CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK WILSON / GETTY
We are probably too quick to declare any family that has produced more than one elected officeholder to be a political dynasty: many other democratic countries (India, the Philippines, Argentina) are far more dynastic than the United States. In 1979, the Kennedys were our leading political dynasty. Ted Kennedy was preparing to run for President, and many people thought it was inevitable that he would win.
Meanwhile, in Texas, George Herbert Walker Bush, who had lost two races for the U.S. Senate, a body to which his father had belonged, had launched a quixotic-seeming Presidential campaign of his own. His eldest son, George W. Bush, had just lost his first race for political office, a congressional campaign in West Texas. Bush’s best friend, James Baker, had lost his only political campaign, for Texas attorney general. It looked as if the Bushes had been right to decide that Texas would be a more propitious environment for Republicans than their former home, Connecticut, but had done so prematurely. If Ronald Reagan had not chosen George Bush as his Vice-President, there would be no Bush dynasty today. And if Bush’s fellow-Texan Ross Perot had not run against him, in 1992, there would be no Clinton dynasty, either.
Still, the political Bushes appear to be a family business whose deliberations are tantalizingly out of the public’s reach. So it wasn’t surprising that the first snippets released from Jon Meacham’s biography of George H. W. Bush were about what Bush 41 really thought of Bush 43’s Presidency. That’s what we’ve all been wondering about.
The Bushes do a brisk internal trade in advisers. Condoleezza Rice worked for 41 and 43. So did Colin Powell and Dick Cheney. Robert Zoellick and Stephen Hadley worked for 41 and 43, and are now advising Jeb Bush’s Presidential campaign. These are just a few of dozens of examples, from all realms of policy and politics. What the Bushes expect from these people is not just competence but loyalty. There’s family, and then there’s staff. (Only one person, James Baker, has ever transcended those tight categories.) Staff pursue the family’s interests, not their own.
Bush 41’s news-making remark to Meacham was, in effect, an accusation that Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had violated this cardinal rule during Bush 43’s Administration. Speaking about Cheney, Bush told Meacham, “He had his own empire there and marched to his own drummer. … It just showed me that you cannot do it that way. The president should not have that worry.” Bush had never liked or trusted—or hired—Rumsfeld, so in his case the lack of loyalty was no surprise. But Cheney, he told Meacham, had changed. “He just became very hard-line and very different from the Dick Cheney I knew and worked with.”
Most Cheney watchers, including Bush, believe that Cheney changed from an utterly reliable servitor into an ideologue, partly as a result of the September 11th attacks. Cheney himself offered up this theory when Meacham asked him to respond to Bush’s remarks. “No question I was much harder-line after 9/11 than I was before, especially when we got into this whole area of terrorism, nukes, and WMD,” he said.
Don’t be so sure.
George W. Bush, in his pre-Presidential days, was even more preoccupied than his father with extirpating aides who, in his view, had their own agendas. Partly because he felt his father had not been well served by the independent political consultants he used in his unsuccessful reëlection campaign, he insisted that Karl Rove sell his consulting firm and work as a full-time campaign employee in 2000. Cheney, who at first served as the chairman of George W. Bush’s Vice-Presidential search committee, came highly recommended by Bush 41. As the C.E.O. of Halliburton, he was living in Texas at the time, rather than in Washington, and he projected a stolid, phlegmatic trustworthiness. He hardly ever said anything, so how could he have an agenda?
The leading candidate for Bush’s Vice-President was said to be the former Senator John Danforth, of Missouri, a moderate Republican. They met, with Cheney briefly present, something didn’t click, and Cheney got the job instead. After the election, the former Senator Dan Coats, of Indiana, a Christian conservative, was expected to be named the Secretary of Defense. He and Bush met (again, with Cheney present), something didn’t click, and Cheney’s old friend Rumsfeld got the job instead. Cheney was also immediately permitted—as Bush 41 pointed out to Meacham—to create his own shadow national-security staff in the White House, headed by Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
Long before 9/11, Cheney had a hyper-awareness of threats to the American order. This may have come from his experience as a graduate student, at the University of Wisconsin, during the peak period of student radicalism there, or from having run, with Rumsfeld, the most left-wing agency of the federal government, the long-departed Office of Economic Opportunity, in the early nineteen-seventies. In any case, this attitude was amply reflected in Cheney’s voting record after he was elected to Congress, in 1978, and in his interviews and speeches.
The most consequential examples of Cheney’s conservatism come from his years in the Bush 41 Administration. As the Secretary of Defense, he hired Paul Wolfowitz as one of the top officials in the Pentagon, and he tilted away from Mikhail Gorbachev and toward Boris Yeltsin because he believed that Yeltsin would push harder for the dissolution of the Soviet Union. After that happened, Cheney sponsored a study by Wolfowitz calling for the maintenance of a one-superpower world in the post-Soviet era as the core principle of U.S. foreign policy.
George H. W. Bush evidently didn’t notice any of this, because Cheney was so competent and reassuring. George W. Bush didn’t notice either. It’s pretty clear that both of them figured it out later, after Cheney and his allies had adeptly shaped the first couple of years of the U.S. response to 9/11—the Patriot Act, the inexorable road to the Iraq War, and all the rest. The lesson is that, if you think somebody has changed fundamentally, especially somebody over the age of sixty, it probably means you didn’t know the person as well as you thought. And that was because you were looking mainly for a quality that was important to you, not for what was important to him.