In summer 2001, less than six months into his
presidency while confronting congressional obstacles to his domestic
program, Bush told followers that he was ready to “go back to Crawford”
if he didn’t get his way on legislation.
That threat came after
Sen. Jim Jeffords, a Vermont Republican, joined with the Democrats to
give them narrow control of the Senate in mid-2001. Bush also was facing
defeat on a patients’ bill of rights.
In a meeting with
congressional allies, “Bush appeared to draw a line in the sand when he
indicated he always could return to Crawford, Texas, if the liberal
health juggernaut grinds him down,” wrote right-wing columnist Robert D.
Novak. [Washington Post, July 5, 2001]
Besides the patients’
bill of rights, Bush found himself battling congressional momentum in
favor of new campaign-finance restrictions.
In the context of Bush
fighting those two popular bills, Los Angeles Times political writer
Ronald Brownstein also picked up word of Bush issuing a “back to
Crawford” threat, this one recounted by a GOP lobbyist close to the
Bush “continues to send a
signal that, ‘I’m going to do what I want to do, and if nobody likes it,
I’m going to go back to Crawford’,” Brownstein wrote, quoting the
lobbyist. [Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2001]
Back then, Republicans
framed Bush’s “back to Crawford” threats as a sign of his principled
leadership as well as a new self-confidence in asserting his authority.
“Gone is the
tentativeness of 20 months ago, of the lost man of the early Republican
debates,” wrote Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter Peggy Noonan in an article
for the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. “In its place seems an
even-keeled confidence, even a robust faith in his own perceptions and
judgments.” [WSJ, June 25, 2001]
However, Bush’s critics
saw something else: a troubling self-centeredness more befitting an
autocrat than a leader of a democratic Republic. To them, Bush was a
callow, ill-prepared politician who seemed oblivious to the fact that he
had risen to his exalted status because of family connections and tough
political tactics, not through hard work and talent.
The critics noted that
Bush’s sense of entitlement sometimes would spill out in his humor, when
he’d put down people in his presence or he’d joked about his preference
for autocracy. “If this were a dictatorship, it’d be a heck of a lot
easier, just so long as I’m the dictator,” he quipped on Dec. 18, 2000.
Though Bush never did
quit his job, he did seek comfort back at his ranch in Crawford, Texas,
where he retreated for a month-long vacation in August 2001.
The course of Bush’s
presidency changed dramatically on Sept. 11, 2001, however, when al-Qaeda
terrorists attacked targets in New York and Washington. The 9/11 attacks
gave Bush a new mantle as “war president” and he exploited that opening
to assert “plenary” – or unlimited – powers as Commander in Chief.
reclaiming the Senate in 2002 – and the federal courts initially giving
Bush wide latitude – Bush got pretty much whatever he wanted and
his petulance was subsumed by his new
Now, five years later,
Bush’s supporters see an almost mystical leader who exudes manly powers
and possesses a farsighted vision for saving the world. In one of those
paeans to Bush, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote on Sept. 14, 2006:
“A leader’s first job is
to project authority, and George Bush certainly does that. In a
90-minute interview with a few columnists in the Oval Office on Tuesday,
Bush swallowed up the room, crouching forward to energetically make a
point or spreading his arms wide to illustrate the scope of his ideas –
always projecting confidence and intensity.
“He opened the session by
declaring, ‘Let me just first tell you that I’ve never been more
convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions,’ and he
grew more self-assured from there. I interview politicians for a living,
and every time I brush against Bush I’m reminded that this guy is
different. There’s none of that hunger for approval that is common in
the breed. This is the most inner-directed man on the globe.
“The other striking
feature of his conversation is that he possesses an unusual perception
of time. Washington, and modern life in general, encourages people to
think in the short term. But Bush, who stands aloof, thinks in long
Brooks’s example of Bush’s
visionary quality was the President’s assertion that he had gotten into
politics because of his “campaign against the instant gratifications of
the 1960s counterculture,” which somehow helped qualify him “to think
about the war on terror as a generations-long struggle.”
Brooks made no mention of
Bush’s own extensive dabbling in “instant gratifications” from his
playboy life-style that included evading military service in Vietnam,
heavy drinking (at least until his 40th birthday), and
illicit drug use (which he implicitly acknowledged during Campaign
Like other Bush
enthusiasts, Brooks also failed to consider the dangers from an
autocratic leader who both is “inner-directed” and possesses a messianic
view of the world. “Inner-directed”
could be defined as impervious to outside criticism, advice or even
reality. Many of the history’s
most dangerous dictators were
But the only criticism of
Bush that Brooks could muster was that Bush didn’t act aggressively
enough in implementing his visionary programs.
“The sad truth is, there
has been a gap between Bush’s visions and the means his administration
has devoted to realize them. And when tactics do not adjust to fit the
strategy, then the strategy gets diminished to fit the tactics,” Brooks
wrote. [NYT, Sept. 14, 2006]
But another way of
looking at Bush’s presidency is that he and his neoconservative advisers
have operated in an ideological reality of their own making, that they
have too little respect for the opinions of others, that they are
hubristic and anti-democratic.
Return to Petulance
Now, with a slim majority
of the U.S. Supreme Court rejecting Bush’s claims of unlimited power and
with several senior Republicans resisting Bush’s demands that he be
allowed to redefine the Geneva Conventions, Bush’s petulance is
At the Sept. 15 news
conference, Bush suggested that senators – such as John Warner and John
McCain – were endangering U.S. security by opposing his legislation to
rewrite Geneva’s Common Article III to allow harsh interrogation of
“We must also provide our
military and intelligence professionals with the tools they need to
protect our country from another attack,” Bush said. “And the reason
they need those tools is because the enemy wants to attack us again.”
Bush did not spell out
his desired interrogation techniques, since he insists that his
administration does not condone torture. But the known practices include
simulating drowning by “waterboarding,” keeping prisoners naked in
excessive heat and cold, sleep deprivation, and forcing them into
painful “stress positions” for extended periods of time.
Bush’s former Secretary
of State Colin Powell joined in opposing Bush’s legislation, warning
that “the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight
against terrorism.” Powell, a retired general, also cautioned that
allowing abusive interrogations of prisoners of war would open
captured U.S. soldiers to similar abuse
Asked about Powell’s
comments on Sept. 15, the petulant Bush reappeared.
“If there’s any
comparison between the compassion and decency of the American people and
the terrorist tactics of extremists, it’s flawed logic,” Bush snapped.
“I simply can’t accept that. It’s unacceptable to think that there’s any
kind of comparison between the behavior of the United States of America
and the action of Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and
children to achieve an objective.”
Though the Washington
press corps sat mute before Bush’s assertions, there was cause to
challenge Bush on his hypocrisy. The Bush administration is responsible
for slaughtering thousands of women and children in Afghanistan and Iraq
“to achieve an objective.”
For instance, early in the Iraq War, Bush
authorized the bombing of a residential Baghdad restaurant because of
faulty intelligence that Saddam Hussein might be having dinner there.
The attack killed 14 civilians, including seven
children. One mother collapsed when her decapitated daughter was pulled
from the rubble.
Hundreds of other civilian deaths were equally
horrific. Saad Abbas, 34, was wounded in an American bombing raid, but
his family sought to shield him from the greater horror. The bombing had
killed his three daughters – Marwa, 11; Tabarek, 8; and Safia, 5 – who
had been the center of his life.
“It wasn’t just ordinary love,” his wife said. “He
was crazy about them. It wasn’t like other fathers.” [NYT, April 14,
The horror of the war was captured, too, in the
fate of 12-year-old Ali Ismaeel Abbas, who lost his two arms when a U.S.
missile struck his Baghdad home. Ali’s father, his pregnant mother and
his siblings were all killed. As he was evacuated to a Kuwaiti hospital,
becoming a symbol of U.S. compassion for injured Iraqi civilians, Ali
said he would rather die than live without his hands.
For its part, the Bush administration has refused
to tally the Iraqi civilians killed in the war, a number now estimated
in the tens of thousands.
At the Sept. 15 news conference, Bush also
threatened to stop all interrogation of terrorism suspects if his
demands on the Geneva Conventions weren’t met.
“We can debate this issue all we want, but the practical matter is,
if our professionals don’t have clear standards in the law, the program
is not going to go forward,” Bush said. “The bottom line is – and the
American people have got to understand this – that this program won’t go
forward; if there is vague standards applied, like those in Common
Article III from the Geneva Convention, it’s just not going to go
Common Article III doesn’t prohibit interrogating prisoners, but it
does bar coercive tactics to elicit information. POWs are required to
supply only their name, rank and serial number or comparable
The United States played a prominent role in establishing these
standards, along with other rules of war. In addition, the U.S.
Constitution bars cruel and unusual punishment and U.S. law prohibits
torture and other degrading treatment of detainees, though Bush has
stipulated that he does not feel legally bound by those constraints.
Bush has argued that the “war on terror” is a new kind of war,
justifying these extraordinary tactics. But military historians say the
conflict is actually similar to many irregular wars fought over the
centuries, including the anti-colonial wars in the 1950s and 1960s and
Latin American “dirty wars” against leftist “terrorists” in the 1970s
In those conflicts, too, government security forces resorted to
extensive use of torture, “disappearances” and detentions without trial.
The “inner-directed” Bush now is charting a similar future for the
United States – and getting increasingly petulant with those Americans
who won’t follow him.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'