.

He goes through a long consulting process. ... Can you give me an overview of that whole process, so that we see the equal value of some of those different groups?

Well, first of all, what's fascinating [about] Bush is that in the successful portion of his political career -- that is, not the 1978 congressional race -- I don't think there's a case where a president has had by his side, at every step from the very beginning, one person guiding him the way Bush has with Karl Rove. They met way back in the early 1970s. ...

So before we get to the presidential campaign, there's an earlier process where he and Rove have intensive conversations about whether he should run for governor in 1990. [They] decide no. Then they have another round of conversations about running in 1994.

In connection with that, there was an important and lengthy educative process, where Rove would line up various groups of people and have them fly up to Dallas to consult with then-Texas Rangers general manager George W. Bush, and educate him on a wide range of Texas policy issues. Then he met with the key interest groups. Then Rove would arrange these speaking tours first through very minor cities in Texas, so he could sort of take his act on the road and hone it, then to big markets, then to bigger markets.

Then the whole process began again, really before he was re-elected to his second term as governor, but very intensely on a national scale as soon as he was re-elected in 1998. There was this pilgrimage to Austin. People say it was modeled on William McKinley's front-porch campaign in Canton, Ohio. Rove is a big William McKinley fan.

But platoons of just the right selective journalists came to Austin. Religious leaders came to Austin for meetings with the president, leaders of important and growing Republican interest groups came. Congressmen came, senators came, governors of other states came, or he met them at governors' conferences.

He was visited by elder statesmen of the party, people like George Schultz. He met the sort of leading policy thinkers of the party and intellectuals. So there were dozens of these meetings in Austin, where people would be contacted usually by Rove and sort of selected by Rove, fly down, come into the mansion. They walked away impressed.

It's very smart, and unusual, really. I don't know since McKinley how many other candidates have gone through this sort of process, but it stands out.

It does stand out. By the way, another whole part of the process was the fundraising. He systematically met and won over all the big, important political fundraisers in Texas on the Republican side, and then a lot of the national ones too. What really made him seem like the frontrunner for the Republican nomination was his enormous early fundraising success. He piled up a big pile of money. That really scared a lot of the other candidates out of the race early.

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.

[Is that] what we're seeing now with the Swift Boat campaign?

The Swift Boat campaign is an amazing thing to me, for a couple of reasons. You would think that Bush and the people around him would say, "Look, let's not go to Vietnam. That is our weakness. That's the area where Sen. Kerry has a better story to tell than we do. It was a long time ago. Let's just not make the election about that."

What they've done instead, either by accident or on purpose, is go right at the opponent's evident strongest point and turn it into a weakness. It's amazing that the month of August was basically about John Kerry's Vietnam service, A, and, B, that the question is, was he or wasn't he a genuine war hero?

The net of it all was that doubt was put into the picture of Kerry as war hero, and Bush gained vis--vis Kerry in the polls. That's amazing

Was it their campaign? Are their fingerprints on that campaign?

As they say at the CIA, there's always cutouts in this kind of operation. There's always circuit breakers -- points where you just can't say the order went from the president to his political people to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and we can prove it. It sort of happens. There are these connections. But the truth is -- and this has been true for years -- the connection is not a nailed-down established one.

But nonetheless, the net of it is the group starts. There are people connected to it that have been connected to Bush campaigns. The president himself and the people around him don't full-throatedly condemn what the group is doing, although nobody can prove that they're directing their actions. In the end, the activities of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is good for President Bush and bad for Sen. Kerry.

True or not -- [George W. Bush] runs as a moderate, governs as a conservative?

I'll start with the mea culpa. I believed that Bush would be a more moderate president than he has turned out to be. I've spent a lot of time going back and thinking about, was I misled, or was I just reading it wrong? One of the ways in which President Bush is a really good politician, one of the qualities that a really good politician has, and Clinton has it as well, is they can get up and do something, and different people read what they do in different ways, like the blind men and the elephant story.

He has that quality, so that when he said, "Compassionate conservatism," liberals heard, "I'm not going to cut anti-poverty programs." Conservatives heard, "Conservatism is itself compassionate, and Christ was compassionate." So it plays in different ways to different people.

But he had a record. He'd made a lot of decisions as a governor.

Here's what I think looking back on it. I think it's really a couple of things -- again, I'm speculating. First of all, I used to live in Texas, and Texas is just a much more conservative place than America, taken as a whole. What puts you right in the middle in Texas puts you pretty far to the right in the national context.

Part of the answer with President Bush is just that he moved from Texas to national. Many people thought, well, he'll go from being a Texas moderate to being a national moderate, which entails moving way to the left. Instead, he stayed kind of where he was, which, in effect meant he became a real conservative.

In Texas, a great point of pride with him was working with Democrats. He had all these Democratic buddies in the legislature and so on. Part of that is because Democrats were more powerful in Texas than they are in Washington. But part of it is the Democrat with whom he was comfortable in Texas doesn't exist that much in Washington. You have to be buddies with a different kind of Democrat, and that kind of Democrat is way to the left of the Texas kind. The president just didn't feel comfortable with these people, I don't think -- the Ted Kennedys of the world.

I think another reason is just, I see President Bush as somebody who has an enormous, and sort of slumbering, ambition and self-confidence. The more he lets out who he really is, the more conservative he gets, partly because conservatism is the path of maximum ambition for him.

If you're a Republican, if you want to be a really transformative president, what FDR was on the Democratic side, really change the political landscape forever, you've got to be conservative. You've got to really push the edge of where policy can go, both in foreign policy and domestic policy. If you're a moderate, you don't leave as big a footprint.

I think this is a president who wants to leave a really, really big footprint if he can, both internationally and domestically. Being a conservative is a way to do that. So in a sense, it's that he's a conservative. And in sense, it's that the more conservative it is, the more ambitious it lets him be. By the way, I'm sure this is all instinctive, and not articulated to himself, about himself, in his mind.

What is the Bush presidency pre-9/11 about? Assess for us the pre-9/11 president.

I don't really at all believe in the view that the Bush presidency before 9/11 was adrift or anything like that. His poll numbers weren't that good. But the reason for that was basically, let's call the presidential election of 2000 a tie. It's a coin toss that lands on its side. So he had the farthest thing possible from a mandate. If you remember, many people after the election were saying, "Well, therefore he must appoint four Democrats to his Cabinet." Even he went around for a couple of days saying things like that.

But somewhere between Election Day and Inauguration Day, he decided, "I am going to try to govern as if I have a mandate." 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 increase 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. ...

Were you surprised by how hard he fought to win [the 2000] election? ... What did we learn about him at that point? Anything?

... he seemed a little thrown for a loop, not knowing what to do. ...

The moment when I really felt it was when James Baker went to Florida, and he stood before the cameras, and he was just pure steel. You felt like either the president himself or Bush Incorporated, if you will, just got together and decided, "OK, we're going to do this." Once that decision had been made -- and I don't know by what sort of structural or psychological process it was made -- they seemed absolutely determined that they were going to win this. Then that determination spilled over into the determination to govern as transformational conservatives, not moderates.

The big question -- why does he decide to invade Iraq?

First thing to say about the president's decision to invade Iraq is we will not know for 100 years what really happened. You have to wait for all historical archives to be opened up. Even then, you may not completely know, because this is not a president who writes things down himself. What was the mix of his thoughts, we don't know.

It is clear that, even before 9/11, President Bush wanted Saddam Hussein out of power. President Clinton wanted Saddam Hussein out of power, but President Bush wanted it more, and in a more aggressive form. He said several times during the presidential campaign that he wanted Saddam Hussein out of power. He allied himself with people who thought that his father had made a mistake in not sending American troops during the first Gulf War onto Baghdad to take out Saddam Hussein.

He was highly aware of Saddam Hussein's fairly feeble and unsuccessful assassination attempt in 1993 on his father, when his father was visiting the Persian Gulf region, and he's referred to it repeatedly. So there's a bit of an element of revenge here. There's an element of just moral outrage over Saddam Hussein, an evil man, being in power.

There's an element, as there is often with this president, of thinking "My father wasn't quite tough enough in how he handled something, and I'm going to handle it in a tougher and more aggressive way." So this is all a kind of baseline.

I think in Washington, at the time, it's a testament to Bush's strength as president that he was able to take what had been a kind of fringe position -- that is, an invasion of Iraq -- and make it a mainstream position, almost on his own, by force of will. If you had gotten up in Washington at a dinner party in 2000 and said, "I think the United States should send a large armed force to Iraq, invade it, and conquer it, and occupy it," people would have thought you were nuts. If you objected to that course in the spring of 2003, people in Washington would have thought you were nuts.

It became the consensus, and you just felt the whole city move toward war. I suspect the people in the administration really persuaded themselves about the weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, that it was possible, it might even be likely, and that if you waited, you couldn't do anything. That was the problem in North Korea and Iran. If you went in early, you could stop the nuclear capacity from being acquired in the first place. I don't know how much Bush thought that Saddam had to do with 9/11.

I also think the idea of transforming the Middle East -- and this being the most plausible place to start -- was probably tremendously appealing to the president. You would hear people in Washington who wanted war, say things like, "Well, it doesn't really matter which country we invade. We need to invade a country in the region and establish an American presence that would be analogous to the American presence in Germany during the Cold War." So I suspect that appealed to him a lot.

Beyond that, there's a bit of an element of mystery to it. I think the idea was rattling around in his mind of somehow getting rid of Saddam Hussein when he took office. He had pretty much decided, certainly before 2003, probably sometime during 2002, that an invasion was the way to go.

In retrospect, a lot of people are saying, "Why didn't he perceive the risks?" Do you think he perceived the risks that he was taking on invading Iraq?

First of all, President Bush is a risk taker. And he does things that put a lot into play, not especially carefully. A much less glamorous example is No Child Left Behind Act. I think one in five Americans is either a public school student, or a public school teacher. Maybe even one in four. It affects a huge part of the country enormously. It just isn't President Bush's way to say, "Well, wait a minute, if I'm going to be touching this many people's lives, I should really be careful about it." He wants to push, to get it.

Nobody thought that conquering Iraq, in the pure military sense, would be a big challenge. Everybody thought that would go fine, with some variation. So I think he felt confident, but had reason to feel confident about that. On the postwar, I suspect he just thought it was going to go a whole lot better than it's gone, and that he thought the people of Iraq will be grateful to be liberated. You know, peace will dawn.

The picture of chaos, which one heard a lot before the war, especially from old Iraq hands, came from a source the president tends not to take seriously -- establishmentarians, moderates, liberals, people like that. So I think he thought, "Oh, these are the same old voices of caution that you always hear, and that my father listened to in the Gulf War. I'm going to try something bolder. I just have a feeling it'll work."

When you say he's a risk taker, you talk about him being ambitious, you talk about him wanting to do big things, to be a transformative president. Where does it come from?

I've thought about that a lot. First of all, although President Bush often accuses other people of being members of the elite or the elitists, you can't come from a more elite background than him. Unless you're a Rockefeller or something, it's just very hard to think of more fortunate circumstances than the ones into which he was born, where he's connected from birth to practically everything and everybody. Every possibility is open to him.

Part of it is just that he's raised as a sort of prince to think of himself as a person for whom all things are possible. That's just woven into his life so much that it can't not express himself in ambition as a governing leader.

So "I'll think about the big strokes, and the staff will think about the details."

Part of it is that, but part of it is, big strokes are possible if you're a Bush. I mean, that's just a message you would get.

Is he intellectually secure? How would you characterize George W.?

Yes, here we're really speculating, [but] I'll give you an answer. I think he's a really complicated and subtle mix of secure and insecure. He's had a lot of experiences in life that he would read as, if not failure, at least not succeeding at things. Many people he has encountered in life haven't been won over by him. Bill Clinton's a guy [who], everybody he's ever met, he's made the sale.

Can you give me a short litany of those experiences for Bush where he didn't really succeed?

He didn't do real well at Andover, at least compared to his father. Didn't do real well at Yale, at least compared to his father. Didn't do real well in the oil business, certainly compared to his father. Lost his first race for office.

He didn't have a lot of experiences before the Rangers that were in the nature of getting the message back, "Wow, you aced it." There just weren't a lot of things like that for him. So if he, after that run, were to be totally secure, it would be sort of amazing, because having all those experiences sort of works its way into you.

Yet there seems to be in him this utter confidence, deep inside, thinking, "OK, yes, I've had these experiences, but I know I'm right and they're wrong. If I can just get to a place where the rules are different, different people are in charge, I can show that I can be real successful." He found that. So in a way, the insecurity-enhancing experiences led him to find places he could go where he felt much more secure, got much more affirmation. When he got to those places, we see him having this utter self-confidence. ...

It's when Bush is in a new place, a new environment, when he feels insecure, that he tends not to perform as well. When he feels more secure, he performs better.

When you were talking about how President Bush wants to be transformative, and he's ambitious, and wants to do big things, I think the same could be said of John Kerry. Here they are, two members of the same generation, with very different visions, representing very different parts of America. ... Is that what makes this election, underneath it all? Why do people say this election is the most important?

This is an interesting election. I mean, if you were a Martian landing on earth, you might say, "Oh, I get it, they just took the same guy, cut him in half, and he's running against himself." So one thing you could say about this election, or that's striking about this election, is the similarity of the candidates, at least in their backgrounds and life stories.

They went to the same college at the same time. They both come from prominent families in the Northeast -- one in Massachusetts, one in Connecticut. They both have this sort of patrician background. They both were raised in an atmosphere that values public service. They both are shaped by Vietnam. They're both very early attracted to, almost obsessed by, politics. So in that sense, it's just a question of, which of these two ambitious patricians gets to be in charge of the federal government?

On the other hand, they come out of a really severe split within the little world they grew up in. As a result, they represent very different policies for the United States government. I do think it'll make a really big difference which of the two is elected president.

In foreign policy it looks, at this moment, as if President Bush has kind of pushed preemptive war doctrine as far as he can push it. But as I said, I have underestimated his ambition and drive and chutzpah before. So it may be that he'll invoke that doctrine again, and really try to establish a dominant American presence in the Middle East by changing the regimes in various countries in that region.

Kerry will certainly not do that. Bush will, again in foreign policy, almost certainly continue his kind of pulling back from so-called international community -- from treaties, and from the United Nations, and so on. Kerry, almost certainly, will try to get the United States in closer sync with the international community.

So in foreign policy, the only real question is, how chastened is President Bush by the aftermath of the Iraq war being as bad as it's been? If he is very chastened and likely to do less, then there is less difference between the two candidates. But on the other hand, those who thought President Bush would do less so far have always been wrong, including me. So don't be so sure that in the second term, if there is a second term, he won't go right back at it in the Middle East, and try to get regime change in several other countries. ...

Is this really about anything [other] than foreign policy?

Yes, it is. Domestically, what's really important is you're going to get right into the heart of where politics meets policy, and you can say, "Look, why is there, in political terms, a Democratic Party? What does the Democratic Party do for people that makes them loyal to it?" A lot of the Democratic Party is government employees at various levels. If President Bush is re-elected, I think he will relentlessly try to shrink the size of government by cutting taxes primarily, or in part, so that there just will be fewer people who work for government. Because as soon as somebody leaves the government payroll, they're more likely to be a Republican.

There'll be a big push to replace the current Social Security and Medicare systems -- the two biggest and most important federal programs people don't think about that much, they take [them] for granted -- but programs that function much more like individual accounts.

The government will give you an individual medical account that you invest in the stock market, or an individual retirement account that you invest in the stock market. That means, in the Republican calculation, you won't look to the federal government as the guarantor of your health care and retirement. That will tremendously weaken the Democratic Party.

Then you look at the major funding sources of the Democratic Party, particularly trial lawyers and labor unions. President Bush will try to do things that will weaken the whole of those entities, put less money in the hands of trial lawyers through tort reform, decrease the membership and political power of labor unions.

As president, John Kerry will do the opposite. Really, ever since 1948, Democrats have seen that health care for them is the next Social Security, and they've never quite gotten there. It's a big, unmet need in the country, because the health care system is so screwed up and there are so many people who don't have health insurance or access to good care. So it's a thing you can do for people, but it's also a tremendous way to build the Democratic Party. If you say to millions of people, "The Democratic Party brought you health care when you didn't have it before," that's the most fundamental thing -- it's life itself. That's what Clinton tried to do and failed.

I feel almost certain that, as president, Kerry's biggest initiative would be in the area of really trying to expand government-provided health care, partly to expand health care, and partly to expand government and solidify the bond of the Democratic Party with its voters.

So this growing and shrinking government stuff sounds very abstract to people, but it's really important, and it's the lifeblood of politics, because the bigger government is, the better it is for the Democratic Party; the smaller it is, the better it is for the Republican Party.

The ways in which government shrinks and grows alternatively matter to you. They're not just abstract irrelevant things that start happening to other people, especially since a lot of the small parts of government have been cut and we're really down to the fundamental, big things that really matter to people. They're in play, and they're going to change a lot under either presidency.

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posted oct. 12, 2004

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