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Bush’s legacy and staff, dissected

Times Staff Writer

If George W. Bush’s presidency has left no other legacy, it already has established a new standard for real-time history. The last seven years have been rich with paradox, and none is greater than the fact that a notoriously insular, loyalty-obsessed and press-shy administration has produced a virtual library of insider-tell-all, behind-the-scenes reconstructions of its most important decisions.

All that remains is for some canny publishing entrepreneur to establish the Bush of the Month Club.

And what an experience membership would be! It’s impossible to recall an administration in which quite so many people -- from the president on down -- were so eager to rat each other out. At times, wading through their conflicting accounts seems less like reading presidential history than it does like listening to a batch of Mafia informers’ tapes.

Robert Draper’s “Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush” falls partly into that category, but it also is a shrewdly observed and very engagingly written exploration of the president’s enigmatic personality. Charlie Savage’s “Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy” is a gifted reporter’s exposition of how and why the Bush administration has conducted itself and of that conduct’s disturbing legacy.

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Read together, these two books give a fascinating account of how Bush’s character has shaped his presidency and of how a radical and historically revisionist theory of presidential powers provided the perfect tool with which to do that.

Draper is a national correspondent for GQ and a former editor of Texas Monthly, for which he wrote an extended profile of then Gov. Bush. The future president obviously found something to admire in that piece, because he gave the author six hours of interviews, which provide some of the most interesting material in “Dead Certain.” Draper also spoke at some length with about 200 other sources, including Vice President Dick Cheney, former Bush political advisor Karl Rove, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Draper’s access to Bush has provided a week’s worth of headlines, some of them centering on the president’s insistence that he never approved disbanding the Iraqi army, a decision that now looms as one of the disastrous occupation’s foundational mistakes. In a preview of what we’re likely to see in the who-lost-Iraq debate expected to occur after Bush leaves office, L. Paul Bremer III, who was in charge in Baghdad when Saddam Hussein’s army was allowed to melt away, this week provided the New York Times with documents and an op-ed piece that seem to indicate that the president and Rumsfeld were fully informed about what was going on in Iraq.

Actually, Draper’s reconstruction of the Bush presidency is singularly silent on a number of critical decisions that followed the terrorists’ Sept. 11, 2001, atrocities and the subsequent invasion of Iraq, including the draconian policies on detainees and the adoption of torture as state policy, though he does make clear that George W. Bush had long considered his father’s unwillingness to overthrow Hussein a mistake.

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Draper does an excellent job of portraying just how the administration’s divided and often dysfunctional operations also reflected Bush’s conscious choice not to emulate his father’s staff structure, in which a strong chief of staff enforced discipline throughout the executive branch. Instead it has been divide-and-rule from the Oval Office, though the consequence has been nearly constant internecine strife, particularly between the Defense Department and vice president’s office and most of the rest of the government. “Dead Certain” also clarifies certain important details concerning the president’s relationship with Rove, who opposed the selection of Cheney as vice president. First Lady Laura Bush apparently dislikes Rove, whom she calls “Pigpen,” and openly disparaged him when news accounts referred to him as Bush’s “brain.” For his part, the president habitually humiliated and denigrated his chief political aide.

Bush emerges from this account, moreover, as a politician with his own street fighter’s instincts wholly apart from anything Rove brought to their collaboration. Draper’s reconstruction of the pivotal South Carolina Republican primary -- in which Bush smashed John McCain’s candidacy by encouraging religious extremists and POW nut cases to calumniate the Arizona senator as a quisling and sexual libertine with a drug addict wife -- is fairly chilling stuff. (Though Draper doesn’t make the point, one of the things the Bush family and its famous friends in the House of Saud seem to have in common is a flair for using religious fanatics to further their political ambitions.)

Draper’s singular contribution is his convincing portrait of Bush’s unusual persona. All personalities are unique in their individual details, of course, but the president’s appears unique in type, as well -- a curious amalgam of old-line WASP entitlement and sly oil-patch cunning. The man “Dead Certain” describes calculates with the confidence of a blue blood secure in his birthright, but who goes with his gut. He’s a guy with the wildcatter’s unshakable faith in the intuition that the next million is just one good hunch away.

He’s also a guy who can be a bit goofy -- he once claimed to have seen ghosts coming from the portraits in a White House corridor -- and toughly endearing. Draper clarifies what always has seemed one of Bush’s less glorious moments: his agonizingly long absence from Washington and the national spotlight in the hours after the 9/11 attacks. As we now know from the account in “Dead Certain,” it was Cheney who kept insisting that the president hold himself out of any possible harm’s way and Bush who repeatedly and profanely insisted on returning to Washington. It does the president both justice and credit to have that record set straight.

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Savage is the Boston Globe’s national legal affairs correspondent; he won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Bush’s use of “signing statements” to ignore laws passed by Congress. Despite the histrionic subtitle, “Takeover” is a meticulously reported and lucidly recorded account of the executive quasi-coup that is likely to be this administration’s domestic legacy. As Draper shows, Bush always has been a politician eager to fill an inner vacuum by embracing some big idea -- reform, bipartisanship, “compassionate conservatism” have come and gone. According to Draper’s account the president plans to spend his retirement founding a “Freedom Institute” in Texas to inspire the spread of democracy -- while doing a lot of lucrative public speaking to “replenish the ol’ coffers.”

What Savage shows is that, while Bush came to office in search of the next big idea, Cheney brought one with him. The vice president never has recovered from the trauma he suffered as President Gerald Ford’s 33-year-old chief of staff. Like a number of similarly minded individuals, Cheney believes that the reforms enacted to check the executive branch excesses that led to Vietnam and related intelligence debacles dangerously eroded presidential powers. The vice president came to office believing that, if the Bush administration accomplished nothing else, it had to leave a presidency stronger than the one it assumed.

The vehicle for this restoration is a revisionist theory of constitutional law called “Unitary Executive Theory.” As Savage tells us, it was first promulgated under Reagan administration Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese and since has been elaborated by people like Cheney’s aide David Addington, John Yoo, the UC Berkeley legal scholar who wrote the administration’s infamous torture memos, and future Supreme Court justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Under this theory, the framers intended a presidency that presides over the executive branch as a single brain does over a body. Congress has no right in this schema to check the president’s inherent powers, particularly when it comes to national security. Thus, Yoo and others of a similar mind -- including Cheney -- believe that the president has inherent powers to wage war without congressional consent, to authorize warrantless searches and spying, to abrogate international treaties at will and to decide which, if any congressional or judicial restraints on his powers he will accept.

The Supreme Court under Republican Chief Justice William Rehnquist overwhelmingly rejected the Reagan administration’s attempt to assert “Unitary Executive Theory” and no serious legal or historical student of the founding era accepts it.

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As Savage argues, though, the fact remains that because Bush has been allowed to enact Unitary Theory through precedent, the next president, whether conservative Republican or liberal Democrat, will inherit precisely the kind of imperial executive Cheney set out to restore.

At least somebody is going to leave this White House a success.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com


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