A Candid Interview with President Bush:|
A Fantasia of Hope
By Bernard Weiner
President Bush seemed flustered by my question.
"In our family," the President said, with something of a pained smile, "that period and those episodes are regarded as ancient, and somewhat embarrassing, history."
"I certainly understand that, Madame President," I persisted, "but surely you have a personal view of what happened at the turn-of-the-century."
There was a long silence. Her struggle to formulate an answer -- or even whether to formulate an answer -- was almost palpable.
"My great-uncle was a good man, deep down. However, in truth, there wasn't all that much 'deep' down there. What you saw is what you got: a fairly superficial man who struggled for acceptance all his life because he wasn't much good at anything, with his family and friends always paving the way for him. Given his self-esteem problems, like so many others in that era he took to alcohol and drugs -- and I'm not going to go into any of that, as he's tal ked in his memoir about how he turned his life around.
"But when he became President and America was attacked by terrorists, he suddenly found himself, saw a way he could excel and do good for the country. He saw that terrorism was the new type of warfare for the 21st century, and, unlike his predecessors, moved to do something about it. The American people loved him for that, and in the beginning months supported his war effort to the hilt, which gave him great strength. But..." I could see tears welling in her eyes. "Excuse me, but it's very painful to think again of how he engineered his own downfall."
I tried to smooth things over a bit. "Yes, it must have been wrenching for you and your family when he resigned, only the second President in history to do so."
There was a long silence. Finally: "Well, he saw the handwriting on the wall. He'd been impeached and he knew, unlike Clinton, that he was going to be convicted -- the American people had had enough -- and so he left, taking whatever dignity he had with him, but absolutely crushed, a failure once again."
"He and his advisors were so arrogant, so mean-spirited, so convinced that nothing and nobody could touch them," I said. "How could he think he could possibly get away with it?"
"Try to look at it from his point of view," she said. "Clinton had disgraced and weakened the Presidency. The country was looking for a strong, ethical leader, and a hopeful direction, a theme to live by. He chose 'compassionate conservatism' -- which could have worked, if he had felt strong enough in himself to follow his heart and not his political advisors, and if he had enforced an ethical code in his administration.
"In addition, look at what he saw when he surveyed politics beyond our shores. America was the only superpower on the face of the planet. A united Europe was in its weak infancy. Russia was a basketcase; China wasn't quite there yet. Terrorists were running amok. America had a moral duty to provide strong, confident leadership, and to lead the fight against terror. All well and good, but the problem was: Who was there to stand up to over-arching American power in the world, to keep us honest and within the bounds of decent behavior?
"Internally, everyone was frightened by the terrorist attacks, which kept coming, and so they felt quite comfortable -- at first -- with giving my great-uncle all the power he needed to fight that war, across the globe and in the homeland."
"Yes, he did get huge support at first from the population," I said. "But as time went on, he went way beyond the bounds of what had been authorized -- to find and bring to justice those responsible for 9/11 -- and began moving against many other countries, as well as internally abrogating centuries-old respect for the Constitution, putting martial-law kind of institutions into place and questioning the patriotism of anyone who raised questions or objections. Where did all that come from?"
"Again," she said, "try to see it from the point of view of my great-uncle and his advisors. The Republicans had come this close [ she held up her fingers to indicate about an inch ] to finally gaining full control of the three branches of government. They truly believed that their conservative agenda was what the country needed -- that unbridled capitalism would yield all things good and necessary, and that acting aggressively abroad would guarantee homeland security -- and that liberal Democrats, if given another chance, would take the country down the road to moral and economic bankruptcy and disaster in foreign/military policy. They were desperate enough to risk going for it all while they had the White House."
"But couldn't he sense how isolated he'd become?" I asked. "It was like he didn't see, or had no need to see, the world outside his small coterie of advisors, as if he were down in the shadow-government bunker as well, with only yes-men beside him. The result was that he was missing out on good ideas from those who agreed with his goals perhaps but vehemently disagreed with how he was going about it."
"The short answer to your question," she said, "is that his small-town Texas view was pretty narrow; he'd never been out of the country. So his perception of the world was mighty small. He believed that you grabbed things you wanted and needed while you could get them and whupped ass if anyone challenged you. Merge this with sole superpower status, giant corporations wanting theirs, the oil & gas industries leaning on you, the desire to refurbish the reputation of his Dad as President, the Democrats being in disarray, enemies real and imagined out there, extremist advisors rolling this untrained man easily, and it was a perfect prescription for over-reaching."
"But didn't he and his advisors learn anything from the experiences of Nixon -- that a presidential cover-up, trying to hide information from the American people, especially from the Congress, and abusing your authority by engaging in extra-Constitutional police powers just alienates you from the American people?"
She sighed: "He already was isolated and treated as a joke by foreign leaders, and when he lost the confidence of the American people -- when all the investigations began to reveal the embarrassing, awful truths -- it was just about all over. I think maybe he could have ridden it out, but it was his seemingly universal and perpetual war that really was the straw that broke the camel's back. All the trillions that were spent, all that violence -- which just provoked more violence worldwide -- and all those dead Americans coming back in boxes, and all the domestic programs that took the hit to pay for it all. It was like he was Caesar, moving his Roman legions all over the globe, to keep his supporters satisfied and recalcitrant countries in line -- even threatening them with nuclear war."
"And that's when you broke from him and joined the Democratic Party?"
"As you can imagine, it took quite a while to acknowledge in public what I was feeling in private. I mean, look: My great-great-uncle had been President, my great-uncle had been President, my granddad wanted to be President -- they were all conservative Republicans and that's how I was raised, to honor that philosophy and to honor them."
"So what made you make the break?"
"It was a lot of things: I loved my country, I loved its time-honored institutions, I loved the Constitution and its protections, I loved our nation's diversity and wanted more folks to share in America's bounty, I loved civility in politics (even when people despised each other) -- and everything the Bush family represented then, especially in my great-uncle's short tenure, seemed consciously or unconsciously to harm all those things I held precious. I didn't become a Democrat, and then a Democratic candidate, to 'get back' at my family but because my view of things was larger than the black and white/good vs. evil way of looking at the world. I've never regretted it."
"Even though you've been ostracized by the Republican side of your family?"
"That part is very painful, to be sure. Especially when I hear or read about the hateful things said about me. But then I remember that they had their chance to advance the country, advance the world, to bring light and hope and peace to America, even while fighting terrorism -- and instead they decided to travel a darker, more violent and corrupt route. I hope I am helping to bring the light, out of my own political philosophy, of course, but also to somehow assuage some of the bad that other parts of my family have brought to America and the world. I am making mistakes and will make more, no doubt, but I think we're mostly on the right track."
"Thank you, Madame President, for your speak-from-the-heart candor."
"Thank you. God bless America."
Bernard Weiner, a playwright and poet, was the San Francisco Chronicle's theater critic for nearly two decades. A Ph.D. in government and international relations, he has taught at various American universities.