Bush’s presidential quagmire

Donald Rumsfeld's discharge continues a shake-up begun months ago -- and marks a major power shift in the White House. But is it too late for Bush to salvage his presidency?

Topics: Iraq, Pentagon, Middle East, Donald Rumsfeld

Bush's presidential quagmire

To update Tolstoy, George W. Bush’s press conference in the wake of Tuesday’s elections illustrated that every unhappy president is unhappy in his own way. Other presidents (Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower and even Franklin Roosevelt) have in Bush’s enduring description taken a “thumping” in the congressional elections midway through their second term. But no other modern president appeared before the cameras the next day in a mood that veered from contrition to manic giddiness — and fired his defense secretary to boot.

In the annals of presidential truth-telling (a thin volume), there is no obvious precedent for Bush’s startling admission that he lied to reporters when he offered Don Rumsfeld a strong presidential vote of confidence just before the election. As Bush tried to explain Wednesday, “I didn’t want to inject a major decision about this war in the final days of a campaign. And so the only way to answer that question … was to give you that answer.” Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution whose knowledge of the White House dates back to his days as a young Eisenhower speechwriter, called it “the honesty of the honest lie. Bush was telling the truth when he said he lied.”

This was a gambit of a rogue politician, not a president whose stock in trade is that he is a straight-talking conservative. The shiv in Rumsfeld’s back, belated though it may have been, was also at odds with Bush’s image as a don’t-rock-the-boat leader who prizes loyalty. Displaying a rarely seen Machiavellian side, Bush all but said that he had been in serious negotiations with former CIA director Robert Gates about taking the Pentagon job even before Rumsfeld was told that it was time to write his memoirs.

At the core of Bob Woodward’s latest book, “State of Denial,” was the mystery of Rumfeld’s job security when even Laura Bush was privately raising questions about his fitness to continue. Woodward’s implicit answer was the hidden hand of Dick Cheney. But what does it say about the new power realities in the White House when suddenly Rumsfeld — an inflexible ideologue wedded to victory on the cheap in Iraq — is axed to make way for Gates, an establishmentarian whose pragmatism seems at odds with the history-will-absolve-us certainty of the Bush inner circle?

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The Gates selection is just the latest example of an unheralded retooling of the Bush administration that began, earlier this year, when Josh Bolton, the budget czar, was selected to replace the overmatched Andrew Card as White House chief of staff. This was a talent upgrade akin to the sooth-Wall-Street selection of Henry Paulson to replace John Snow at Treasury, or the choice of ready-for-prime-time Tony Snow as the new White House press secretary. This is not the stuff of TV specials and news-magazine covers, but it does suggest that the president is slowly learning the virtue of opting for competence rather than sticking with smug complacency.

Yet even if Rumseld, that reluctant retiree, has to be physically carried out of his office, he will still have his memories and the Iraq war. The Defense secretary will always be identified with the strategic misjudgments that have created the mess in Mesopotamia in the same way that Robert McNamara is forever linked with the Vietnam tragedy.

In fact, the obvious analogy to Rumsfeld’s surprising return to the private sector is Lyndon Johnson crony Clark Clifford, a suave and hawkish Washington lawyer, moving into McNamara’s Pentagon office after the Tet offensive in early 1968. Clifford quickly reinvented himself as a dove, resisting plans to send 206,000 more American soldiers to Vietnam. And while it took America another five years to extricate its troops (thank you, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger), LBJ was out of the White House within the year.

One of Johnson’s trademark phrases was “I’m the only president you’ve got.” As rancorous as the current divisions are in American politics, Bush has now entered that twilight zone in which he has moved beyond the will of the voters, yet he has a long 26 months still to go in office. So in a patriotic sense, rather than in a narrow political sense, the question must be asked: Can this presidency be saved?

There are parallels for a successful late-term adjustment in course, most notably Reagan bringing in Howard Baker as White House chief of staff in 1987 after the Iran-Contra scandal. But Reagan was the Gipper — the conservative ideologue whom many liberals found difficult to hate. “Remember Reagan carried 49 states in 1984,” said Stephen Knott, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center for Public Affairs. “And to be blunt about it, people weren’t dying over Iran-Contra the way they are in Iraq.”

Bush’s determination to govern as if he had a sweeping mandate even when he owed his presidency to hanging chads, and the Republican get-out-the-vote juggernaut in Ohio, has created wounds that will still be festering years after Bush has returned to the life of a semi-retired rancher in Crawford, Texas. The arrogance demonstrated by this administration when everything was breaking right for Bush does not leave the president with a reservoir of goodwill now that everything is broken.

Yet something is changing in this White House — and it may be time to redraw those one-dimensional portraits of Bush as president. As Fred Greenstein, a professor and expert on the presidency at Princeton, said, referring to the press conference, “I think Bush is after a niche in the Guinness Book of Records — for trying to reconfigure his whole style of governing when he should be a lame-duck president.”

Make no mistake, 60-year-old presidents do not suddenly discover their cerebral side after they lose control of Congress. Nor is the course in Iraq clear or attainable now that Rumsfeld has finally been ousted. But, as he proved Wednesday, Bush is still capable of decisive surprise. And while he seems incapable of escaping the harsh judgment of history, he is not going quietly — even as a lame-duck president saddled with a Democrat-dominated Congress, and unable to either win or withdraw from a brutal war of his own making.

Walter Shapiro is Salon's Washington bureau chief. A complete listing of his articles is here.

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