The Corner

National Security & Defense

‘The Man at the Desk’

President George H. W. Bush after addressing the nation from the Oval Office on Christmas Day 1991 (Stringer/Reuters)

As an opinion journalist, I pop off on anything and everything — but I occasionally have a certain humility about it (I like to think). This is especially true when it comes to big foreign-policy decisions. Because someone has to make them. And that someone is not me.

Would the voters elect me? I have not given them a chance to turn me down.

The president is the “decider,” as George W. Bush once said. He was mocked for using this word. I thought it very fitting. A president hears opinion after opinion — contradicting one another, often cocksure — and he must ultimately decide. He is indeed the decider.

He is “the man at the desk,” as another president, Bush’s father, liked to say. And “it all comes down to the man at the desk.”

Let me give you an extract from a speech in October 1987 — when Vice President Bush announced he was running for president:

For seven years now, I have been with a president, and I have seen what crosses that big desk. I have seen the unexpected crises that arrive in an urgent cable; I have seen the problems that simmer on for decades and suddenly demand a resolution. I have seen modest decisions made with anguish, and crucial decisions made with dispatch.

The presidency isn’t like anything else. It isn’t like the Senate, only more so. And it isn’t like a governorship. A presidency can shape an era — and it can change our lives. . . .

And so I know that what it all comes down to, this election, . . . is the man at the desk.

When Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait, that Bush had to make a very big decision.

Go back before him, to Jimmy Carter. In 2018, Stuart Eizenstat published his memoir of that presidency, and it is a fascinating read. It tells you what it’s like to be president. To have to decide. I reviewed the book here, and let me excerpt a paragraph from that review:

Reading about Iran, no one could envy Carter’s position: how to deal with the Shah, how to deal with the revolution, how to deal with the hostage crisis. It is sobering to put oneself in the president’s shoes. It is not always comfortable to be where the buck stops. (Carter had President Truman’s old sign — borrowed from the Truman Library — on his desk: “The Buck Stops Here.”) The rescue operation, popularly known as “Desert One,” was a riot of bad luck. Hearing about the result, Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s chief of staff, “rushed into the president’s bathroom and threw up.”

Yes. That is vivid, isn’t it?

Like virtually every other conservative, I detested President Obama’s “Iran deal.” But I acknowledged that the problem of Iran — and how to contain it — was an exceedingly difficult one. What would I do as president? What would you? These are things to be thought of, as we’re popping off, either at the bar or in writing.

And, of course, you and I are never held responsible.

In the run-up to the Iraq War, George W. Bush said, repeatedly, “There are risks of action and risks of inaction.” (I am paraphrasing here.) “Everyone forgets about the risks of inaction. Anyway, I have to weigh all of these risks and figure out what’s best for American security.”

Everyone hates Bush, of course. (Everyone except those of us who don’t.) And preemption is a thankless task, as I often say. In the weeks after 9/11, people were screaming at Bush for being asleep at the switch and failing to “connect the dots,” in the jargon of that time.

In 2008, Wolf Blitzer, on television, asked Donald Trump about House speaker Nancy Pelosi. “I’m very impressed by her,” said Trump. “I think she’s a very impressive person. I like her a lot. But I was surprised that she didn’t do more in terms of Bush and going after Bush.”

Trump thought that the Pelosi House should have impeached Bush. Why? “He lied,” said Trump. “He got us into the war with lies. And, I mean, look at the trouble Bill Clinton got into with something that was totally unimportant. And they tried to impeach him, which was nonsense.”

(House Republicans did, in fact, impeach Clinton, but leave that aside.)

In 2010, Bush published his memoir Decision Points. I thought that Bill Clinton paid it a very high compliment. He said that the book tells you what it’s like to be president — to sit at the desk, to be the decider. He ought to know.

Donald Trump knows too, for sure. He knows now. And I don’t envy him and his people, for the decisions they have to make — concerning Iran and North Korea, in particular. Iran may well go nuclear, one fine day. North Korea did, years ago. That’s why our options are far more limited with respect to North Korea. You can’t go around offing their generals, for example. (That’s for Chairman Kim himself to do.)

George W. Bush didn’t want Saddam to go nuclear. If you are unable to preempt — your hands are frustratingly tied.

Anyway, as I was saying, I don’t envy Trump and his group. I have my opinions, natch, as we all do. But only one of us sits at the desk.

One of the most amazing pieces of journalism I have ever read was published at Politico in September 2016. By Garrett M. Graff, it was titled “‘We’re the Only Plane in the Sky’: Where was the president in the eight hours after the Sept. 11 attacks? The strange, harrowing journey of Air Force One, as told by the people who were on board.”

There were many, many bits of testimony, including from Eric Draper, the presidential photographer. This one sent a shiver down my spine:

Soon after we got on board, I see [President Bush] pop out of the cabin, he’s heading down the aisle. He says, “OK boys, this is what they pay us for.” I’ll never forget that.

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