Bill Clinton's troubling reversal on gays in the military was less notable for what it said about him than what it said about the presidential press corps. Even among supporters of full civil rights for homosexuals, it remains an article of faith that Clinton screwed up by emphasizing his would-be reforms too early. The truth is far different. Early emphasis on the policy came not from the president but from NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell, whose good news judgment called attention to a proposal that Clinton himself hadn't highlighted in more than a year. Once the rest of the media followed Mitchell's story, an inaccurate yet lasting portrait of Clinton's priorities was born.
So too has the dogpack failed to accurately capture George W. Bush. It's hard to look past the easy caricatures of our illegitimate, puppet president, but those who do so must concede that W has not received the credit he deserves for his willingness to rethink the status quo. From his rejection of the oddly revered principle of "mutually assured destruction" and his determination to actually do something about "nukular" waste disposal, to his welcome embrace of Mexico and surprising criticism of a global financial regime that enslaves Third World countries to First World banks, Bush has been far more visionary than the Bay Area wants to admit. Democrats underestimate him at their peril.
Of course, grudging respect for the man need not yield agreement with his policies. And even all supporters of the war in Iraq aren't convinced by W's call to arms. Readers seeking a deeper understanding of his motives are well-served by two recent portraits of the Bush White House, The Right Man by former Bush speechwriter and thoughtful conservative commentator David Frum, and Bush at War by Bob Woodward, legendary Washington Post assistant managing editor and Watergate scandal-breaker. Read in tandem, these two books provide much of the missing rationale for why Bush went to war, while also shedding light on why he often is underestimated. Quite unexpectedly, they also make the conflict seem considerably more sensible.
Frum earns credibility for his account of thirteen months inside the White House by sharing his doubts about W and conceding that Bush was largely a failure before 9/11. Part of Frum's wariness sprang from being a Jew surrounded by the overt moralizing of Bush's highly evangelical administration. And part sprang from how poorly the administration performed in its first year in office. Frum reveals that he intended to leave the White House shortly after Labor Day.
Then, of course, came the terrorist acts that completely transformed Bush and his presidency -- providing him an opportunity to articulate several big new ideas destined to change the world. He spelled out the first two on the very night of the attacks: Terrorist deeds would be viewed as acts of war and not crimes, and no distinction would be made between those who commit such acts and those who harbor them. Woodward notes that Bush set in motion this transformation without any input whatsoever from Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, or Secretary of State Colin Powell. Observations such as these should help put to rest to the notion that Bush is not running his own show. W's unilateralism even extends to his own administration.
Since before US forces entered Afghanistan, Bush has warned that the war on terror would be a long campaign and not a single action. But it took the famous "axis of evil" speech to drive the point home. Frum wrote much of that speech, and his written account of that process helps explain the administration's thinking today. "The pursuit of stability in the Middle East had brought chaos and slaughter to New York and Washington," Frum writes. "Bush decided that the United States was no longer a status quo power in the Middle East." Thus runs the psychology behind the third and final leg of the so-called Bush Doctrine -- the right that Bush asserts for the United States to preemptively strike hostile states before they or their cohorts can strike us. In other words, the war in Iraq is not about Saddam's complicity in 9/11, it's about the lesson of 9/11, which National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice neatly spells out for Woodward: "Take care of threats early." Iraq, not Afghanistan, is the ultimate embodiment of the Bush Doctrine.
And one week into our newest war, sensible critics of US involvement in Afghanistan must concede that they were wrong about our last one. US intervention was not the quagmire its opponents warned it would be, and blowhards such as Noam Chomsky were entirely misguided in warning of imminent humanitarian catastrophe. The brief 102-day military campaign not only routed the Taliban -- if not Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda -- but liberated the people of Afghanistan and rewrote the rulebook for how wars will be fought in the new century. Viewed in such hindsight, the once-radical notion that terrorism is an act of war looks more reasonable today.
East Bay readers are unlikely to believe it, but the inescapable conclusion that comes from reading these books is that George W. Bush is motivated by a genuine desire for peace. Toward the end of The Right Man, Frum offhandedly notes the many ways in which the president's pre-9/11 career could be said to resemble that of Winston Churchill. Both men's first fifty years were basically studies in failure, and both men had a lot to prove at the very time they were tested by crisis. For the son of our 41st president, September 11 was an opportunity to execute perhaps the biggest idea of all -- the notion that he could succeed at something on a grander scale than his father had done. "I will seize the opportunity to achieve big goals," he told Woodward. "There is nothing bigger than to achieve world peace." Bush might have chosen a poor way to deliver this message, but the left makes a huge mistake by cartoonishly misconstruing his intentions.
The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush
By David Frum
Random House, $25.95
Bush at War
By Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster, $20
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