Bush is no JFK

Historian Robert Dallek talks about the murky designs of the Bush White House, the lusty impulses of Kennedy and Clinton, and where Bush's aggressive moralism may leave his own legacy.


Mark Follman
June 16, 2003 11:00PM (UTC)

He just finished a landmark biography of John F. Kennedy, he's the author of bestselling books about Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and yet presidential historian Robert Dallek admits he hasn't figured out George W. Bush. "In some ways he's sui generis," says Dallek, whose trade relies on the notion that presidents can and must be explained.

Of course, Dallek plies his trade after presidents are dead and gone. But Salon put him on the spot, asking him to share his thinking about Bush just past the midterm of his presidency, a year and a half before he seeks reelection. Though Dallek prefers to have reams of evidence in hand before he weighs in on a president, he mostly obliged.

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Dallek says the administration is doing a great job burnishing the president's image as a decisive leader -- gilding him on the deck of the USS Lincoln as the triumphant commander in chief being but one example. Of course, that's no more audacious than projecting an image of fitness for the wheelchair-assisted FDR, or of vitality for the shockingly sickly JFK. But Karl Rove's handiwork aside, Dallek doesn't buy the notion that Bush can't be beaten in 2004: "You just cannot assume anything in American politics a year and a half ahead of an election. The economy could tank; Bush could lose by a landslide."

And while many think the Democrats' perceived weakness on the key issue of national security spells defeat, Dallek believes the Bush administration is treading on dangerous ground with the missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. "I think the Democrats smell this as an issue," he says. Indeed, questions about the administration's credibility in going to war may haunt Bush in the next election, and they may do so even before then, both here and abroad, should the administration aim to get increasingly bellicose with the remaining members of the so-called axis of evil, Iran and North Korea.

Few historians have delved into the American presidency as thoroughly as Dallek has. He gained exclusive access to JFK's previously unopened White House medical files, and in his new book, "An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963," Dallek taps them to further illuminate Kennedy in the president's defining moments of crisis. With his even-handed approach, Dallek's great accomplishment is deepening the understanding of a president already exhaustively scrutinized -- and mythologized. Likewise, Dallek has been praised for his nuanced two-volume portrait of the complicated and oft demonized LBJ, and for his definitive take on FDR's remarkable balancing of foreign and domestic policy in an era even more turbulent on both those fronts than the present one.

Though the jury is still out on Bush, Dallek has already brushed up against the current administration's policies: In April 2002, he testified before Congress on Bush's Executive Order 13223, which rolled back the Presidential Records Act of 1978 by extending executive privilege indefinitely. Dallek argued not only that the order would hinder the work of historians but also that it would undermine former Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter's definition of true democratic government: "the government which accepts, in the fullest sense, responsibility to explain itself." Legislation is now pending in the House to overturn Bush's order, but the administration has moved quickly to kill the bill's growing bipartisan support.

Salon spoke with Dallek in Palo Alto, Calif., in early June about the murky inner workings of the Bush White House, the upcoming presidential election, the potential legacy of the current president -- and whose life he'd rather write about, George W. Bush's or Bill Clinton's.

John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were Democratic presidents considered to be strong warriors, if ultimately in the context of the Vietnam debacle. Yet arguably the Republicans have owned issues of national security and military strength for decades now. How did the Democratic Party come to be perceived as weak on defense and security? Is it all about the Vietnam legacy?

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Yes, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that the U.S. loses the Vietnam War, that Lyndon Johnson is seen as the responsible party, and that the Democrats are tarred with the brush that they didn't have enough determination, commitment and consistency to stand fast. Richard Nixon has to get us out because the Democrats did such a lousy job, and ever since ... Ronald Reagan, of course, helps the Republican Party greatly by building up the American military, or perhaps more importantly by rebuilding morale in the American military. So I think this perceived Democratic weakness has everything to do with Vietnam.

Public sentiment right now gives the Democrats little, if any, chance of winning the 2004 presidential election. Do you think Bush is beatable, and if so, how?

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A sitting president is always beatable. You just cannot assume anything in American politics a year and a half ahead of an election. You don't know what's going to happen: The economy could tank; Bush could lose by a landslide. Or he could win by a landslide. Or he could squeak through again.

Where is Bush most vulnerable? With the effective dismantling of both the Taliban and Saddam regimes, he enjoys high marks as commander in chief, but is he proving a disaster on the domestic front?

I think he's most vulnerable now on two counts. One is indeed the economy; if there's a kind of continuing deflation -- which the economists are worried about now -- if there is a recession that enters into the picture, I think it's going to remind people a lot of his father. He's a very smart politician, or at least surrounded by smart politicians, and they will, of course, make the case for the idea that he's intensely concerned about the economy and doing everything in his power to right the ship.

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I think he's also potentially vulnerable on this issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- if they're not found and there's a continuing drumbeat about the idea that he pushed us into this war without really having authoritative information on these weapons.

On the other hand, I think this is a tough issue to defeat him on because the country seems to be quite happy with the fact that we won this war quickly, with very little cost in blood, and we toppled a man who was unquestionably a terrible dictator.

Since Sept. 11 Bush has used a climate of fear in the country -- and some would argue he's exacerbated it -- to cast himself in the role of the nation's fierce protector. Assuming national security will be a key issue in the '04 campaign, how can the Democrats mount convincing opposition to him on it?

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It's difficult to say, especially because so many of the Democrats signed on to the war in Iraq. But this is also the point of vulnerability on weapons of mass destruction -- I think they smell this as an issue. And it's not just the Democrats. There are Republicans in the Senate who are concerned about this, most concerned, not about the idea that the intelligence services may have had it wrong, but that the administration may have exaggerated and distorted it.

An investigation is going to go forward. What it will produce and how that will affect the campaign is impossible to say, but for the moment it seems like a potentially important issue.

But thus far the Democrats appear fearful of attacking Bush in this area where he looks so strong, precisely because they fear being construed as weak on national security.

Well, except that there have been a number of criticisms leveled at him in terms of homeland security, that the administration isn't giving enough money to local governments to beef up security. So it's not as if they've been entirely muted. And we may hear more of this as the campaign heats up.

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Much of the world is disturbed by Bush's aggressive unilateralist doctrine for the war on terror. Here's a man who, when he campaigned for president, dismissed nation building outright, referred to Kosovars as "Kosovians," and told the New York Times, "I'm smart enough to know what I don't know." Recent military successes aside, is the world right to feel alarmed by Bush's foreign policy? Does its faith in military might eschew diplomacy to a dangerous degree?

Yes, I think the world has been distressed by this national security doctrine they've put forward. It's troubling in that it says, "We are not going to wait for a threat to materialize. After 9/11 we have to assume there could be attacks against us at any time, and we're not going to let anybody steal a march on us in terms of power." I think Bush enjoys enormous support in the U.S. on this count, but it does raise concerns. Many countries outside the U.S. see it in some ways as an expression of neo-imperialism. I do think in the Arab world there is an awful lot of antagonism toward us.

But this is an administration which is very politically shrewd. The initiative they're taking now to try and resolve some of the issues between the Palestinians and the Israelis -- they really are taking on an extremely difficult task, but I think they realize that if they're going to enhance their standing around the world, and more importantly, if they're going to bring any kind of stability to the Middle East and disarm Arab hostility toward the U.S., they have to try to do it by re-stimulating the peace process. So they're mindful of reaction around the world, and I think they're trying to combat it with this Middle East policy they're now pursuing.

So you're convinced the Bush administration is now most concerned with effective diplomacy?

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I think they have to be. All the talk we've heard about Syria and Iran ... the administration is saying, "Look, we're not planning military action against those countries." They're talking about diplomacy now.

Your latest book examines JFK's extraordinary ability to project a robust public image -- both physical and psychological -- in spite of his serious health problems. Similarly, you've noted how essential it is for a president to be able to communicate to and educate the public on policy. Bush's handlers seem to have the image part down, but is Bush possibly the worst communicator in the history of the presidency? He's almost stunningly inarticulate.

Yes, I've been troubled by this, and I think many people in American universities and elsewhere have been troubled by it.

So how does he enjoy such high approval ratings?

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The speeches he gives are very well crafted, and well delivered. This gives him a kind of pass on the fact that he's not so articulate when he has to speak spontaneously. Also, they've been very cautious about letting him perform at press conferences. So what you get is an awful lot in the way of managed speeches and set-piece speeches, as opposed to extemporaneous exchanges.

But he's become a bit better at this because he's had training on the job. His handlers see what his vulnerabilities and weaknesses are. Remember, before he was elected, there was the sense that "this guy's not really a credible candidate. Look how he flubs and flails about when he's speaking." But then he had the debates with Gore, and he made himself into a much more credible candidate. The man doesn't lack intelligence; it's just that he's not very considered or cerebral or thoughtful, it seems. He just lacks those qualities.

What does this say about the glorified kingmaking talents of Karl Rove? Has there ever been an administration more aggressive, or more effective, in manipulating public opinion?

They are very astute at polishing Bush's image. But that's what presidencies do. Franklin Roosevelt was immobilized, in a wheelchair, and the public never knew. Here was man who couldn't walk, and he'd say to the reporters when they'd interview him, "Well, boys, I gotta run." He couldn't walk! Kennedy was so astute at hiding his medical ills from the public. People had a picture of him that was so robust, young, dynamic. But of course this was not the reality.

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So on one level they all do it, and some are more effective than others. Jimmy Carter was terribly inept at it. This administration so far has been very effective at it.

Yet in the hyper-media age, Bush can't be able to conceal things the way Roosevelt, or even Kennedy, did. Could WMD in Iraq prove to be Bush's Gulf of Tonkin?

Again, it's impossible to predict. We don't know how this will play out. But no, Bush certainly can't conceal things the same way. Which in a sense makes it all the more impressive as to how effective they've been, because the press is so much more aggressive now about revealing presidential flaws and weaknesses and mistakes. But an administration controls access to a president, and this one is very adept at letting the press in, so to speak, when it wants to.

In terms of challenges facing a presidency, how do the events of 1968 and the Vietnam debacle compare with 9/11 and the war on terrorism? How does Bush stack up in his time of crisis with Johnson or Kennedy in theirs?

Well, 1968 and the Tet Offensive was a political disaster for Johnson. They'd been talking about light at the end of the tunnel, and what came along was this terrible psychological blow showing that the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were anything but defeated. September 11th was, of course, a total surprise to the country and created a rally effect, a sense of "Let's all get behind the president." The whole nation was now vulnerable, not simply American troops stationed in Europe or the Middle East or Asia. It was all of us. Any president would have had this kind of rally effect behind him and would've taken advantage of it. The circumstances are dramatically different: Sept. 11th, though it was also quite different from Pearl Harbor, indeed was much more like Pearl Harbor than it was the Tet Offensive.

Now, if Iraq continues to be a painful, difficult, unmanageable situation, it can hardly do the administration any credit. But if they begin to get something resembling stability, it will serve them brilliantly. If there are more terrorist attacks abroad or at home, you can ask the question, "Will it rally the country behind the president once again? Or will it undermine him by creating the feeling that, Hey, they had two and a half years to deal with this and they haven't been all that effective?"

Kennedy ultimately went against his zealously hawkish advisors on the Cuban missile crisis and negotiated a diplomatic solution. Bush appears to be well within the hands of the so-called neoconservatives surrounding him. Has there ever been a president so reliant upon, or beholden to, his advisors?

Sure. One might say Reagan, possibly Eisenhower. It's an excellent question -- the kind that historians ultimately want to answer -- but it's impossible to answer at this point. How can we know the inner workings of the Bush White House? We still don't know the precise inner workings of the Reagan White House. We want to get the documents and records. What was Reagan doing in these meetings? How did he speak? What did he say? Did he take charge, or was he being pushed around, so to speak?

You've highlighted Kennedy's instinct in recognizing the limitation of military remedies, in how he narrowly averted nuclear conflict. With Bush, there's so much suspicion surrounding his motives and choices. What if he is following every word of his neoconservative circle? What are the dangers of that? A lot of people fear Bush doesn't have good instincts.

Ultimately, historians will judge Bush on the question of whether he is an independent thinker. Whether he has the wisdom to take good advice and reject the bad advice. Who has the upper hand? Every day we get stories in the newspapers about the battles between the Pentagon and the State Department, between the hawkish advisors and the more moderate ones. The fact that Bush is now pursuing diplomacy in the Middle East: Is this the product of what his hawkish advisors have said, or of what Colin Powell is urging? Of course, sometimes these differences are exaggerated in the press because it makes good copy.

Before the war, the Cuban missile crisis was trotted out as precedent for the threat of WMD in Iraq. But isn't there a telling contrast between Kennedy's instinct for balanced diplomacy and Bush's dogmatic preemptive policy? Especially considering that Kennedy had photos of missiles sitting a mere 90 miles offshore, while the WMD have yet to materialize thousands of miles away...

I think it is striking. I don't think what the Bush administration is doing is preemptive -- that's the wrong terminology. It's prevention, which is a much more questionable way to go about making foreign and national security policy.

In fact, Kennedy's Bay of Pigs invasion was prevention. They thought Castro would be a terrible future problem. That approach was no different from the current national security doctrine. Now, Kennedy's confrontation with Khrushchev over the Cuban missile crisis, that was preemptive, because there was a much more direct, immediate threat -- it was preemptive through diplomacy but prepared, if need be, to use the military.

Policies of prevention have been a huge problem for us. We toppled Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and it came back to haunt us. There was a lot of recrimination from Iran; they toppled the Shah and put in place the Ayatollah regime that's so hostile to the U.S. And we did it because we thought Mossadegh was going to be a problem for us. So these preventive actions have proven a much more dicey foreign and national security policy and in most respects, I think, a much less successful one than really doing preemption. I think we're seeing the consequences now already, in the fact that there is growing antagonism in other countries toward the U.S.

How has the American public changed politically since WWII, or since the Vietnam era? Could someone like Bush have been elected in 1940, or in 1964 against Kennedy if he'd still been alive?

I doubt it. There was still the legacy of FDR's New Deal, and there was a kind of loyalty. The Democratic Party had become the majority party. You still had the New Deal coalition. And this of course was the time of the move out to the suburbs, and the expansion of the economy, and a great increase in prosperity.

Now you have a lot more independent voters and people who are drawn to the Republican Party, especially because of your earlier point: The Republicans are now seen as the superior party in terms of national security issues, and these have become so much more important than they used to be.

Clinton was often compared to JFK; which president does Bush most resemble?

It's kind of difficult to say. In some ways Bush is sui generis. He's certainly not like his father; I think he's more to the right. He's certainly not like JFK, although I think there is a certain decisiveness to him.

There is a kind of evangelism to the man, which has some echoes of Woodrow Wilson. Bush has a kind of secular religion, a kind of passion; he believes in good and evil. That's the star he pursues. With an international political crisis confronting the country, he's been able to make it into a moral issue. So this notion of "evil empire" doesn't sink him, it actually enhances his standing with the public, because in such a time people like this kind of clear-cut divide between good and evil. It's very appealing. And I don't mean to suggest that Bush is so cynical, or that he just trumped this whole thing up -- I think he really believes in this, and it resonates with millions and millions of people in the country.

Your book suggests that JFK's philandering may have connected to a need to assert his manhood in light of his physical ailments. Have you thought about an explanation of Clinton in this regard, especially given Clinton's willingness to risk such consequential behavior inside the White House itself? Surely the potential for enormous fallout must've crossed Clinton's mind.

Well, I think Clinton, like Kennedy, may be seen as a compulsive womanizer. Why they can't control themselves is maybe a question for psychiatrists, not for historians. [Laughs.] But I think without question these are men who ... as Kennedy told Harold McMillan, "If I don't have a woman every three days, I get a headache."

There's some kind of physical and emotional problem that they bring to bear here. I mean, that Kennedy felt compelled to carry on with this 19-year-old intern is really kind of shocking! That Clinton felt compelled to ... you know, these guys could have had women galore. Why did they have to hit on these young women?

Not to mention the fact they were both married

Maybe they liked this recklessness, maybe they found it so challenging. I think with Kennedy there was more of the impulse to believe that he could get away with it, because the press would not be on his case.

In a way, that makes Clinton's behavior that much more mystifying.

In a way it does, that he was so much more willing to take a kind of risk that I don't think Kennedy quite believed was there. It's a puzzle.

If you were choosing between the two for your next biography, would it be Clinton or Bush?

Believe me, I'd write about Bill Clinton. I find him a much more sympathetic character. And a more interesting one. But all these presidents command plenty of attention. There'll be puzzles about Bush, too, and very interesting political questions. How did he carry it all off, the guy who seems so inarticulate? How did he do it?


Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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