How the Bushes Misunderstood Cheney

tags: Bush, Cheney

Nicholas Lemann joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 1999, and has written the Letter from Washington and the Wayward Press columns for the magazine.

We are probably too quick to declare any family that has produced more than one elected officeholder to be a political dynasty: many other democratic countries (India, the Philippines, Argentina) are far more dynastic than the United States. In 1979, the Kennedys were our leading political dynasty. Ted Kennedy was preparing to run for President, and many people thought it was inevitable that he would win.

Meanwhile, in Texas, George Herbert Walker Bush, who had lost two races for the U.S. Senate, a body to which his father had belonged, had launched a quixotic-seeming Presidential campaign of his own. His eldest son, George W. Bush, had just lost his first race for political office, a congressional campaign in West Texas. Bush’s best friend, James Baker, had lost his only political campaign, for Texas attorney general. It looked as if the Bushes had been right to decide that Texas would be a more propitious environment for Republicans than their former home, Connecticut, but had done so prematurely. If Ronald Reagan had not chosen George Bush as his Vice-President, there would be no Bush dynasty today. And if Bush’s fellow-Texan Ross Perot had not run against him, in 1992, there would be no Clinton dynasty, either.

Still, the political Bushes appear to be a family business whose deliberations are tantalizingly out of the public’s reach. So it wasn’t surprising that the first snippets released from Jon Meacham’s biography of George H. W. Bush were about what Bush 41 really thought of Bush 43’s Presidency. That’s what we’ve all been wondering about.

The Bushes do a brisk internal trade in advisers. Condoleezza Rice worked for 41 and 43. So did Colin Powell and Dick Cheney. Robert Zoellick and Stephen Hadley worked for 41 and 43, and are now advising Jeb Bush’s Presidential campaign. These are just a few of dozens of examples, from all realms of policy and politics. What the Bushes expect from these people is not just competence but loyalty. There’s family, and then there’s staff. (Only one person, James Baker, has ever transcended those tight categories.) Staff pursue the family’s interests, not their own.

Bush 41’s news-making remark to Meacham was, in effect, an accusation that Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had violated this cardinal rule during Bush 43’s Administration. Speaking about Cheney, Bush told Meacham, “He had his own empire there and marched to his own drummer. … It just showed me that you cannot do it that way. The president should not have that worry.” Bush had never liked or trusted—or hired—Rumsfeld, so in his case the lack of loyalty was no surprise. But Cheney, he told Meacham, had changed. “He just became very hard-line and very different from the Dick Cheney I knew and worked with.” ...

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