Books of The Times

Bush Profiled: Big Ideas, Tiny Details

G. W. Bush - "Dead Certain - The Presidency of George W. Bush"

MICHIKO KAKUTANI - Days before the 2006 election, Robert Draper reports in his fascinating new book, as things were looking bleaker and bleaker for House Republicans, and even the party’s chairman was predicting a G.O.P. defeat, George W. Bush brushed aside such forecasts, telling one of his worried aides that they were all being pessimists. When she protested that she was simply being realistic, he said: “Realist — I like that,” but added, “There’s a fine line between realism and pessimism.”
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In “Dead Certain” Mr. Draper — a national correspondent for GQ magazine and a former Texas Monthly editor who wrote a lengthy profile of Mr. Bush, then governor of Texas, in 1998 — draws a detailed portrait, based on six hourlong interviews with the notoriously press-wary president and interviews with some 200 other sources, including Laura Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and the senior adviser Karl Rove.
It is a portrait of the commander in chief as a willful optimist, proud of his self-confidence and convinced that any expressions of doubt would make him less of a leader: a man addicted to “Big Ideas and small comforts” (like riding his bike), a stubborn, even obstinate politician loath to change course or second-guess himself, and given to valuing loyalty above almost everything else.
This overall picture is hardly new, of course, and Mr. Draper’s depiction of the president as an avatar of certainty owes a lot to Ron Suskind’s 2004 portrait of Mr. Bush (which appeared in The New York Times Magazine) and to the portrait Bob Woodward drew in his 2006 book, “State of Denial.” While there are many aspects of the Bush presidency that Mr. Draper completely neglects — there is almost nothing here about executive power, interrogation policy or the treatment of detainees — what “Dead Certain” does do and does very nimbly is give the reader an intimate sense of the president’s personality and how it informs his decision making.
At the same time, it ratifies what many other reporters and former insiders have said about this administration’s ad hoc, often haphazard policy-making process, while suggesting that the West Wing has grown increasingly dysfunctional over the years, with the aides Karl Rove and Dan Bartlett “constantly at war” with each other, and other staff members not on speaking terms.
Already, “Dead Certain” has caused controversy, showing that the blame game in an increasingly embattled administration is already in full play. In the book President Bush is quoted, saying of the much-criticized decision to disband the Iraqi army (a decision many experts say fatally fueled the insurgency): “Well, the policy was to keep the army intact,” adding that it just “didn’t happen.”
In response, his former top envoy to Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, who issued that fateful order in 2003, has released letters showing that the president was told in advance by Mr. Bremer of a plan to “dissolve Saddam’s military and intelligence structures.”
“Dead Certain” also asserts, almost in passing, that it was John Roberts who suggested Harriet Miers to Mr. Bush as a possible Supreme Court nominee, leading to her disastrous nomination. Chief Justice Roberts denied that report through a court spokeswoman, who said “the account is not true.”
Although the President Bush described in this volume will be familiar to most readers, Mr. Draper colors in the outlines with lots of tiny details. Apparently Mr. Bush loves doing imitations of Dr. Evil from the “Austin Powers” movies. He keeps meticulous count of all the books he’s read. (At one point he tells Mr. Draper he’s up to 87 for the year.) And he’s wildly competitive about his bike riding, eager to show his younger Secret Service companions “who’s The Man” and insistent on burning at least 1,000 calories during each workout.
This is a president who says he cries easily and often about dead and wounded soldiers, a president who Mr. Draper says doesn’t defer, as widely believed, to Vice President Cheney and Mr. Rove (who apparently recommended that Mr. Cheney not be put on the 2000 ticket, arguing, in Mr. Draper’s words, that picking “Daddy’s top foreign-policy guy ran counter to message.”)
Mr. Draper tells us that the president repeated his conviction that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction to his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., “all the way up until Card’s departure in April 2006, almost exactly three years after the Coalition had begun its fruitless search for WMD’s.”
And he describes Mr. Bush asking for a show of hands at an April 2006 dinner about whether to keep Mr. Rumsfeld on as defense secretary in the face of a downward-spiraling war: Mr. Bush, Mr. Rove, Mr. Bartlett and Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, voted to keep Mr. Rumsfeld on board; Mr. Card, the outgoing chief of staff; Joshua B. Bolten, the incoming chief of staff; and Ms. Rice, among others, voted for Mr. Rumsfeld’s ouster.
The president, who, Mr. Draper repeatedly observes, prizes routine and familiarity, hoped his favorite staff members would be “eight-year men”: “The notion that change was not only good but essential — that once-vital personnel would outlive their usefulness and require culling — ran counter to his impulses.”
It is also clear from Mr. Draper’s book that President Bush dislikes criticism and bad news, and that staffers found it very hard “to stick one’s arm into the fiercely whirring gears of Team Bush’s institutionalized optimism and say, ‘Let’s ... slow... down. And rethink this.’ ” For that matter, this volume is studded with examples — on matters ranging from the Iraq war to Hurricane Katrina — of aides failing to deliver distressing information to the president or failing to persuade him to grapple quickly with unfortunate developments.
In her much-criticized role as national security adviser, Ms. Rice, for instance, is described as deciding to be the president’s information broker and sounding board rather than the person, as Mr. Draper puts it, who would ruffle “his feathers with opinions that he did not share.” She is quoted as telling a close friend: “It’s not my exercising influence over him. I’m internalizing his world.”
As other reporters and former administration insiders have frequently observed, dissenting views, be they on Iraq or domestic policy, are rarely solicited by this White House, and Mr. Draper writes that one of Mr. Bush’s most pronounced traits is “an almost petulant heedlessness to the outside world.” Members of the Iraq Study Group told Mr. Draper that they found the president “far more upbeat than the realities in Iraq seemed to warrant,” and that it occurred to one of them that President Bush did not so much want to hear their views as “convince us that we should be writing a report that would reflect his views.”
What’s more, when dissenting views did reach the president, the results could be an obstinate digging in of heels. For example, calls for Mr. Rumsfeld’s resignation from several retired generals in the spring of 2006 elicited this response from Mr. Bush: “No military guy is gonna tell a civilian how to react.” As one aide glumly put it: “The moment someone would say ‘Fire Donald Rumsfeld,’ Donald Rumsfeld would get a new lease on life.”
The best approach to selling the ever-competitive president on an idea, aides told Mr. Draper, was to tell him, “This is going to be a really tough decision.” Mr. Rumsfeld (whose own Big Idea was to “transform” the military and go into Iraq with a lighter, faster force) gave similar advice, telling his lieutenants that if they wanted the president’s support for an initiative, it was always best to frame it as a “Big New Thing.”
Mr. Draper writes that Mr. Bush was “at root a man who craved purpose — a sense of movement, of consequence” and that he was irresistibly drawn to Big Ideas like bringing democracy to the Middle East, Big Ideas that stood in sharp contrast to the prudent small ball played by his father, who was often accused of lacking the “vision thing.”
So what does the current President Bush plan to do after leaving office? At the end of this revealing book, Mr. Draper quotes him saying that he plans to build a “Freedom Institute,” a sort of think tank where young leaders from abroad can learn about democracy. Mr. Bush, who has a net worth estimated at $8 million to $21 million, also said he would like to make some money — “replenish the ol’ coffers,” as he put it.
He said he could make “ridiculous” money out on the lecture circuit: “I don’t know what my dad gets. But it’s more than fifty, seventy-five” thousand dollars a speech.

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