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Bush's legacy and staff, dissected

Takeover The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy Charlie Savage Little, Brown: 404 pp., $25.99 -- Dead Certain The Presidency of George W. Bush Robert Draper The Free Press: 464 pp., $28

September 07, 2007|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

If George W. Bush's presidency has left no other legacy, it already has established a new standard for real-time history. The last seven years have been rich with paradox, and none is greater than the fact that a notoriously insular, loyalty-obsessed and press-shy administration has produced a virtual library of insider-tell-all, behind-the-scenes reconstructions of its most important decisions.

All that remains is for some canny publishing entrepreneur to establish the Bush of the Month Club.

And what an experience membership would be! It's impossible to recall an administration in which quite so many people -- from the president on down -- were so eager to rat each other out. At times, wading through their conflicting accounts seems less like reading presidential history than it does like listening to a batch of Mafia informers' tapes.

Robert Draper's "Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush" falls partly into that category, but it also is a shrewdly observed and very engagingly written exploration of the president's enigmatic personality. Charlie Savage's "Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy" is a gifted reporter's exposition of how and why the Bush administration has conducted itself and of that conduct's disturbing legacy.

Read together, these two books give a fascinating account of how Bush's character has shaped his presidency and of how a radical and historically revisionist theory of presidential powers provided the perfect tool with which to do that.

Draper is a national correspondent for GQ and a former editor of Texas Monthly, for which he wrote an extended profile of then Gov. Bush. The future president obviously found something to admire in that piece, because he gave the author six hours of interviews, which provide some of the most interesting material in "Dead Certain." Draper also spoke at some length with about 200 other sources, including Vice President Dick Cheney, former Bush political advisor Karl Rove, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Draper's access to Bush has provided a week's worth of headlines, some of them centering on the president's insistence that he never approved disbanding the Iraqi army, a decision that now looms as one of the disastrous occupation's foundational mistakes. In a preview of what we're likely to see in the who-lost-Iraq debate expected to occur after Bush leaves office, L. Paul Bremer III, who was in charge in Baghdad when Saddam Hussein's army was allowed to melt away, this week provided the New York Times with documents and an op-ed piece that seem to indicate that the president and Rumsfeld were fully informed about what was going on in Iraq.

Actually, Draper's reconstruction of the Bush presidency is singularly silent on a number of critical decisions that followed the terrorists' Sept. 11, 2001, atrocities and the subsequent invasion of Iraq, including the draconian policies on detainees and the adoption of torture as state policy, though he does make clear that George W. Bush had long considered his father's unwillingness to overthrow Hussein a mistake.

Draper does an excellent job of portraying just how the administration's divided and often dysfunctional operations also reflected Bush's conscious choice not to emulate his father's staff structure, in which a strong chief of staff enforced discipline throughout the executive branch. Instead it has been divide-and-rule from the Oval Office, though the consequence has been nearly constant internecine strife, particularly between the Defense Department and vice president's office and most of the rest of the government. "Dead Certain" also clarifies certain important details concerning the president's relationship with Rove, who opposed the selection of Cheney as vice president. First Lady Laura Bush apparently dislikes Rove, whom she calls "Pigpen," and openly disparaged him when news accounts referred to him as Bush's "brain." For his part, the president habitually humiliated and denigrated his chief political aide.

Bush emerges from this account, moreover, as a politician with his own street fighter's instincts wholly apart from anything Rove brought to their collaboration. Draper's reconstruction of the pivotal South Carolina Republican primary -- in which Bush smashed John McCain's candidacy by encouraging religious extremists and POW nut cases to calumniate the Arizona senator as a quisling and sexual libertine with a drug addict wife -- is fairly chilling stuff. (Though Draper doesn't make the point, one of the things the Bush family and its famous friends in the House of Saud seem to have in common is a flair for using religious fanatics to further their political ambitions.)

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