From the Archives:
Editor’s Note: Amid disclosures that Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the CIA to conceal from congressional intelligence committees top-secret plans for a counter-terrorism project – believed to involve a global hit team – many pundits are wondering why Cheney would be so audacious.
But the answer may lie in the fact that the previous Republican experience of hiding a covert-action finding from Congress – President Ronald Reagan;s Iran-Contra operation in 1985-86 – led to little accountability for senior officials involved in the lawbreaking.
Indeed, by the time Bill Clinton became President in 1993, the Democrats were almost as eager as the Republicans to sweep all the sordid details under the rug. President Clinton, like President Barack Obama, wanted to look forward, not backward.
And Dick Cheney, who was a top Republican on the congressional Iran-Contra investigation in 1987, watched as this all played out. He saw how the Democrats lacked the toughness and principles to hold high-level official accountable for crimes.
In recognition of that sorry history – and its relevance today – we are re-posting a story from our Archives, that also was the opening chapter of Robert Parry’s 2004 book, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.
The book opens with a scene early in the second year of Bill Clinton’s presidency with him explaining to White House guests why he didn’t pursue geopolitical scandals that had implicated George H.W. Bush in gross abuses of power and even criminal acts.
The chapter was entitled, “The Wedding”:
The light from the setting sun streamed through the windows of the East Room after the first White House wedding in more than two decades. Guests were picking desserts from a buffet table and conversing, some gesturing with crystal champagne flutes in hand.
Despite the formality of the surroundings, the event had a relaxed air. Earlier, President Bill Clinton had given a gracious toast in honor of the wedding couple – Tony Rodham and Nicole Boxer – and played the saxophone to entertain their families and friends.
The groom was Clinton’s brother-in-law; the bride was the daughter of his political ally, Senator Barbara Boxer of California. Many other guests had supported his campaign for the White House two years earlier.
Clinton, a tall man renowned for his personal magnetism and ability to focus on each individual he meets at least for a few fleeting seconds, was moving among the guests like a host at the latter stages of a house party. Unlike many of the guests sipping from crystal or drinking from coffee cups, Clinton carried in his large hands a mug with the presidential seal.
As he came upon one knot of guests, Clinton started talking like one might chat with neighbors about troubles at work. He complained about how rancorous Washington had become, how beleaguered he felt, how horribly the press was treating him.
“He was unburdening himself,” recalled Stuart Sender, a Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker who was one of the guests.
Sixteen months into his Presidency, Clinton was learning about the hard-knuckled realities of the new Washington where campaigns never stop, where there is no respite for governance between elections.
Clinton was getting clobbered by the Republicans and by the news media over an old real-estate deal in Arkansas, known as Whitewater. The political heat had gotten so searing that Clinton had consented to the appointment of a special prosecutor.
There had been a firestorm, too, over allegations from Arkansas state troopers about Clinton’s philandering as governor. A woman named Paula Jones had emerged from that controversy with claims that Clinton had crudely propositioned her.
He also was taking flak over the firing of employees in the White House Travel Office, and there were bizarre suspicions circulating about the suicide of White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster, who had come with the Clintons from Arkansas.
Foster shot himself in the head after growing despondent over the harsh press criticism he had received for his role in the Travel Office affair, but some conservatives were spreading rumors of a deeper mystery.
Clinton felt besieged not only by aggressive Republicans but by the national press corps. Since the last Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, left office in 1981, a powerful conservative media had come into its own. Every day, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh regaled his millions of listeners with three hours of ridicule directed at Clinton and his wife, Hillary.
Besides Limbaugh, there were scores of imitators and wannabes all over talk radio, such as Watergate convict G. Gordon Liddy and Iran-Contra figure, retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North.
Right-wing print outlets also were growing in number and in influence, the likes of the American Spectator and The Washington Times, not to mention The Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages and conservative columnists in newspapers across the country. Many of the commentators also appeared on TV political chat shows to reprise their opinions for millions of more Americans nationwide.
Anti-Clinton books and videos were selling fast, too. The annual Conservative Political Action Conference in February 1994 looked like a trade show for “I-hate-Clinton” paraphernalia.
Many mainstream journalists at outlets such as NBC News and The New York Times also joined in the Clinton bashing, seemingly eager to prove that they could be tougher on a Democrat than any Republican. They were determined to show they weren’t the “liberal media” that the conservatives had railed against since the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal that sank Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.
Indeed, it was The Washington Post, the newspaper credited with unraveling the Watergate mystery, which had led the charge on the Whitewater case with front-page stories that put Clinton in a public relations corner, forcing him to acquiesce to a special prosecutor.
So, on that warm spring day of May 28, 1994, Clinton hosted the Rodham-Boxer wedding – the first at the White House since Nixon hosted the nuptials of his daughter Tricia and Edward Cox in 1971.
The Boxer-Rodham wedding had started 90 minutes behind schedule because Clinton returned late from a golf game. The anxious bride and groom learned that nothing happens at the White House until the President is ready.
But the nervousness was put into historical perspective by Clinton’s toast. He recalled that the last time a wedding reception was planned for the East Room was 1814, when the event was interrupted by the British attack on Washington and the burning of the White House.
Almost 180 years later, the White House was under siege again – or so it felt to Clinton – only this time the guys with the torches were the Republicans and the target of their flames was the first Democratic President in 12 years.
As the spring sun was setting and the wedding event was winding down, Clinton’s mind was gearing back up. He was thinking about the nasty political battles all around him. Making the rounds at the party at his White House home, he was looking for a sympathetic hearing.
Stuart Sender and his wife Julie Bergman Sender were admiring the glorious scene in the ornate East Room. “All of a sudden we looked up and there was President Clinton,” Stuart Sender said.
The chitchat soon turned to Clinton’s complaints about his ill treatment at the hands of the news media.
“He started the conversation by saying how horrible the press is being to him,” said Julie Bergman Sender, a Hollywood producer, political activist and daughter of songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman. “I was looking around at the planters. I was thinking, ‘you’re not standing in your living room, really.’”
Questions for Clinton
Stuart Sender, who had worked as a journalist on the Reagan-Bush-era Iran-Contra and Iraqgate scandals, had a different reaction. He wondered why Clinton had never pursued those investigations of Republican wrongdoing when he became President in January 1993.
After all, Sender thought, those were real scandals, involving secret dealings with unsavory regimes. Top Republicans allegedly had helped arm Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as well as the radical Islamic mullahs of Iran, violations both of law and constitutional principles.
Those actions had then been surrounded by stout defenses by Republicans and their media allies. The protection had taken on the look of systematic cover-ups, sometimes even obstruction of justice, to spare the top echelons of the Reagan-Bush administrations from accountability. These weren’t like the trivial allegations besetting Clinton’s Presidency.
Indeed, as Clinton was heading into office at the start of 1993, four investigations were underway that implicated senior Republicans in potential criminal wrongdoing.
The Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages case was still alive, with special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh furious over new evidence that President George H.W. Bush may have obstructed justice by withholding his own notes from investigators and then ducking an interview that Walsh had put off until after the 1992 elections.
Bush also had sabotaged the investigation by pardoning six Iran-Contra defendants on Christmas Eve 1992, possibly the first presidential pardon ever issued to protect the same President from criminal liability. In granting the pardons, Bush had denigrated the Iran-Contra charges as the “criminalization of policy differences.”
In late 1992, Congress also was investigating Bush’s alleged role in secretly aiding Iraq’s Saddam Hussein during and after Hussein’s eight-year-long war with Iran.
Representative Henry Gonzalez, a Democrat from Texas who had served three decades in Congress, led the charge in exposing intricate financial schemes that the Reagan-Bush administrations had employed to assist Hussein.There also were allegations of indirect U.S. military aid through third countries, claims that Bush and other Republican leaders emphatically denied.
Lesser known investigations were examining two other sets of alleged wrongdoing: the so-called October Surprise issue (allegations that Bush and other Republicans had interfered with Jimmy Carter’s hostage negotiations with Iran during the 1980 campaign) and the Passportgate affair (evidence that Bush operatives had improperly searched Clinton’s passport file in 1992, looking for dirt that could be used to discredit his patriotism and secure reelection for Bush).
All told, the four sets of allegations, if true, would paint an unflattering portrait of the 12-year Republican rule, with two illegal dirty tricks (October Surprise and Passportgate) book-ending ill-considered national security schemes in the Middle East (Iran-Contra and Iraqgate).
Had the full stories been told, the American people might have perceived the legacies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush quite differently than they do today.
But the Clinton administration and congressional Democrats dropped all four investigations beginning in early 1993, either through benign neglect – by failing to hold hearings and keeping the issues alive in the news media – or by actively closing the door on investigative leads.
Clinton’s disinterest in these scandals had mystified some activists in the Democratic base and some investigators who, like Stuart Sender, had watched as the rug was pulled from under these historic inquiries.
After the investigations died, some Democrats in Congress, who had participated in the aborted probes, came under nasty Republican attacks as did journalists who had pursued the stories.
Gonzalez had raised the ire of George H.W. Bush’s administration by revealing that Bush and other senior Republicans had followed an ill-fated covert policy of coddling Saddam Hussein, disclosures that had rained on Bush’s parade after the U.S. military victory over Iraq in the first Persian Gulf War in 1991.
Now, Gonzalez was left looking like a foolish old man, a kind of modern-day Don Quixote tilting at windmills.
The same could be said of Lawrence Walsh, a lifelong Republican who crossed his own party by challenging the cover stories that had shielded top Republicans caught up in the Iran-Contra Affair.
In pressing investigations into alleged obstructions of justice, Walsh had found his reputation under ad hominem attacks from The Washington Times and other parts of the conservative news media for petty matters such as ordering room-service meals and flying first-class.
Walsh was so stunned by the ferocity of the Republican defensive strategy that he entitled his memoirs Firewall in recognition of the impenetrable barrier that was built to keep the Iran-Contra scandal away from Reagan and Bush.
Walsh, too, was dismissed by many Washington insiders as a foolish old man, though the literary metaphor for Walsh was Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab, obsessively pursuing the white whale.
But letting the outgoing Reagan-Bush team off the hook hadn’t earned the Democrats any measure of bipartisan reciprocity.
In spring 1994, in the weeks before the Rodham-Boxer wedding, Clinton had begun to sense the rising tide of political danger that the non-stop attacks against him represented.
By damaging Clinton’s public image, the Republicans were also undercutting his legislative plans on economic, budget and health-care policies. He was looking for allies and some sympathy.
As waiters poured coffee at the wedding reception and Clinton voiced his complaints about the media hostility, Stuart Sender saw his chance to ask Clinton why he hadn’t pursued leads about the Reagan-Bush secret initiatives in the Middle East.
“I had this moment to say to him, ‘What are you going to do about this? Why aren’t you going after them about Iran-Contra and Iraqgate?’” Sender said. “If the shoe were on the other foot, they’d sure be going after our side. … Why don’t you go back after them, their high crimes and misdemeanors?”
But Clinton brushed aside the suggestion.
“It was very clear that that wasn’t what he had in mind at all,” Sender said. “He said he felt that Judge Walsh had been too strident and had probably been a bit too extreme in how he had pursued Iran-Contra. Clinton didn’t feel that it was a good idea to pursue these investigations because he was going to have to work with these people.
“To me what was amazingly telling was his dig at Walsh, this patrician Republican jurist who had been put in charge of this but even the Democratic President had decided that this was somewhere that he couldn’t go. He was going to try to work with these guys, compromise, build working relationships.”
Sender, like others who had been in the trenches of the national security scandals of the 1980s, thought the retreat on the investigations by Clinton and the Democrats after they won the 1992 elections was wrong for a host of reasons.
Most importantly, it allowed an incomplete, even false history to be written about the Reagan-Bush era, glossing over many of the worst mistakes.
The bogus history denied the American people the knowledge needed to assess how relationships had evolved between the United States and Middle East leaders, including Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the Saudi royal family and the Iranian mullahs. The corruption was left to fester.
Though the Middle East crises had receded by the time Clinton took office in 1993, the troubles had not gone away and were sure to worsen again. When that time came, the American people would have only a sanitized version of how the country got where it was.
Even government officials responsible for the policies would have only a partial history of how these entangling alliances crisscrossed through the deals and betrayals of the prior two decades.
The Democratic retreat from the investigative battles in 1993 would have another profound effect on the future of American politics. By letting George H.W. Bush leave the White House with his reputation intact – and even helping Bush fend off accusations of serious wrongdoing – the Democrats unwittingly cleared the way for a restoration of the Bush political dynasty eight years later.
If investigators had dug out the full truth about alleged secret operations involving George H.W. Bush, the family’s reputation would have been badly tarnished, if not destroyed.
Since that reputation served as the foundation for George W. Bush’s political career, it’s unlikely that he ever would have gained the momentum to propel him to the Republican presidential nomination, let alone to the White House.
The political future of the Bush family was at a crossroads as Bill Clinton was taking office in January 1993. The Bushes’ fate also was largely in the hands of Democrats who controlled both houses of Congress, the White House and the Justice Department.
Beyond that, the Democrats had a potential Republican ally in Iran-Contra special prosecutor Walsh.
A different set of decisions by the Democrats in those months could have set the nation on a very different course. The Democratic control of the Executive Branch might not have ended after eight years. Conceivably, the calamities of the last four years, including a renewed war in Iraq, might have been averted.
But, in 1993, Clinton and the Democratic congressional leadership concluded that pursuit of these “old” scandals would only embitter the Republicans, make the Democratic Party look vindictive and endanger the bipartisanship that Clinton saw as essential for his domestic policy agenda.
The scandals also were complicated affairs, requiring detailed understanding of the underlying facts. Much of what happened had occurred in secret and involved foreign witnesses spread over several continents. The events covered more than a decade in time.
An outsider to Washington, Clinton also didn’t comprehend how the nation’s capital had changed, how nasty the partisan conflict had become, and how effectively the Republicans were building a media machine that could churn out a coordinated message day-in, day-out, 365 days a year.
Besides serving Republican political interests, this machine had taken on a life of its own. With 24-hour news cycles and endless hours to fill on talk radio shows, it needed controversy to survive.
When no longer playing defense for the Republicans, the conservative media machine was freed up to go on the offensive. Clinton and his wife would become its primary targets.
Rather than his hoped-for bipartisan cooperation on domestic issues, Clinton soon encountered a solid wall of Republican opposition. In a break with tradition, every Republican in the House and Senate voted against Clinton’s budget plan, which included tax increases aimed mostly at the wealthy.
Backed with only Democratic votes, Clinton managed to push through his plan by the narrowest of margins. Some Democrats sacrificed their political careers in the House by supporting the tax provisions and Vice President Al Gore was needed to break a tie vote in the Senate.
By spring 1994, Clinton’s health care plan also was under fierce Republican attack.
“He really did have this idea that he’d be able to work with these guys,” Sender recalled about his White House encounter with Clinton. “It seemed even at the time terribly naïve that these same Republicans were going to work with him if he backed off on congressional hearings or possible independent prosecutor investigations.
“How ironic that he decides he’s not going to pursue this when later on they impeach him for the Monica Lewinsky scandal.”
Though the Bush family wasn’t intimately associated with the building of the Republican attack machine that so bedeviled Clinton in the 1990s, the rise of the Bush Dynasty paralleled the growth of what some observers have called the conservative Counter-Establishment.
Pieces of this Counter-Establishment date back to the 1950s and 1960s, but it gained powerful motivation from the political disasters of the 1970s.
By the middle of that decade, embattled conservatives were cursing the fates that had plagued them through the Watergate scandal, the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and the exposure of intelligence abuses inside the CIA.
Those reversals, particularly the forced resignation of Richard Nixon over Watergate, had devastated the Republican Party. By 1977, Republicans were shut out of the White House and both houses of Congress.
Conservatives also viewed the federal courts and the national news media as bastions of liberalism that had aided and abetted the Republican reversals of the mid-1970s.
Watergate also was where George H.W. Bush entered this picture, as Republican National Committee chairman during the latter half of the scandal.
A clean-cut former Texas congressman with ties both to Texas oil money and Wall Street financiers, Bush was given the task of containing the spreading political cancer of Watergate after the initial cover-up of the White House role in the break-in had bought Nixon enough time to secure his reelection in 1972.
In his RNC post, Bush tested out some of the tactics that would recur throughout his career.
He used counter-disclosures to throw Democratic investigators on the defensive. He pushed Nixon’s argument that there was nothing new about the covert political espionage at the heart of the Watergate scandal. Bush also tried to cajole members of the Washington Establishment into agreeing that the disorder from Nixon’s impeachment would hurt the nation.
But eventually the evidence of Nixon’s guilt grew too overwhelming even for the cleverest of tricks to overcome. Bush was one of Nixon’s last loyalists to conclude that the President had no choice but to resign and hand over the White House to Vice President Gerald Ford on August 9, 1974.
A little more than a year later, as another flood of scandals lapped around the foundations of the Central Intelligence Agency, Bush got the call again to perform damage control.
This time, to keep the dikes around the CIA’s most sensitive secrets from giving way, Bush alternately cooperated with Congress in limited oversight and attacked the spy agency’s critics for jeopardizing the nation’s security.
When new scandals emerged on his watch, such as the Chilean junta’s assassination of political opponent Orlando Letelier on the streets of Washington in September 1976, Bush again demonstrated his skills, stonewalling investigators and diverting the worst of the damage away from the CIA.
His performance during the year made Bush something of a hero to the beleaguered intelligence officers at Langley, Virginia.
With the election of Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976, conservatives surveyed a bleak landscape left by the rubble of the Nixon resignation and the Vietnam defeat. Some felt desperation that – like a hangman’s noose – concentrated their minds. Others saw opportunities.
Whatever the motivations, the next four years marked the start of a historic comeback for American conservatism, both in the construction of a new political infrastructure and the emergence of a fighting style that would transform the tone of the nation’s political discourse.
Led by former Treasury Secretary William Simon, conservative foundations banded together to direct tens of millions of dollars into strategic investments in a network of think tanks, media outlets and pressure groups that went after perceived enemies in the news media, academia and politics.
Though this network would eventually become famous for taking the fight to its adversaries, particularly Bill and Hillary Clinton, its original purpose was essentially defensive. It was built to ensure that the Republican Party would never suffer another catastrophe like Watergate.
By 1980, the Republicans were fighting fiercely to regain the White House that many conservatives felt was unjustly taken from them in 1976.
President Carter struggled with a slumping economy, rising inflation and energy shortages. His reelection campaign also played out against the backdrop of an international crisis with Islamic fundamentalists in Iran holding 52 Americans hostage.
This early experience with Islamic extremism captivated the interest of the American people – and incited their anger.
Every day, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite reported the number of days that America had been “held hostage.” ABC’s Ted Koppel launched a nightly news show about the hostage crisis that would later turn into Nightline.
Many world leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the Saudi royal family, felt that Carter was making a mess of policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Carter was unpopular at the CIA, too, where his CIA Director Stansfield Turner had cashiered scores of covert operatives. Longtime CIA officers, such as associate deputy director for operations Ted Shackley, saw their careers abruptly come to an end.
Shackley and other former CIA officers saw a hope for redemption in Election 1980 as their ex-boss, George H.W. Bush, sought the Republican presidential nomination.
Though Bush lost to Ronald Reagan in the Republican primaries, Bush accepted the second spot on the ticket at the GOP convention in Detroit. In merging the two campaigns, Bush brought into the Reagan-Bush team many retired CIA officers who had been part of Bush’s political operation.
They began putting to use their intelligence skills against Carter. Former CIA officers took on the job of monitoring Carter’s attempts to gain the release of the hostages before Election Day. Some of their intelligence reports went through Bush.
In the months before the 1980 election, Carter failed to gain the hostages’ freedom. The public’s frustration over the humiliating standoff helped turn a close race in October into a Reagan landslide in November.
The hostages were finally released just as Reagan was sworn in as the nation’s 40th President on January 20, 1981. Bush became Vice President and served as the administration’s chief national security expert.
Over the next decade, a mixed bag of intelligence operatives, arms dealers and Iranian officials began to allege that the Republicans had gone beyond monitoring Carter’s hostage negotiations and had engaged in parallel negotiations behind Carter’s back.
Some witnesses claimed that Bush had personally participated in these so-called “October Surprise” contacts. Those clandestine Republican-Iranian relationships allegedly merged by the mid-1980s with the secret Iran-Contra deals.
When those Iran-Contra arms-for-hostage swaps surfaced in late 1986, the Reagan-Bush team suffered its worst scandal of its 12-year reign. Some investigators viewed Bush as the well-protected eminence grise behind the secret operations.
New suspicions about Bush arose in 1991 as other allegations bubbled to the surface about secret dealings with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein during the 1980s.
Faced with these investigative threats to continued Republican rule, conservatives mounted powerful rearguard defenses, made possible by the new infrastructure that had been built in the years since Watergate.
Soon, it was the investigators who found themselves on the defensive, often labeled “conspiracy theorists” or worse.
The other Bush-related scandal pending at the start of the Clinton Presidency came directly from Campaign 1992. It had the look of a classic dirty trick out of Richard Nixon’s playbook.
Desperate for a “silver bullet” to kill Clinton’s electoral viability, State Department political appointees pawed through the passport files of Clinton and his mother, looking for information that could be used to challenge Clinton’s patriotism.
The goal of the search was a rumored letter in which Clinton supposedly sought to renounce his citizenship during the Vietnam War.
The search failed to find such a letter but administration officials noticed a torn corner of Clinton’s passport application and cited that to fashion a criminal referral to the FBI, suggesting that someone may have tampered with the file to remove the supposed letter.
The existence of the criminal referral was then leaked to the press allowing President Bush to question Clinton’s loyalty. However, when the weakness of Bush’s case was revealed, the passport search boomeranged on Bush, creating political embarrassment and leading to appointment of a special prosecutor.
If President Clinton’s motive for turning his back on those four investigations – October Surprise, Iran-Contra, Iraqgate and Passportgate – was to curry favor with the Republicans, it didn’t work.
Senator Bob Dole and other Republicans even cited a lack of incriminating findings against Reagan and Bush as justification for aggressively investigating the Clinton administration.
The reasoning went that since the Democrats had investigated “bogus” scandals and found no wrongdoing, Republican probes of seemingly minor infractions by the Clinton administration were only a fair turnabout.
The conservative news media, which had lambasted investigations of the Republicans as excessive, also flipped sides, arguing that it was the duty of journalists to explore every suspicion raised about the Clintons.
Those investigations of Clinton would consume the next eight years, although ultimately the Whitewater probe would be closed with no charges against either Bill or Hillary Clinton.
The suspicions about Vincent Foster’s death also would come to nothing. But the confluence of Clinton scandals eventually led to Clinton’s deceptive testimony in a civil lawsuit that delved into his dalliance with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
The House Republican leadership then pushed through an impeachment resolution against Clinton in December 1998, making him the first U.S. President to be impeached since Andrew Johnson after the Civil War. Like Johnson, Clinton prevailed in a trial before the U.S. Senate. But the impeachment will forever stain his legacy.
The so-called “Clinton fatigue” that the nation felt from the eight years of “scandal” also would take a toll on the candidacy of Vice President Al Gore, who stood behind Clinton during the impeachment but tried to distance himself from the tainted President during Campaign 2000.
The Clinton “scandals” – and the damage they inflicted on the Democratic Party – set the stage for the most remarkable dynastic comeback in American history, the ascension of George W. Bush, the eldest son of the 41st President.
During his early adulthood, the younger George Bush epitomized the wastrel son of a successful father. Given every opportunity at elite schools and spared a tour in Vietnam by latching onto a prized spot in the Texas Air National Guard, Bush was better known for his partying than for any accomplishments.
He drank heavily though he denied he was an alcoholic. In business, as an oil man, Bush squandered the financial backing of his patrons but always failed up, with new investors – including some from Saudi Arabia – arriving to bail him out of one foundering business after another.
Bush also dabbled in politics, losing a congressional race and working on some of his father’s campaigns.
When Bush did set his sights on his own political career after his father’s 1992 defeat, the younger Bush’s principal qualification for office – one might say his only qualification – was his family pedigree.
When people had doubts about the younger George Bush, they would comfort themselves with the knowledge that his father was a decent man who could give his son guidance as needed.
George W. Bush’s rise also tracked with the arc of the Clinton “scandals.”
By November 1994, after months of sordid allegations about Clinton’s personal life, there was already a public longing for the good old days of the first Bush administration, a kind of buyer’s regret for making the switch to the Democrat.
That attitude helped Republicans across the country score major victories in the mid-term elections. Bush won the Texas governorship in a surprise landslide over the popular Democratic Governor Ann Richards. National Republicans also gained control of the House and Senate.
In 1998, Governor Bush won a resounding reelection amid the congressional Republican drive to impeach Clinton. Bush soon was aiming at the Presidency with a promise that he would restore “honor and dignity” to the White House.
Everyone understood that the pledge was a coded reference to Clinton’s sexual shenanigans with Monica Lewinsky.
In Campaign 2000, the increasingly powerful conservative news media – now bolstered by Rupert Murdoch’s highly rated Fox News cable network – would again play a decisive role, often aided and abetted by mainstream journalists who intuitively understood that their careers could be helped by slapping around Democrats.
The news media’s hostility toward Vice President Al Gore also may have reflected a residual frustration over Clinton somehow surviving all the scandal reporting of the prior eight years.
The press corps’ tilt toward Bush continued through the disputed Florida election even though Gore built a lead in the national popular vote of more than 500,000.
Little media outrage was expressed when national Republicans dispatched to Florida demonstrators who staged a minor riot in Miami that apparently intimidated voting officials into scrapping their recount plans.
Led by Bush family lawyer James Baker III, the Bush-Cheney campaign also took its hardball strategies into the federal courts to stop Florida state courts from ordering a recount to determine who actually got the most legally cast ballots.
Five conservative Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to stop the vote counting, effectively handing Florida’s 25 electoral votes and the Presidency to George W. Bush.
Upon taking office, one of Bush’s first acts was to clamp down on release of historic records from the 12 years when his father was Vice President and then President.
Lack of Competence
The second Bush administration didn’t work out with the smoothness and competence that many Washington commentators had expected.
On Sept. 11, 2001, just short of nine months into the second Bush Presidency, 19 terrorists working with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization hijacked four commercial jets.
The terrorists then crashed two jetliners into the World Trade Center towers, one into the Pentagon and one into a field in Pennsylvania, after passengers apparently battled the hijackers for control.
The attacks, which killed about 3,000 people, again turned the nation’s attention to the Middle East, but Americans had only a limited understanding of the cross-currents of secret history that connected the new President’s family to the region’s dangerous intrigue.
Few citizens had more than an inkling about the Bush family ties to Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia – even to Osama bin Laden’s family.
By 2001, many chapters of that history had been lost in a haze of conflicting claims, withheld documents and failed investigations.
Out of that confusion, it wasn’t hard for George W. Bush and his administration to persuade large numbers of Americans to merge the images of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden into a composite enemy, even though the two men were themselves bitter adversaries in the Arab world.
After attacking al-Qaeda base of operation in Afghanistan, the Bush administration turned its attention to Saddam Hussein and Iraq with Bush ordering a U.S.-led invasion on March 19, 2003.
Today, as U.S. and Iraqi casualties from the Iraq War continue to mount, the historical questions still hang in the air:
Did the Reagan-Bush administration help Hussein get the chemical weapons that George W. Bush would later cite to justify an invasion?
Were secret Republican-Iranian negotiations in 1980 the start of entangling relationships that drew the United States deeper into the Middle East violence?
Did the subterranean financial tunnels connecting the Bush family and the Saudi royal family contribute to al-Qaeda’s determination to strike at the United States in 2001?
Would American history have taken a very different course if the investigations of the Reagan-Bush era had gone forward and the archives of secret documents been thrown open?
Did the pattern of suppressing fair-minded inquiry in the 1980s and 1990s contribute to the shallowness of the Iraq War debate in 2002 and 2003?
In a May 23, 2004, article, Washington Post associate editor Robert Kaiser observed that the catastrophic developments in the Iraq War, including the international opprobrium from photographs of U.S. soldiers humiliating Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, had finally brought unease to the Washington Establishment.
“We have come to a delicate moment in an absorbing drama,” Kaiser wrote. “The actors seem unsure of their roles. The audience is becoming restless with the confusion on stage. But the scriptwriters keep trying to convince the crowd that the ending they imagined can still, somehow, come to pass.
“The authors stick to their plotline even as its plausibility melts away, and why not? For months the audience kept applauding, many of the reviewers were admiring, while many others kept still.”
A goal of this book [Secrecy & Privilege] is to explain why so many of Kaiser’s reviewers swooned over the second Bush administration’s policies for so long while so many other Americans who should have joined a critical debate about war and peace stayed silent.
Those reasons can only be understood if viewed in the sweep of events over the past three decades and by examining the secret history of the Bush family dynasty.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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