Nicholas Lemann: The Early Signals We Missed About the Kind of Man George W. Is

Roundup: Media's Take

Nicholas Lemann, in the New Yorker (Oct. 18, 2004):

When something important doesn’t turn out the way you expected, you go back to the beginning and try to see if there were clues you missed....

[One] early Bush event—this one not only indicative but consequential—was a dinner in Chicago, on July 18, 2000, not long before the Republican National Convention, attended by Bush; John C. Danforth, who had retired as a senator from Missouri; his wife, Sally; and Dick Cheney, who left after performing introductions. Danforth had emerged from the Vice-Presidential search process, run by Cheney, as a leading choice, and this was an unannounced courtship dinner. The appeal of the choice is instantly clear. Danforth is distinguished, patrician, and thoughtful; he is an ordained Episcopalian minister; as a central figure in the Washington establishment, he had officiated at Katharine Graham’s funeral; and he was a politician who could probably bring into the Republican column an important swing state, and who had a history of winning over Democratic voters. He had been one of the runners-up to Dan Quayle when George H. W. Bush was picking his Vice-Presidential nominee in 1988. Although he had only one conservative credential, it was of particular importance to the Bush family: in the Senate, he had successfully managed the controversial Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas by the first President Bush.

But something didn’t click at the dinner. A few days later, Bush announced that Cheney would be his Vice-Presidential nominee, and that decision had many ramifications. To begin with, if Danforth had been Vice-President, Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney’s closest government associate, probably would not have become Defense Secretary, and John Ashcroft, another Missourian, probably would not have become Attorney General, so the Cabinet would not have had its most powerful, and most conservative, members. It was also a decision that seemed to reveal a number of Bush characteristics: his mistrust of Washington (Cheney, at that point, was living in Dallas), his dislike of being upstaged (Danforth is taller and more imposing than Bush), his political confidence, even overconfidence (Cheney added nothing to the ticket electorally, in an election where Bush turned out not to have enough votes), his attraction to the person who presents himself as being merely a loyal servitor.

Last summer, I interviewed one of Bush’s oldest friends, Clay Johnson, in connection with a “Frontline” documentary on the Presidential election, and heard a new version of Cheney’s selection, one that reveals even more about Bush. Johnson—a Texan who met Bush at Andover and was his roommate at Yale, and who is currently a deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, having worked for Bush during his entire career as an elective officeholder—said that Bush had begun the Vice-Presidential selection process by offering the nomination to Cheney. “The now Vice-President declined the option, but did agree to head up the search committee,” Johnson said. “And then came back some months later and said that in fact he’d changed his mind and he would be willing to run—to be the President’s running mate.” Johnson said he had a hunch about what had changed: “Lynne Cheney told some mutual friends of ours that she and Dick decided that in fact they did want to join the Bush ticket, because they came to really like George and Laura, and the Vice-President came to realize that the President wanted to come up here to really make a difference. He was not going to try to play it safe. Not try to extend an easy, moderately successful four years into an easy, moderately successful eight years. He was going to try to come up here and make dramatic changes to the issues he thought needed to be addressed. And the Vice-President got very, very energized and excited about doing that. And so now we have Dick Cheney as Vice-President.”

In other words, the team that most people thought of as being made up of a moderate, conciliatory, relatively unambitious Presidential candidate and his bland, self-effacing, government technician of a running mate had thrown in together on the basis of a mutual decision to govern in pursuit of radical change. And they have done that....

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