Rebel-in-Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush Hardcover
“You can’t worry about being vindicated, because the truth of the matter is, when you do big things, it’s going to take a while for history to really understand.” —President Bush, in an exclusive interview with Fred Barnes for Rebel-in-Chief
With Rebel-in-Chief, veteran political reporter Fred Barnes provides the defining book on George W. Bush’s presidency, giving an insider’s view of how Bush’s unique presidential style and bold reforms are dramatically remaking the country—and, indeed, the world. In the process, Barnes shows, the president is shaking up Washington and reshaping the conservative movement.
Barnes has gained extraordinary access to the Bush administration for Rebel-in-Chief, conducting rare one-on-one interviews with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and many other close presidential advisers. That access, along with Barnes’s extensive independent reporting and interviewing, produces an eye-opening look at this highly consequential—and controversial—presidency.
• How Bush acts as an “insurgent force” in the nation’s capital—“a different kind of president” who is turning the Washington establishment on its ear
• How Bush is redefining conservatism for a new era—and creating a new Republican majority
• The inside story of how Bush has revolutionized American foreign policy—and how the president’s crusade for democracy would have been anathema to Bush himself only five years ago
• When and why Bush decided to go into Iraq, even knowing that he was putting his political future at risk
• How a White House aide you’ve probably never heard of is shaping the Bush vision
• The surprising and important ways Bush’s faith affects critical presidential decisions
• How Bush has outmaneuvered his political opponents and surprised members of the press who have dismissed him as an intellectual bantamweight
• How Bush routinely defies conventional wisdom because of his contempt for elite opinion and halfway reforms (“small-ball,” he calls them)—and why he usually wins
George W. Bush billed himself as a “different kind of Republican.” He has proved to be a different kind of president, too. And Fred Barnes’s riveting behind-the-scenes account helps us understand how much this “Rebel-in-Chief ” is reshaping the world around us.
From Publishers Weekly
The Weekly Standard executive editor and Fox News personality preaches to the Crawford choir in this analysis-cum-tribute to the Bush presidency. Readers who keep pace with current events will find little new in Barnes’s take on the president’s policies, but what’s instructive are the surprising glimpses into the personality of a man Barnes celebrates as an “insurgent leader” who’s “an alien in the realm of the governing class” that despises all things Washington and revels in his status as “a revolutionary with a revolutionary vision.” Indeed, the capital is a locale he regards as a “job site” at best and a “detention center” at worst where the increasingly Republican-populated Washington establishment is “reactionary” (and “Bush ignores them”), and the national press corps “reminded Bush of the liberal students he detested in his years at Yale.” His disdain for newspaper-reading is well-known, but Barnes goes to great lengths to detail the president’s copious book-reading habit (five to every one that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reads), from Michael Crichton’s State of Fear and Margaret MacMillian’s Paris 1919 to Natan Sharansky’s The Case for Democracy and David McCullough’s 1776. However, Barnes’s cheerleading proves wearying after a few chapters: no matter what the topic, the president is right and everyone else is wrong. Bush, like Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, has been “prematurely judged to fall short of presidential specifications,” leaving Barnes to conclude “Bush is a president of consequence.” Ardent partisans will enjoy this polemical valentine, which should be read with care by readers seeking fresh insights into the mind of the 43rd president.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Here’s a book the Bush administration will be happy about. Barnes, the executive editor of the Weekly Standard and a Fox news contributor, has written a political biography in which, to quote a cowboy song, seldom is heard a discouraging word and (with true Bushian syntax) the skies are not cloudy all day. Using a one-hour interview with the president as the core for this short book, Barnes hits the familiar notes: Bush is a loner, unbeholden and uninterested in the Washington establishment. He’s a big thinker, a visionary. He is loyal. He likes to go to bed early. Nothing is said about CIA leaks or the standing of the U.S. in the world or Bush’s sinking popularity polls; rather, the point is–made by both Barnes and President Bush–that this a presidency whose goals are so big, they are for history to judge, not snapshooting pollsters. The most interesting part of the book is Barnes’ discussion of how much Bush is influenced by what he reads, especially Natan Sharansky’s Case for Democracy. Barnes is preaching to the choir here–and the choir will love it. Ilene Cooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Praise for Rebel-in-Chief
“A book so well worth reading that wise historians will long consult it for clues about what made Bush tick.” —National Review
“Barnes has made a good rough cut at placing [Bush] in historical context–and has offered a useful corrective to critics who profess to see nothing good, much less historically important, about our current president.” —Wall Street Journal
“The gifted political reporter . . . shows both his politics (conservative) and his reporting skills (still razor-sharp) in this entertaining look at the meaning of Mr. Bush. Rebel-in-Chief deserves wide reading outside the self-important circles that inhabit the nation’s capital.” —New York Sun
“Does an excellent job analyzing the private as well as public [Bush] . . . Filled with other interesting revelations . . . Entertaining, lucid, and thought-provoking.” —American Spectator
“Think you know the real George W. Bush? You’re wrong. Fred Barnes has managed to entice a surprisingly private man to reveal important hidden aspects of himself and his very consequential presidency.” —Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics, University of Virginia
“No one in the Washington press corps understands George W. Bush better than Fred Barnes. He provides the best picture we have had yet of a president who is, as Barnes writes, ‘an inner-directed man in an other-directed town.’ I couldn’t put it down.” —Michael Barone, senior writer, U.S. News & World Report
“Crackling with fine reportage and analysis. Barnes knows this subject better than anyone.” —Rich Lowry, editor, National Review
“I know Fred Barnes and I thought I knew what he knows about President Bush. Boy, was I wrong. This book is a revelation. I couldn’t stop reading it.” —Brit Hume, host, Fox News Channel’s Special Report with Brit Hume
“A one-of-a-kind journalistic feat—getting inside the president’s view of himself and the presidency. Only Fred Barnes with his clear conservative credentials and unique access to the president could write this book. This is a direct and passionate trip into the heart of Bush country. Lucky for history.” —Juan Williams, senior correspondent, NPR
“George W. Bush is not an easy president to understand or to appreciate, even for his supporters. Now one of the nation’s great political reporters goes beneath the surface to reveal the president’s passion and vision. This is must-reading for Bush backers and Bush bashers alike.” —Robert D. Novak, nationally syndicated columnist
About the Author
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard and cohost of The Beltway Boys on the Fox News Channel. Previously he served as White House correspondent for The New Republic, covered the Supreme Court and the White House for the Washington Star, and was the national political correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. He lives in northern Virginia with his wife, Barbara.
From The Washington Post
Fred Barnes’s portrait of President Bush offers an inadvertent reminder of how much one year can change a presidency. His book opens on the day of the State of the Union address in February 2005, when a newly reelected and supremely confident Bush was at the height of his power. He had delivered a sweeping inaugural address promising to spread democracy throughout the world and overseen an Iraqi election that his administration interpreted as a vindication. Now Bush was planning to focus on bold reforms of Social Security and the tax system; Barnes describes him dismissing, at a lunch with journalists, a suggestion that Congress might find his plan for private Social Security accounts politically unpalatable. The Bush for whom Barnes began this apologia “controls the national agenda, uses his presidential powers to the fullest and then some, proposes far-reaching policies likely to change the way Americans live, reverses other long-standing policies, and is the foremost leader in world affairs.” That bold and visionary president is no longer with us. By early 2006, far from making revolutionary proposals, Bush’s assertion of presidential power had been challenged by Congress and the courts. His Social Security plan was all but discarded; his domestic standing had been badly damaged by his failure to respond effectively to Hurricane Katrina. Above all, the Iraq War had become a painful and polarizing enterprise that teetered near the brink of catastrophe. Bush appeared likely to devote most of the rest of his presidency to trying to find an honorable way out of it. Barnes, for his part, seemingly felt obliged to stitch some awkward updates into his tapestry of an all-conquering president. “Imagine if the president had won the fight for private accounts in Social Security,” he argues. “And imagine if he had expanded consumer-driven health care…. Imagine further that he had gained congressional approval of lifetime IRAs and tax reform that lowers individual income tax rates…. Achieving it would have been an epic feat. And Bush, having succeeded in creating an ownership society, would be the most important and consequential domestic policy president since FDR.” Only he didn’t. And he’s not. That’s not to say that Barnes’s interpretation of Bush is not insightful. The Weekly Standard editor and Fox News pundit convincingly describes a president who thinks and behaves “as an insurgent” in Washington, who scorns small ideas and conventional thinking and who consequently “has found it easy to overturn major policies with scarcely a second thought.” Barnes portrays Bush’s contempt for Washington elites and the press as a virtue that has allowed him to revolutionize both foreign and domestic policy and fashion a new form of conservatism. The case he makes for Bush’s boldness is indisputable, especially in foreign affairs. But the thinness of Bush’s counsel in his anti-Washington bubble also stands out. For example, Barnes describes Bush — “a dissenter on the theory of global warming,” despite the overwhelming consensus in the scientific community — confirming his views in an hour-long conversation last year with the thriller author Michael Crichton, who “had concluded that global warming is an unproven theory and that the threat is vastly overstated.” Similarly, Barnes reports that much of Bush’s thinking about his global pro-democracy policy was developed in one-on-one conversations with the White House speechwriter Michael Gerson, who shares the president’s evangelical faith. Gerson, he says, was also the source of Bush’s promise in the 2003 State of the Union address to commit $15 billion to the global campaign against AIDS over five years. (So far, Bush is close to keeping the pledge, having spent $5.2 billion in the first two years and budgeted more than $3 billion for 2006.) By this account, even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was not aware of the crusade against tyranny to which she and her department were being committed until the inaugural was all but finalized. Barnes’s point is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Bush has been the prime author of some of his boldest policies. That may be true of his press for democracy in the Middle East, but Barnes’s argument that Bush revolutionized American thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nonsensical. It’s true that U.S. policy has come a long way from President Clinton’s 2000 attempt to broker a comprehensive peace accord at Camp David. But Bush merely followed the lead of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who first convinced him to adopt a “road map” calling for gradual steps toward a two-state solution based on Palestinian “performance,” then just as easily induced the president to back the opposite approach — a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in July. Sharon, at least, knew more about his subject than Michael Crichton. By the time Barnes visited Bush to wrap up his book in August 2005, the president’s Washington “insurgency” had been overtaken by that of Iraq, a problem Barnes curiously neglects; his discussion essentially concludes with the January elections. (The prisoner-abuse scandal caused by Bush’s policies on torture and the Geneva Conventions is ignored entirely.) Bush tells Barnes he’s been reading 1776 by David McCullough; he takes solace in the fact that historians are still debating George Washington’s legacy. “History’s judgment on Bush, who has not even completed his second term, consists of nothing but conjecture,” Barnes defensively observes. Of course, if future historians conclude that Bush singlehandedly remade American foreign policy and created a “strong-government” conservatism that ensured Republican dominance for decades, then Barnes’s uncommon judgment of this president will look pretty good. For now, it reads like an argument that might have sounded plausible a year ago but was overwhelmed by an annus horribilis. Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Post.
Reviewed by Jackson Diehl
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Chapter 1: The Insurgent Leader
It’s February 2, 2005, and President George W. Bush has a lot on his mind. In a matter of hours he’ll deliver the State of the Union address in the chamber of the House of Representatives in the Capitol. The speech will set both the tone and the agenda for his second White House term. And, as always, it will be nationally televised and watched worldwide as well. He’s practiced the speech twice before on a TelePrompTer and may once more.
His priorities are bold and controversial. Two weeks ago, in his inaugural address, he announced a crusade to uproot tyranny and plant democracy around the world. Many American and foreign political leaders, plus the usual horde of media commentators, found the idea grandiose or simply naive. So the president needs to flesh out his ambitious plan convincingly. As luck would have it–and Bush’s luck is legendary–his task has been made easier by the breathtaking success of the election in Iraq two days earlier. Before the election, the Washington press corps expected little from the Iraqis. A Washington Post reporter, Dana Milbank, suggested sarcastically that the Iraqi turnout at the polls might number only in the dozens. He was off by 8.5 million.
Bush has other big issues to talk about besides Iraq. He wants to privatize Social Security partially and make the wobbly system solvent for generations to come; he wants to overhaul the tax code; he wants to tilt the ideological balance of the federal courts to the right; and he wants to inject free-market forces into America’s dysfunctional health care system.
For now, though, the president has to attend an off-the-record lunch in the White House study adjacent to the State Dining Room. “Why do I have to go to this meeting?” Bush asks his communications director, Dan Bartlett. “It’s traditional,” Bartlett explains. Indeed, for years, the president has hosted the TV news anchors for lunch on the day of the State of the Union address. It’s an invitation the anchors eagerly accept. Peter Jennings and George Stephanopoulos of ABC, Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams of NBC, Chris Wallace and Brit Hume of Fox, and Wolf Blitzer and Judy Woodruff of CNN will be there. So will Dan Rather of CBS, magnanimously invited in spite of having sought to derail the president’s reelection campaign by spotlighting four documents (later proved to be fabrications) that indicated Bush had used political pull to get into the Texas Air National Guard and avoid Vietnam duty, and that he had been honorably discharged without fully completing his service. (At the lunch, Rather will suddenly appear solicitous of Bush. “Thank you, Mr. President,” he will say as he leaves. “Thank you, Mr. President.” Bush will betray no hint of satisfaction.)
Bush’s dread of the lunch is understandable. With few exceptions–Hume is one–the anchors are faithful purveyors of the conventional wisdom, which is usually gloomy regarding outcomes that might cast Bush in a good light. It is also tinged with liberalism, and wrong. The president agrees with practically none of it.
Sure enough, once the lunch meeting begins, the president takes issue with many of the anchors’ claims. Stephanopoulos suggests congressional Republicans rightly fear that Social Security reform will hurt them in the 2006 midterm election. “You don’t understand the politics of the issue,” Bush responds. Woodruff says that critics worry the president is resolved to take on tyrannies everywhere. “I wasn’t aware that was a criticism,” Bush answers sarcastically. Jennings says an American general in Iraq told him that the Syrians are helpful there. “I’d like to talk to that general,” Bush says in disbelief. In fact, the Syrians are nothing but trouble, he adds, and have been all along. Bush chastises his media guests for negativism. “Nobody around this table thought the elections were going to go that well in Afghanistan, Palestine, Ukraine, and Iraq.” And they darn well should understand that he intends to dominate Washington and impose his priorities: “If the president doesn’t set the agenda,” Bush declares firmly, “it’ll be set for you.”
Bush’s conduct at the lunch–edgy, blunt, self-confident, a bit smart-alecky, disdainful of what the media icons are peddling–is typical. In private or public, he is defiant of the press, scornful of the conventional wisdom, and keen to reverse or at least substantially reform long-standing policies like support for undemocratic but friendly autocracies and the no-tinkering approach to Social Security. Stephanopoulos’s notion about potential political harm from seeking to reform Social Security, Bush says, is thirty years behind the times.
Years ago, Donald Rumsfeld answered a reporter’s query by saying, “First let me unravel the flaws in your question.” Bush has adopted a less bellicose version of the Rumsfeld model. Not surprisingly, he was drawn to Rumsfeld personally. In picking a defense secretary, Bush was initially inclined to go with former senator Dan Coats of Indiana. But he wanted someone who would stand up to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Vice President Dick Cheney in national security deliberations. He turned to a certifiable tough guy–Rumsfeld. Coats became ambassador to Germany.
President Bush operates in Washington like the head of a small occupying army of insurgents, an elected band of brothers (and quite a few sisters) on a mission. He’s an alien in the realm of the governing class, given a green card by voters. He’s a different kind of president in style and substance.
He’d rather invite his first envoy to Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, and his wife, Francie, to a quiet evening at the White House than appear at a Washington gala or social event. The night before the White House Salute to Gospel Music, Bush encountered the Gaither Vocal Band rehearsing in the East Room. He invited them to dinner. Instead of consulting “experts” on Third World development, Bush tapped U2 singer Bono as an adviser and ally on aiding sub-Saharan Africa. He invited Bono, a crusader for debt relief for poor countries, to two meetings in the Oval Office and rebutted a British reporter’s sneering reference to him at a White House press conference in June 2005. “I admire him,” the president said. “He is a man of depth and a great heart who cares deeply about the impoverished folks on the continent of Africa.” Bono sent Bush a note of thanks for defending him.
Bush is neither an elitist nor a champion of elite opinion. He reflects the political views and cultural tastes of the vast majority of Americans who don’t live along the East or West Coast. He’s not a sophisticate and doesn’t spend his discretionary time with sophisticates. As First Lady Laura Bush once said, she and the president didn’t come to Washington to make new friends. And they haven’t. They chiefly socialize with old friends, many of them Texans. Bush’s view is that he and his aides are in Washington to do a job, then clear out of town. The day after the 2004 election, Bush reelection campaign strategist Matthew Dowd left a sign with the letters “GTT” on his office door. He had “gone to Texas” as quickly as possible to take a teaching post at the University of Texas and work as a political consultant. Bush will follow in 2009.
There are two types of presidents: those who govern and those who lead. A governing president performs all the duties assigned by the Constitution, deals with whatever issues or crises crop up during his term, and does little else. He’s a caretaker. Richard Neustadt, in his seminal book Presidential Power, characterized such a president as essentially a clerk. Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush, was a president who mainly governed. So was Dwight Eisenhower and, for most of his time in the White House, Bill Clinton.
Bush is a president who leads. “If we do not lead, people will suffer,” the president told me in an interview I conducted specifically for this book. He controls the national agenda, uses his presidential powers to the fullest and then some, proposes far-reaching policies likely to change the way Americans live, reverses other long-standing policies, and is the foremost leader in world affairs. All the while, he courts controversy, provokes the press, and polarizes the country. The president doesn’t worry about running the day-to-day activity of his own government; all he has to manage is the White House staff and individual cabinet secretaries.
His job, he told me, is to “stay out of minutiae, keep the big picture in mind, but also make sure that I know enough about what’s going on to get the best information possible.” To stress the point, during our interview in the Oval Office Bush called my attention to the rug; he had been surprised, he said, to learn that the first decision a president is expected to make is what color the rug should be. “I wasn’t aware that presidents were rug designers,” he told me. So he delegated the task–to Laura. Typical of his governing style, though, he gave a clear principle as guidance: he wanted the rug to express the view that an “optimistic person comes here.”
An approach like Bush’s allows a president to drive policy initiatives, so long as he has a vision of where he wants to take the nation and the world. Bush, despite his wise-guy tendencies and cocky demeanor, is a visionary. So were Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. They, too, were leaders, as controversial and polarizing as Bush.
To the political community–that amalgam of elected officials, aides, advisers, consultants, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and…
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