Politics & Policy

W., Beyond The Caricatures

Journalist Ronald Kessler takes a look inside the Bush 43 White House.

Debuting today, A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush by Ronald Kessler is the among the first books to be released from Penguin’s new conservative imprint, Sentinel. Investigative journalist Ronald Kessler is the author of numerous bestsellers, including Inside the CIA and The Bureau. He talked to NRO editor Kathryn Lopez this weekend about A Matter of Character, the Bush administration, and the upcoming election.

National Review Online: So President Bush isn’t dumb, you say?

Ronald Kessler: Most of what the public knows of Bush is filtered through the liberal bias of the media. He wears cowboy boots, so he’s a hick. He has unconventional ways of dealing with the twin threats of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, so he must not know what he’s doing. He says exactly what he thinks, so he must be unsophisticated.

The caricatures are conflicting: Bush has a short attention span, yet from the day he took office he was obsessed with attacking Iraq. He is a puppet of Dick Cheney or Karl Rove, but he does not listen to anyone’s advice. His decisions are made for him by warring factions within his administration, but he stubbornly clings to his own views. He graduated from Yale and Harvard Business School, but is a dimwit. He appointed Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to two of the most powerful positions in the government, but is an intolerant right-winger.

For this book, I was able to interview all the major players–Karl Rove, Andy Card, Condi Rice, Al Gonzales–as well as close friends from Andover and Yale and aides who are not well known but are just as influential in their own spheres as the more well-known figures. I supplemented that with inside accounts from Secret Service agents, maids, and butlers. What I found was that, contrary to the caricatures, Bush solicits differing views, then makes up his own mind. Stephen Friedman, a former Goldman Sachs chairman who is Bush’s economics adviser, told me that, contrary to Paul O’Neill’s claim that Bush was like a “blind man” in meetings, Bush’s management style is as effective as those of the top CEOs he dealt with on Wall Street and in the corporate world.

NRO: And he doesn’t have dyslexia, contrary to some disingenuous reporting?

Kessler: The claim that Bush has dyslexia was in a Vanity Fair article by Gail Sheehy, and she has since repeated that claim on TV. In fact, Nancy LaFevers, one of the two experts Sheehy quoted to support her conclusion, told me she told Sheehy that Bush was not dyslexic.

NRO: Who is Clay Johnson? And what’s the most important thing to know about him in assessing George W. Bush?

Kessler: As I mentioned, few have ever heard of many of Bush’s most influential advisors. Clay Johnson III is one of them. He is Bush’s friend from Andover and Yale and was his chief of staff when Bush was governor. He was executive director of the transition and chief of presidential personnel in the White House. He is now deputy OMB director. He is probably the only person to have spanked Barney, the president’s dog–in the Oval Office, no less.

After I interviewed Johnson, he became my rabbi. Having written books about the FBI and CIA, I felt I had an inside understanding of how effective Bush is in pursuing the war on terrorism. I felt the public was being grossly misinformed about that subject. I love exposing myths and wanted to know if there were more myths about Bush. That disposition was not enough to get me access to the secretive Bush White House. But having written another book called Inside the White House, I had Secret Service sources. I also had the unlisted home numbers of White House maids, ushers, and butlers. I began calling them.

I’m sure that got back to the White House. Dan Bartlett checked me out quite carefully with FBI and CIA sources and finally called me in and said they would cooperate. He said I was probably the only journalist besides Bob Woodward who could do the book regardless. I found getting access to this White House was far harder than penetrating the FBI or CIA.

Even though Bush personally approved cooperation, some White House aides were skeptical and were not scheduling interviews. Johnson got behind the project, smoothing the way. I wound up interviewing all the major players–Karl Rove, Condi Rice, Andy Card–as well as Bush’s friends and White House aides who never appear in the media but may be as influential in their own spheres as the more well-known figures.

As the book progressed, Clay Johnson and I would e-mail each other as many as a dozen times a day. In answering my questions, he would provide more inside anecdotes or observations or steer me to the right aides or to Bush friends.

When people help me and I trust them, I like to give them drafts of the book for suggested corrections and possible additions. Bob Woodward does the same thing. I found Johnson was so objective that he actually said he thought two negative items in the book about Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were “cheap shots.” Upon reflection, I dropped both items. I think Clay Johnson’s reactions, in contrast to the caricatures, tell you a lot about the values of Bush and his people.

NRO: You do a lot of comparing of W. to Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Lyndon Johnson, mostly using White House staff. How does a president’s treatment of the likes of the kitchen staff, Secret Service, maids and butlers, and military aides reflect on his character as leader?

Kessler: The poor personal character of presidents like Nixon and Johnson translate into the kind of flawed judgment that led to Watergate and the continuing fruitless prosecution of the Vietnam War. I present a number of examples of how hypocritical Jimmy Carter was. He claimed to be a man of the people, a simple peanut farmer, but yet he ordered the uniformed Secret Service not to say hello to him on his way to the Oval Office. It was too much trouble for Carter to say hello back.

Voters tend to forget that presidents are, first and foremost, people. If they are unbalanced, nasty, and hypocritical, that will be reflected in their judgment and job performance. If a friend, an electrician, a plumber, or a job applicant had a track record of acting unethically, being habitually late, or displaying the kind of unbalanced personality of a Johnson or a Nixon, few would want to deal with him. Yet in the case of presidents and other politicians, voters overlook the signs of poor character and focus instead on their acting ability on TV.

“With Bush, there was an instant change,” a former Secret Service agent told me. “He was punctual. Clinton was never on time for anything. It was embarrassing. Bush and his wife treated you normally, decently. They had conversations with us. The Clintons were arrogant, standoffish, and paranoid. Everyone got a morale boost with Bush. He was the complete opposite of Clinton.”

NRO: Explain the Bush-Cheney relationship.

Kessler: Bush chose Cheney as his running mate because of his tremendous experience and good judgment. While most people have the impression that Bush relies on Cheney’s advice only in the security area, Bush has him sit in on most policy meetings, on subjects from education and the economy to stem-cell research.

In that role, Cheney is self-effacing. Early in the administration, Clay Johnson was driving to work in his Volvo and heard sirens. Cheney’s motorcade, preceded by Metropolitan Police on motorcycles blocking traffic, was arriving from the vice president’s residence. A white house built in 1893 for the superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory, it overlooks Massachusetts Avenue at Thirty-Fourth Street. Police blocked Johnson’s way to the coveted parking area for top White House employees at the southwest gate.

“The world stopped turning so he could get to work,” Johnson said. “A couple of hours later, I was in the basement of the West Wing getting a cup of coffee at the takeout counter. The fourth person waiting in line was the vice president.”

NRO: We rarely hear about W.’s liberal friends. But he does actually have some, doesn’t he? What do they think of him and the Left’s caricature of him?

Kessler: Bush’s friends include Muhammed Saleh, a Muslim Jordanian who is a vice president of Timex; Donald Etra, a liberal Democrat and an orthodox Jew who is a lawyer and at one point was a Nader’s Raider; Chris Brown, who became a key Democratic operative and was New England coordinator of the Carter presidential campaign; and Roy L. Austin, a black soccer champion and later director of the Africana Research Center at Pennsylvania State University. Bush named him ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago.

Besides these friends from Yale’s Skull and Bones, Bush is close friends with Robert Dieter, a law professor who is a one-time Democrat, and Roland W. Betts, a lifelong Democrat who married Lois Phifer, a black woman whom he met while teaching in Harlem.

If Bush were the hayseed the media portrayed, he fooled all the sophisticated and accomplished people who remained loyal to him over the years. As Cervantes wrote in Don Quixote, “Tell me thy company, and I’ll tell thee what thou art.”

Bush’s friends from Skull and Bones alone represent a Who’s Who in their respective fields. There is, for example, Dr. Rex Cowdry, a former acting director of the National Institute of Mental Health whose wife Donna Patterson was a deputy assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration; Dr. G. Gregory Gallico, a surgeon and associate professor at Harvard Medical School who invented synthetic skin used on burn patients; Robert D. McCallum Jr., a Rhodes Scholar who is associate attorney general; and Don Schollander, an Olympic swimming champion.

Bush’s friends are alternately amazed, amused, and horrified at the caricatures that have mushroomed about their friend.

NRO: What’s the most persistent and damaging myth about President Bush?

Kessler: That he is a Nazi because he deposed someone who killed 300,000 people. A large number of people actually believe that.

NRO: What was the most surprising thing you learned about President Bush in the course of writing the book?

Kessler: Besides the diversity of his friends, I was amazed at how deeply Bush personally researched why kids can’t read. Nationally, 40 percent of fourth graders cannot read a simple children’s book. Among blacks and Hispanics, the proportion is as high as 65 percent. The reason is that in the 1970’s, liberal educators decided that teaching kids to read with phonics–sounding out words–was dull. Instead, they said kids should simply be given books to read. Somehow, they will become excited by the books and guess what the words mean. In other words, under this approach, called whole language, kids are not taught to read at all.

Bush personally called experts in the field to try to figure out what was wrong and develop a program to restore phonics to reading instruction. The result in Texas was a drop in the percentage of third graders who could not read at grade from 23 percent to just two percent, including additional help when needed. Bush is trying to do the same thing through the No Child Left Behind Act, which John Kerry voted for but now says he wants to gut.

Ironically, the New York City public schools still use a form of whole language, yet I found the toniest private schools in New York all teach phonics.

“Of course we teach phonics,” Beth Tashlik, the head of the Collegiate School’s lower school, told me. “You can’t teach reading without it.”

So you have parents who most oppose Bush sending their kids to schools where kids are not taught to read because the schools refuse to adopt the method Bush is trying to abolish.

NRO: What’s your read on the White House’s command of intelligence, pre and post 9/11? Is this new czar a good idea, looking at the big picture (being familiar with the different players, as you are)?

Kessler: The way to make a difference in the war on terror is penetrating the plots before they happen. To do that, you need a strong FBI and CIA. Clinton and the Democrats decimated the CIA, imposing a cut in the clandestine service of 20 percent as well as a risk-averse atmosphere. Clinton rarely met with his FBI or CIA director.

In contrast, as soon as he took office, Bush began meeting every morning with George Tenet. After 9/11, he added Robert Mueller, the FBI director, to the meetings. Bush focuses them, demands improvement, and energizes and supports the agencies. In effect, he is the CEO of the war on terror.

The 9/11 Commission largely ignored that fact and the improvements since 9/11. The fact we have not been attacked in since 9/11 demonstrates how effective Bush has been in conducting the war on terror. Imposing another layer of bureaucracy by appointing an intelligence czar is a step backward, in my opinion.

NRO: It seems you spend a lot of time on education–especially phonics. Why?

Kessler: I have a special interest. After I got into Bush’s reading initiative, I realized that when I had to take remedial reading in Cambridge, Mass., after the third grade, I learned to read with phonics. The New York City schools, which I had previously attended, taught reading with a form of whole language. So I know how humiliating it is to not be able to read, to think that you are a failure. I hope that parents will read this book, find out the facts, and storm their school boards to demand a return to phonics. Despite Bush’s efforts, 60 percent of public schools continue to teach whole language.

NRO: Is Dana Milbank the first reporter Karl Rove reads in the morning?

Kessler: In the book, I cite reporting by Dana Milbank, the Washington Post White House correspondent, as the kind of biased journalism that plagues this country. Having been a Washington Post reporter who was there during Watergate, I know how journalism should be conducted. You don’t see much of fair, honest reporting today.

NRO: Why did you vote for Al Gore in 2000?

Kessler: I have voted for both Democrats and Republicans, but I thought that Bush came across in the debates as being not as well-informed and smart as Gore. I was so wrong to vote for Gore, especially after he demonstrated how little he cares about protecting this country when he came out against the Patriot Act and other measures that allow the FBI to find the bad guys without infringing in any way on civil liberties. In fact, under the Patriot Act, a judge now has to approve searches of library computers. Previously, a prosecutor asked a grand jury to approve them, often after the fact.

NRO: Will you be voting for W. this time around? What would you like voters to have in their minds about Bush when they vote on Nov. 2?

Kessler: You bet! I feel that 95 percent of the president’s job is protecting us. Based on all my dealings with the CIA and FBI going back decades and my knowledge of how the war on terror is conducted, Bush is critically important to making us safer.


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