Mike Kueber's Blog

December 11, 2010

Sunday book review #4 – Decision Points by George W. Bush

George W. Bush is my favorite contemporary politician.  When I was going door-to-door during my Congressional campaign, the 2nd-most common question was what I thought of Bush-43.  (The most common question was what I thought of Roe v. Wade.)  Although I realized I would be more successful in my door-to-door discussions if I distanced myself from Bush, or at least gave a more nuanced opinion, I responded truthfully that I admired the man.

With that disclosure, I begin this review of Decision Points.  Unlike most presidential books, Decision Points is not a chronological narrative of the Bush presidency.  Instead, it is a review of how Bush made the important decisions in his life.  Because there is so much interesting material in the book, I have decided to break the review into three parts – the pre-9/11 stuff, post-9/11 foreign policy, and post-9/11 domestic policy and conclusions.  I will review the first part this week and the other two parts, I hope, on succeeding Sundays. 

The pre-9/11 stuff

The pre-9/11 stuff comprises four chapters – Quitting (about drinking), Running (deciding to run for president), Personnel (hiring and firing), and Stem Cells (government research with stem cells).  In the course of explaining those decisions, Bush reveals a lot about his character and personality, which is the diametric opposite of my all-time favorite politician, Richard Nixon.  I supported Nixon because I related to a lot of his background, values, ambitions, and insecurities.  He was the perfect foil for John Kennedy.  My preference for Nixon seems inconsistent with my admiration of Bush-43, who background and personality is more Kennedy-esque and Nixonian.  What’s so special about Bush-43?

Sportsmanship

 Maybe it’s his love of sports.  Bush and I share the love of sports, and I think we share some of the fundamental values that sports teaches, the most important being sportsmanship.  Bush described with admiration the sportsmanship displayed by his dad in losing to Bill Clinton in 1992: 

  • Dad handled the defeat with characteristic grace.  He called early in the evening to congratulate Bill, laying the foundation for one of the more unlikely friendships in American political history.  Dad had been raised to be a good sport.  He blamed no one; he was not bitter.” 

Later in 2000, early in the evening, after the critical state of Florida had been called for Gore, Bush showed his own sportsmanship – “I was ready to accept the people’s verdict and repeat Mother’s words from 1992: ‘It’s time to move on.’” 

I love this attitude.  Defeat is not a failure or a personal rejection.  Politicians offer their services, but someone has to lose.  I disagree completely with those politicians who assert that their first obligation to their supporters is to win the election.  Their supporters have no right to insist that a candidate doing anything more than campaign hard and smart.  The voters will decide who can represent them best.

Parenting

 

There’s an old protest song from Vietnam days with the lyrics, “You can’t even run your own life; I’ll be damned if you run mine.”  (Sunshine by Jonathan Edwards.)  I thought of those when I read about Bush-43 deciding whether to leave Austin and the Texas governorship to run for president.  Surprisingly, Laura was quickly on board, but his daughters weren’t.  Finally, one night George sat down with Jenna (who was soon graduating from high school) on the patio of the Governor’s Mansion and said, “I know you think that I’m ruining your life by running for president.  But actually your mom and I are living our lives – just like we raised you and Barbara to do.”  

That is so refreshing and politically incorrect.  Yes, parents need to put their children first, but there needs to be consideration for the parents, too. 

Growing up

Bush has a reputation as a slacker, which he denies “My philosophy in college was the old cliché: work hard, play hard.  I upheld the former and excelled at the latter.”

Something I share with Bush is his dislike of campus politicians – “I had no interest in being a campus politician.”  When describing a young Karl Rove, “I assumed he would be another one of the campus politician types who had turned me off at Yale.  I soon recognized that Karl was different.  He wasn’t smug or self-righteous, and he sure wasn’t the typical suave campaign operator.”

Bush has a reputation as a young boozer, and he accepts that – “In reality, I was a boozy kid and [Dad] was an understandably irritated father.”  Even after marrying, this happened – “As we were eating, I turned to a beautiful friend of Mother and Father and asked a boozy question: ‘So, what is sex like after fifty?’….  Years later, when I turned fifty, the good-natured woman sent me a note to the Texas Governor’s Mansion: ‘Well, George, how is it?’  Laura saw a pattern developing, too.  What seemed hilarious or clever to my friends and me was repetitive and childish to her.” 

Although Bush graduated from Harvard Business School, he never bought into those people – “I knew what I did not want to do.  I had no desire to go to Wall Street.  While I knew decent and honorable people who had worked on Wall Street, including my grandfather Prescott Bush, I was suspicious of the financial industry.  I used to tell friends that Wall Street is the kind of place where they will buy you and sell you, but they don’t really give a hoot about you so long as they can make money off you.”

Nepotism?

Many believed that Bush was unqualified to run for governor, but he persuasively disagrees – “My experiences on Dad’s campaigns and running the Rangers had sharpened my political, management, and communication skills.  Marriage and family had broadened my perspective.”  That makes perfect sense. 

In the final days of the campaign, this so-called lightweight was ready for a broadside from Ann Richards – “She did her best to set me off.  She called me ‘some jerk’ and ‘shrub,’ but I refused to spark….  On debate night, Karen and I were in the elevator when Ann Richards entered.  I shook her hand and said, ‘Good luck, Governor.’  In her toughest growl, she said, ‘This is going to be rough on you, boy.’”

Personnel

An entire chapter in the book is devoted to Bush’s philosophy regarding personnel.  I think the following encapsulates that philosophy – “I was looking for integrity, competence, selflessness, and an ability to handle pressure.  I always liked people with a sense of humor, a sign of modesty and self-awareness.” 

I couldn’t agree more with those qualities, including the sense of humor. 

This chapter also contains a comment ostensibly on the selection of Cheney, but it seems more applicable to McClain’s selection of Palin – “The vice presidential selection provides voters with a window into a candidate’s decision-making style.  It reveals how careful and thorough he or she will be.” 

Stem-cell research

Another chapter in the book is devoted to Bush’s decision to deny federal spending for stem-cell research except for already existing stem-cell lines.  I have read other book reviewers commend Bush’s thorough and open-minded research prior to making this decision.  I disagree.  Bush may have conducted thorough research, but I’m not sure about it being open-minded.  To describe his pro-life position, Bush quoted from former PA governor Bob Casey, “When we look to the unborn child, the real issue is not when life begins, but when love begins.”  As a committed, staunch, pro-lifer, this was really a no-brainer for George Bush.  

Warts?

Any warts?  Yes, I noticed three – one substantive, one personal, and one trivial:

  1. Mental illness.  I’ve always resented that the federal government required employer-provided health insurance to cover treatment of mental illness as generously as it covered treatment of physical illness.  I think that one is more essential than the other.  Imagine my surprise at reading about Bush’s pride in signing the law that required this.  His pride was based on his relationship with a Texas Ranger partner Rusty Rose, who suffered from a chemical imbalance that caused anxiety.  My question (and probably Rick Perry’s) to George Bush would be, “Did you think about federalism and whether you and the federal government had any business telling businesses what to do regarding this?”
  2. 

  3. Silver spoon.  Bush was considered by many to be an aristocrat because of his family and connections.  Ann Richards famously commented about his dad being born on third-base and thinking he hit a triple.  One of the charges of aristocracy against Bush-43 was that he used connections to avoid Vietnam service by getting in the National Guard.  Bush’s description of this incident included a quote that sounded aristocratic to me:
    • I informed the Alabama National Guard commanders that I would have to miss several meetings during the campaign.  They told me I could make them up after the election, which I did.  I didn’t think much about it for another few decades.”

I don’t think most of us would “inform the commanders”; rather, we would humbly ask for permission.  Maybe it’s just me, but that quote was jarring.   

          3.   UT law school.  Before going to Harvard Business School, Bush tried unsuccessfully to get into the University of Texas Law School.  I think he should have mentioned that fact somewhere in this book because it makes the UT Law School look good and it makes me look good.  Only in America would I be able to go to a graduate-level school that George W. Bush could not get into.  Of course, it also reveals UT to be more of a meritocracy that admits a Kueber, whereas Harvard admits the Bushes, Obamas, and Castros of the world

Based on what I’ve read thus far, Bush has not disappointed me.  Despite the aristocratic trappings, Bush is more Texas than Connecticut.  His self-deprecation is frequent; his hubris is rare.  Of course, much of this is due to his mom and dad.  A perfect description of their parenting style occurred at Mile 19 of his first marathon.  He was running at an 8:33 pace as his parents cheered him on.  Dad – “That’s my boy.”  Mom – “Keep moving, George. There are some fat people ahead of you.”

A person’s most important quality, in my opinion, is that they be comfortable in their own skin.  They need to like and respect themselves.  The insecure and egoists do neither.  People who are comfortable in their own skin are better able to deal issues and challenges.  I look forward to reading about W. dealing with 9/11.

September 18, 2010

A Patriot’s History of the Reagan-Clinton years

Earlier this week, I finished reading A Patriot’s History of the United States.  Like finishing all enjoyable books, finishing this book left me with a feeling like I had lost a friend or fellow traveler.  I am grateful for his company and his memory will stay with me for a while, but I will push on without him. 

As I indicated in my recent Vietnam post, the authors’ conservative politics clearly manifested itself when they started describing the United States history that they had personally observed – i.e., the ‘60s.  Their politics became more discernable, even jarring, with their discussion of the Reagan and Clinton administrations.

According to the authors, Ronald Wilson Reagan was a savior.  Although they clearly admired Richard Nixon, they conceded that his presidency and the failed presidencies’ of Ford and Carter left America staring into an abyss – “On every front, the United States seemed in decline.  Economically, socially, and in international relations, by 1980 America was in retreat.  Yet at this point of weakness, the nation stood on the edge of its greatest resurgence since the months following Doolittle’s bombing of Tokyo.  The turnaround began with the upheaval within the Republican Party

The authors believed that the resurgence started with the Republican Party returning to its conservative Goldwater roots.  Although they didn’t use the term RINO (Republican in name only), they clearly felt that way about Nixon, Ford, and Rockefeller.  The authors called them “the blue-hair wing of the country-club GOP.”  You can almost sense the authors’ hero-worship of Reagan when they wrote:

Then onto the scene came a sixty-nine-year-old former actor, Goldwaterite, and governor of California – Ronald Wilson Reagan.  At one time a New Deal Democrat who had voted four times for FDR, Reagan was fond of saying he “didn’t leave the Democratic Party; it left me.”  Reagan contended the liberals of the 1970’s had abandoned the principles of John Kennedy and Harry Truman, and that those principles – anticommunism, a growing economy for middle-class-Americans, and the rule of law – were more in line with the post-Nixon Republican Party.

After telling the Gipper story, the authors revealingly took to occasionally using that term of affection throughout the book.  Other over-the-top statements included the following:

  • Never as overtly religious as Coolidge before him or George W. Bush after him, Reagan’s moral sense was acute.
  • Branded by his opponents as an extremist and an anticommunist zealot, Reagan in fact practiced the art of compromise, comparing success in politics to a batting average.
  • The debates made the incumbent look like a sincere by naïve child arguing with a wise uncle.
  • The Gipper accomplished this [replacing malaise with can-do optimism] by refusing to engage in Beltway battles with reporters or even Democrats on a personal basis.
  • Criticized as a hands-off president, he in fact was a master delegator….  This left Reagan free to do the strategic thinking and galvanize public opinion. 
  • His grasp of the details of government… shows that in one-on-one meetings over the details of tax cuts, defense, and other issues, Reagan has mastered the important specifics.
  • [Despite the recession in 1981-1982] Reagan knew in his soul that the tax cuts would work.
  • Yet despite oceans of new money and Reagan’s foot constantly on the brake, government continued to spend more than it took in.

By way of contrast, the authors made the following comments about Bill Clinton:

  • For one thing, he had dodged the draft during the Vietnam War.
  • Clinton’s flagrant disregard of traditional morals outraged large segments of the public.
  • Understanding the Clinton presidency requires an appreciation for the symbiotic relationship between Bill Clinton and his aggressive wife, Hillary….  Her personal demeanor, however, was abrasive and irritating and doused any hopes she had of winning a political seat on her own early in her life.  When she met Clinton at Yale, he seemed a perfect fit.  He was gregarious, smart, and charismatic, but not particularly deep.  A sponge for detail, Clinton lacked a consistent ideology upon which to hang his facts.  This was the yin to Hillary Rodham’s yang; the driven ideologue Hillary ran her husband’s campaigns, directed and organized his staff, and controlled his appearances.
  • Clinton had invoked quotas on nearly every cabinet position, regardless of competence.
  • Ever attuned to image and style, Clinton early in his presidency had suddenly begun attending church regularly.

The authors saw Reagan’s greatest accomplishment as the resurrection of the American economy, and this was accomplished primarily through deregulation and the 30% tax cuts in the Economic Recovery Act of 1981.  This lowered the top tax rate from 70% to 50%.  The Act also lowered the capital-gain tax from 28% to 20%.  In international affairs, “Reagan dealt with foreign usurpers quickly and decisively.”  More importantly, he developed the Reagan doctrine – i.e., instead of containing the Soviet Union, American should actively attempt to roll it back.  Among Reagan’s memorable quotes – “Marxism-Leninism would be tossed on the ash heap of history like all other forms of tyranny that preceded it,” and “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”  The Soviet Union finally collapsed during Bush-41’s term, but Reagan was the proximate cause.

Bill Clinton, however, did little more than coast on Reagan’s economic coattails.  Reagan’s tax cuts and deregulation caused the booming American economy for which Clinton claimed credit, and Reagan’s defeat of the Soviet Union enabled Clinton to cut military spending significantly.  Clinton’s two policy successes – NAFTA and welfare reform – were enacted because of Republican support and despite significant Democratic opposition.  Clinton’s conduct with international affairs was characterized as Missions Undefined – “Having avoided the military draft during the Vietnam era, President Clinton committed more troops to combat situations than any peacetime president in American history….  Handshake agreements with photo opportunities… played perfectly to Clinton’s own inclination for quick fixes abroad….  Another figure, whom the Clinton administration totally ignored, actually posed a more immediate threat.  Osama bin Laden….”  Clinton’s failure in foreign affairs manifested themselves for Bush-43 shortly after Clinton left office.  And, of course, the authors provided a detailed description of Clinton’s conduct that resulted in him being impeached.

Between Reagan and Clinton, there were four years of George H.W. Bush (a/k/a Bush-41), and the authors made a great insight to explain his failure to get re-elected:

  • Although Bush didn’t believe in supply-side economics and had called it voodoo-economics when he ran against Reagan in 1980, he had no choice in 1988 but to run on Reagan’s record.  “This proved to be a great mistake: by lashing himself to a mast that he had no real faith in, his convention pledge – ‘Read My Lips!  No New Taxes’ – would come back to haunt him.”

Because of his convention pledge, Bush-41 lost the presidency in 1992 to Bill Clinton.

To summarize — if the authors thought Reagan walked on water, it would be accurate to say they didn’t think Clinton deserved to carry Reagan’s water bucket.