Bush: is the president imploding?

By Andrew Stephen

His aides are jumping ship, his inner circle is torn apart by feuds and his orders are being ignored. Bush has 17 months left in the White House, but he is now a rudderless leader.

You certainly wouldn’t think there was a crisis. There’s no sense that the Bush administration has plunged into a shambles of epic and probably unprecedented proportions, either: Dick Cheney has gone fishing, Congress is out for the summer, and much of Georgetown has fled the August mugginess of Washington for the beaches of Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard or the Hamptons. President George W Bush himself, 61 last month, is about to break a record previously held by Ronald Reagan: before the end of this month, according to my calculations, he will have surpassed the old Gipper’s record of having taken 436 days’ holiday while in office.

Indeed, this past week, Air Force One touched down at Waco airport in Texas – I swear this is true – for the 66th time since Bush took office, so he could relax at his 1,583-acre “ranch” (there’s not so much as a hint of any livestock to be seen or heard there) nearby. Nor should we forget – how could we? – that, barring anything extraordinary happening, the 43rd US president still has almost 17 months left in the White House.

But the symbolic meltdown of his administration came on the South Lawn of the White House on 13 August when a semi-tearful Karl Rove, 56, announced he will be leaving the administration on 31 August. Though nominally only deputy chief of staff, Rove had become increasingly indispensable to Bush since they first met 34 years ago. He was the amoral political über-strategist who somehow propelled Bush – an alcoholic who had already failed in both politics and business – to four election victories between 1994 and 2004, handing him two terms as Texas governor and then as US president. Bush bristles at the implications of Rove being described as “Bush’s brain”, but happily calls Rove the “boy genius” and “the architect” behind his supreme electoral triumph.

And yet, that hot August morning, the dreams of both men lay in tatters. The wheels of amorality had come full circle. Though Bush was Rove’s best-known political trophy, he had also virtually single-handedly turned Texas from the stolidly Democratic state of LBJ into a strongly Republican one. I have catalogued in these pages before some of the smear tactics Rove used while doing that, such as starting a whispering campaign in 1994 that Ann Richards – Bush’s Democratic rival that year and the then popular incumbent Texas governor, since deceased – was a closet lesbian.

But Rove’s ultimate dream, which he came perilously close to realising in the 21st century, was to pull off what he had done to Texas with the entire country: to create a durable Republican base, centred on the so-called “Christian right” he set about mobilising, despite being an avowed agnostic himself, which would become the springboard of local and federal Republican rule throughout the US for decades to come.

Instead, in 2007 Rove has found himself the target of both criminal and congressional investigations, and Bush is now frequently described by friends and enemies alike as the worst and most unpopular US president in history. Yet each squandered unique political capital of which they could only have dreamed when Bush took office in 2001: shortly after the 11 September atrocities, Republicans were favoured 57-28 per cent over Democrats across the nation.

Today, says Gallup, just 41 per cent of Americans identify themselves as Republicans, compared with 51 per cent who see themselves as Democrats; 40 per cent of Republicans believe the Democrats will win the 2008 presidential election. According to an NBC/WSJ poll a few days ago, Americans believe by margins ranging from 22 to 39 per cent that the Democrats would do better than Bush on issues ranging from education to global warming. Because the Democrats regained control of both the House and Senate last November – a further blow to Rove’s reputation as electoral wonderboy – Bush, Rove et al are the targets of countless congressional probes and subpoenas that threaten to uncover ever more scandal and incompetence.

All of which explains why there was such a sombre, almost funereal, mood on the South Lawn that sunny morning on 13 August. Rove the non-believer vowed to Bush, with a straight face, that he would pray “for God’s continued gifts of strength and wisdom for you and your work . . . and for the Almighty’s continued blessing of our great country”. Bush described Rove as “a dear friend” who is now “moving on down the road”, adding grimly, and rather strangely: “I’ll be on the road behind you here in a little bit.”

The two men hugged each other for a long time and then Laura Bush, too, emotionally embraced Rove before they all headed for Marine One, the waiting presidential helicopter. Rove’s wife and teenage son joined them at Andrews Air Force Base and all boarded Air Force One – en route, naturally, to a holiday at the beloved “ranch”. Rove insists, unconvincingly, that he and his second wife, Darby, will now settle in the tiny town of Ingram in mid-Texas so they can be near their son, Andrew, a student at Trinity University in San Antonio, 63 miles away.

If you believe that, you’ll believe that Rove is at this moment on his knees, praying fervently to the Almighty in whom he does not believe for Bush’s deliverance. The August quiet of Georgetown and Pennsylvania Avenue is therefore misleading – rather like the summer doldrums before the coming megastorm – because Rove’s departure signals that the game really is up for the Bush administration. It’s routine for White House staff to start to look elsewhere at this stage of an administration, but Bush has now been deserted by almost his entire cast – with the notable exceptions, so far, of Cheney and Condi. Alberto Gonzales, his almost comically inept attorney general, stays only because Bush has too much hubris to swallow the universal view that he should be sacked.

The exodus started with Rummy’s resignation on 8 November last year (actually, we learned a few days ago, he handed it in on 6 November – but it was election day on 7 November so the news was suppressed by the administration for 48 hours, though it didn’t do them any good). The following month John Bolton, Bush’s less-than-lovable ambassador to the UN, called it a day knowing his appointment would never be ratified by a Democratic Senate. In January, Harriet Miers – Bush’s former family lawyer in Texas whom he wildly over-promoted to be White House counsel and then nominated, in a doomed move that was egregious even by Bush’s standards, to the Supreme Court – finally went in the midst of more disclosures about the administration’s firing of eight federal prosecutors for political reasons (in which Rove, too, was prominently involved: watch this space).

I can count 16 more front-line people who have gone, including Dan Bartlett (a key White House counsellor who vetted speeches, planned events and shaped communications strategy) and Rob Portman (who had been director of the Office of Management and Budget for barely a year when he resigned in June, citing the unconvincing Rovian cliché that he wanted to spend more time with his family). Tony Snow, Bush’s likeable chief spokesman and a former Fox News anchor, who is now stricken with advanced cancer of the colon, says he will also go before Labor Day on 3 September.

Feuding and vicious warfare have flared in the inner circle, too. Matthew Dowd, Rove’s former protégé-in-chief, is no longer on speaking terms with him and says publicly what everybody else says privately: that he has lost faith in Bush. Matthew Scully, special assistant and senior speechwriter in the White House until 2004, has just published an article excoriating the honesty of Michael Gerson – Bush’s chief speechwriter until last year and a self-proclaimed Christian often dubbed “the conscience of the White House”, who came up with many of Bush’s pithiest scripted lines. David Frum, yet another former White House speechwriter, whose “axis of hatred” Gerson changed to Bush’s infamous “axis of evil” for his first post-9/11 State of the Union address, now says that “polarisation is Karl Rove’s speciality”.

Catastrophic consequences

The conundrum, of course, is that it was precisely that dark art which got Bush into the White House in the first place. The poisonous divisiveness that gradually festered around him as a result now allows the state department, to take just one example reported in the Washington Post, to think nothing of simply ignoring an order from the president. Yet I suspect that the extent to which the Bush administration has become so shambolic will not come home to many Americans until the country returns to work on 4 September. Bush is now a truly rudderless president, with no realistic agenda left for the next 513 or so days, other than to tread water and hope for the best.

He has already decreed that the much-awaited “Petraeus report” – the supposedly crucial testimony on Capitol Hill from General David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, US ambassador in Baghdad, on what the military situation in Iraq is really like following “the surge” – will not now go ahead as planned. The most Congress can expect by the promised 15 September deadline is a private briefing and a report written by administration staff, rather than by Petraeus or Crocker themselves.

Bush will undoubtedly trumpet the resulting flammed-up “report” as proof that significant progress is being made in Iraq – none other than Rove himself was on duty peddling the line on the talk shows that 50 per cent of Baghdad is now under the control of the US army, compared with only 8 per cent in February, and that things are going wonderfully in Anbar Province, too. But cynicism with the Bush administration is such that, according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll released on 16 August, 53 per cent of Americans believe that the “report” will try to make the situation in Iraq sound better than it actually is, and 47 per cent of those opposed to the Iraq War say they simply will not trust it.

The Bush-Rove tragedy is that the two complemented each other and combined to create a uniquely combustible mix that has had such catastrophic consequences for America and the world. To Rove, a college dropout, Bush was a morally malleable blank slate with everything he lacked: an exceedingly well-known, respected family name and a wealthy political background that had enabled him to start life in the privileged Wasp enclaves of Connecticut and end up in Texas via Yale and Harvard. Perfect for the White House in, say, 2001?

For Bush, Rove represented proven cunning viciousness and, yes, a brain – one that was crammed with political and demographic facts and figures. Besides his enthusiasm for peculiarly nasty dirty tricks, Rove’s genius was to invent wedge issues which did not actually concern the overwhelming majority of Americans, but which he managed to push to the forefront of political debate. Rove may have been an agnostic himself, but he could certainly work up the electoral bloc that he invented and called “the Christian right” into lathers of rage over, say, gay marriage.

We now know that Rove was chairing meetings of the shadowy and secret White House Iraq Group plotting the invasion of Iraq as early as 2002, and that he was already pushing the line that, because of 9/11, the Bush administration was engaged in a messianic struggle between good and evil. He seized the opportunity to convince Bush that he was a president placed on this planet by God to liberate mankind and bring “democracy” to the un-American and thus politically pagan world. For Bush, it was an intoxicating vision to fill the blank slate.

By 2003, Rove had an office in the West Wing and Bush let him loose on cherished domestic dreams such as “reforming” social security and immigration. But his high-handed approach soon enraged congressional Republican leaders such as Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, and the beginning of the collapse of the Bush edifice had started. The wars on Iraq and terror were sacrosanct, but when it came to their bread-and-butter issues, the likes of DeLay and Armey weren’t going to be pushed around by a power-mad, devious Washington outsider like Rove.

Hence the terrible mess Washington will soon be in. Bush has always been obsessed with how history will view him, and all that now keeps him safely wrapped inside his bubble of self-delusion is an almost Hegelian certainty that he is a providential and necessary creation of our times whom history will not only vindicate, but glorify – even if it is long after our deaths. Rove’s job after 31 August, once he is released into the big-bucks world of the lecture, talk-show and publishing circuits, will be to spin the Bush-Rove legacy. He seems less optimistic than Bush, telling TV viewers: “The president will say to me, ‘Don’t worry about it. History will get it right and we’ll both be dead.'”

In the meantime, the cicadas in Georgetown are chirping away, the weathermen tell us we will all be under a “heat advisory”, and children are flocking to swimming pools before the dreaded return to school. And 1,500 miles away, in Texas, America’s president is furiously biking away while Iraq and Afghanistan burn. Yet history will come to see him as the brave hero who did what he knew was right – even if it takes centuries to come round to that conclusion.