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February 27, 2005
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Mr. Shoot-the-Moon

The flap over the telephone conversations with the then presidential aspirant which were tape-recorded in 1998-2000 by political consultant Doug Wead has been under-appreciated. It was reported mostly in The New York Times. The story went away almost as quickly as it arrived — before its underlying significance to understanding the man in the White House had been recognized.

It was Bush’s friend Wead who, more than anyone, framed the dilemma facing the son when his father was elected president in 1988, in a 44-page memo on the historical fates of “presidential children,” and so launched Dubya on his ultimately successful quest to become his own man. Perhaps no one outside his immediate family has a better perspective on the motives and ambitions of George W. Bush than the former minister-turned-political-advisor who called him “Boy.”  (Both men are 58 years old.)

Wead played a series of a dozen taped conversations with candidate Bush for Times reporter David D. Kirkpatrick, His story appeared just last Sunday on the front page. Bush apparently had been unaware the recordings were being made.

While describing the younger Bush as a world-historical figure on a par with Winston Churchill or Mahatma Gandhi, Wead may also have hoped to boost sales of his recently-published book, The Raising of a President: The Mothers and Fathers of Our Nation’s Leaders.

He describes it as the second volume of a trilogy that has spun out of that memo seventeen years ago, the first having been All The Presidents’ Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America’s First Families. What’s the subject of the projected third volume?  Presumably the presidents themselves.

The taped conversations began in 1998, when, as the furor over the Monica Lewinsky affair was growing in the press and Congress, Bush apparently first began thinking seriously of making a bid for the White House. (He was then running for re-election as governor of Texas).  The tapings continued sporadically until the summer of 2000, when he was nominated for president.

Bush is heard talking just about the way you would expect with a trusted adviser, appraising his rivals and himself. (The Times called in a sound expert to attest to the authenticity of the tapes.)

Thus, in 1998, Bush could be heard to say that John McCain “will wear thin.” Steve Forbes is “mean-spirited” and “too preppy” to succeed. Dan Quayle has “gone ugly on me, man!”  John Ashcroft would be “a very good Supreme Court pick.”

And, as for his own somewhat raucous past, Bush proposed a simple and widely-communicated rule: “If nobody shows up, there’s no story, and if somebody shows up, it’s going to be made up.”

By Thursday of last week, Wead had ignominiously backed off his stewardship of the tapes. “History can wait,” he asserted in a terse posting on his Web-site.  He would keep the advance he had received, but donate any future proceeds from the book to charity and to “find the best way to vet these tapes and get them to the president, to whom they belong.”  (Never mind that Wead has said he was in Texas when he recorded the calls, where taping without the consent of the other party is legal.)

It was a sorry ending to a friendship that began during the presidential election of 1988, when Wead served as aide to the younger man, introducing him to the intricacies of evangelical politics. (Wead has often said that he and White House political counselor Karl Rove are bitter foes.)

An August 1, 2000, Time cover story by Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs told the tale.

George W. Bush wasn’t officially notified that the White House was haunted until after his dad was elected President in 1988. He was sitting around the transition office with his aide Doug Wead, thinking about how much fun they had had during the campaign. “So what happens now?” Bush asked. Wead wondered if Bush would be interested in what becomes of presidents’ kids. Sure, said Bush, and Wead and his team went to work. They came back a few weeks later with a 44-page study that was so dark it might have been titled “The Curse,” classified top secret and filed away forever, because none of it was promising for someone who was suddenly weighing his own future in politics.

 

The report detailed how presidents’ kids had a tendency to become drunks or get sick, have an accident or die young. Many of them gave their lives over to defending their fathers in history. Some quit their jobs or couldn’t hold them; some couldn’t get it together at all. George Washington Adams, the son of John Quincy Adams, is thought to have committed suicide at 28. Others walked away from colleges and universities, or they wrote bad papers and gave lectures about why Martin van Buren was right to oppose annexing Texas. Sixteen made it to Congress, but none had been elected Governor. Bush groaned when he heard that.

It could be said that young Bush built his subsequent political future upon the platform of Wead’s report, much as his future as a man dated from his decision two years earlier to embrace evangelical Christianity and stop drinking.

At that point, Bush had done little to distinguish himself in the thirteen years since leaving Harvard Business School, beyond serving as a loyal aide to his father when needed.  In the next few years Bush would sell for $14 million the part-interest in the Texas Ranger baseball club he had bought in 1984 (for $600,000) and get elected run governor of Texas in 1993 and re-elected in 1998.

When the opportunity arose to run for president as a “uniter, not a divider,” Bush grasped it immediately and mounted an effective campaign.  When the election turned out to be a tie, he went all out and, again, managed to prevail.

Last week, the political commentator Joe Klein (a.k.a. Anonymous, author of Primary Colors,  the brilliant novel of the early Clinton years) described Bush’s approach as “the Blink presidency,” after the popular book by Malcolm Gladwell advocating on its jacket, “Don’t Think — Blink!” Blink makes the argument that instantaneous, subconscious decision-making often produces results that are superior to agonizing deliberation. Bush himself is “wantonly decisive,” Klein writes.

He decides Ariel Sharon is good and Yasser Arafat is evil, even though seasoned diplomats tell him it is not wise to make such sweeping judgments. He decides that Social Security needs to be transformed and that private investment accounts are the way to do it, even though the experts say there is no great crisis and his way won’t solve anything.  He decides to invade Iraq, with minimal contingency planning. He decides to cut taxes drastically, and then to spend an outlandish sum on Medicare prescription drug benefit.

In fact, something subtly different characterizes Bush’s decision-making.  He is employing a strategy honed in his discussions with Wead. Card players are familiar from their misspent youth with the game of Hearts, a game in which the commonest strategy is to avoid taking tricks with hearts that cost a point apiece, and, especially, to avoid the Queen of Spades, with its 13-point price-tag.

The excitement comes when a player with a potentially commanding hand decides to “shoot the moon” — that is to take all 13 hearts and the Queen. Such a bid can’t lose a single point or else the stratagem disastrously fails. Such a bust can cost 20 or even 25 points.

The danger is that George W. Bush is in danger of becoming a one-trick President — that trick being to Shoot the Moon.

His most unambiguous successes have been gambits of this sort, but they have come in the arena he knows best — electoral politics. His audacious, all-or-nothing approach to politics got him into the White house in the first place, after all. It got him re-elected, too.

His first term tax cuts were in this vein as well, but so favorable were the cards he held at the time that the maneuver was the in nature of a lay-down hand. What could be easier than stampeding Congress into a massive tax cut in a time of budgetary surplus on the eve of a recession?

His decisions to invade first Afghanistan and then Iraq may yet pan out better than expected.  The logic has been parsed by Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis as a “grand strategy.”

What appeared at first to be a lack of clarity about who was deterrable and who wasn’t turned out to be a plan for transforming the entire Muslim Middle East: for bringing it, once and for all, into the modern world. There had been nothing like this, in boldness, sweep and vision since Americans took it upon themselves, more than half a century ago, to democratize Germany and Japan, thus setting in motion processes that stopped short of only a few places on earth, one of which was the Muslim Middle East.

Gaddis, a prominent historian of the Cold War, is a Bush enthusiast. He has described the president’s evolution during his first term as “one of the most surprising transformations of an underrated national leader since Prince Hal became Henry V” and he has depicted the American military conquests in Afghanistan and Iraq as comparable to the English victory over the French at Agincourt. Gaddis was among those who read an early version of Bush’s recent State of the Union speech; he will continue to be among the most interesting interpreters of developments during the second term.

Economic policy, which Bush seems to understand least of all, is where his Shoot the Moon style is most likely to backfire. His good luck on stabilization policy during his first two years aside, he has tackled Social Security, Medicare and tax reform during his first four years in office. To suit his convenience, he has tapped into deep and carefully-developed arguments among experts that have been developing for decades.

But at the beginning of his second term, he can’t even get a serious economist to agree to sign on to a term as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.  Princeton’s broad-shouldered Harvey Rosen agreed to fill the gap created by the routine resignation after two years of Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw — but only until the end of summer. Many other important policy positions in the Treasury Department are either unfilled or about to be vacated.

It has become routine in some quarters to impute only base motives to Bush. It isn’t right, even though it is true that in his campaign for “personalizing” the Social Security system he is resorting to misstatements and deceptions that are far-less understandable and forgivable than the faulty intelligence that led to his earlier campaign against Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction.”  As he would doubtless say, in politics you’ve got to keep it simple.

Bush is a bright and lively man with an interesting personal history.  He’s a member of a large and complicated family. He’s finally a majority president, first since his father got 54 percent of the vote. By now, it is becoming apparent even in Europe that he possesses something more than simple charm.

But as a third-generation politico, forced at every turn to differentiate his product from that of his highly successful (if one term) father, he is operating at a severe disadvantage. The Reagan comparison that Bush routinely invites doesn’t work, for precisely the reason that Reagan wasn’t living in the shadow of a successful father. By temperament and biographical necessity, the younger Bush is forever swinging for the fences when a more measured stroke would serve him better.

That is why, by filling in some of the details of the circumstances in which George W. Bush began his most audacious bid, his former friend Doug Wead has done us all a favor. Wead was right the first time. With so much at stake, history cannot, must not, wait to form a judgment about the George W. Bush approach.

* * *

Princeton University economist David Bradford died last week from burns suffered February 8 in a highly improbable encounter at home with lighted candles on a six-week old Christmas tree. He was 66.

It was Bradford who, as deputy assistant secretary for tax policy in the Ford administration, framed the current debate with a careful 1977 study called Blueprints for Basic Tax Reform. Reprinted in 1984, it served as guidebook for the 1986 simplification of the income tax.

Pleased as he was with the 1986 reform, Bradford regarded it as a half-way measure.  He recommended instead a far-reaching switch to a global system of consumption taxation. During the 150 years in which tax-writers’ focus was on income, lawyers and accountants had learned to manipulate the concept so easily, especially its timing, as to render it meaningless.

Better, he said, to tax people on what they spend rather than what they save — at least for the next 150 years.

Bradford had long since moved on to what he considered a more interesting problem — the economic policy choices arising from global warming. A lively, gentle and good-humored man, he will be sorely missed as the conversation about tax reform that he had summarized so effectively finally comes to a head next year.

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