The New York Times
Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bushby Robert Draper
With unprecedented access to
In this ambitious work of political narrative, Robert Draper takes us inside the Bush White House and delivers an intimate portrait of a tumultuous decade and a beleaguered administration. Virtually every page of this book crackles with scenes, anecdotes, and dialogue that will surprise even longtime observers of George W. Bush.
With unprecedented access to all the key figures of this administration -- from six one-on-one sessions with the president to Laura Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Karl Rove, and perhaps 200 other players, some well known, some not -- Draper has achieved what no other journalist or contemporary historian has done thus far: he has told the story of the Bush White House from the inside, with a special emphasis on how the very personality of this strong-willed president has affected the outcome of events.
Bush loyalists and the growing number of Bush detractors will all find much to savor in this riveting political page-turner. We begin with a revealing lunch at the White House where a testy, hot dog-chomping president finally unburdens himself to the inquisitive reporter, a fellow Texan who well understands the manly argot that courses through this administration.
We revisit the primaries of election-year 2000, in which the character of the candidate and indeed the future of the Republican Party were forged in the scalding South Carolina battle with Senator John McCain. We proceed forward to witness intimately the confusion and the eloquence that followed the September 11 attacks, then the feckless attempts to provide electricity to a darkened Baghdad, the high- and lowlights of the 2004 re-election bid, the startling and fruitless attempt to "spend capital" by overhauling the Social Security system, the inept response to Katrina, the downward-spiraling and increasingly divisive war in Iraq.
Though the headlines may be familiar, the details, the utterly inside account of how events transpired will come as fresh reportage to even the most devoted followers of mainstream media coverage. In this most press-wary of administrations, Robert Draper has accomplished a small miracle: He has knocked on all on the right doors, and thus become the first author to tell a personality-driven history of the Bush years. In so doing, he allows us to witness in complete granularity the personal force of a president determined to achieve big things, who remained an optimist in the face of a sometimes harsh unpopularity, who confronted the history of his time with what can surely be described as dead certainty.
The New York Times
"What Draper does with great skill in Dead Certain is debunk caricatures of George Bush, both positive and negative. In place of the dim-witted bogeyman of the left and the resolute hero of the right, Draper introduces a three-dimensional man full of contradictions." Salon.com
"A fascinating look at both [the Bush] presidency and his personality." Brian Williams, NBC Nightly News
"Draper is no apologist for the administration, and for Bush-bashers there are plenty of nuggets.... But the overall portrait sheds a humanizing light on a much-vilified president." Los Angeles Times
"An intimate portrait of a White House racked by more infighting than is commonly portrayed." The Washington Post
"Amazing...stunning." New York Post
"Washington's hottest dinner-party book this autumn." The Observer (UK)
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Read an Excerpt
December 12, 2006
"You can't possibly figure out the history of the Bush presidency until I'm dead."
George W. Bush slipped a piece of cheese into his mouth. "Let's order first." He took a quick glance at the day's menu prepared for him and his guest, saw nothing on it he cared for, and announced to the steward, "I'll have a hot dog. Low fat hot dog."
Then he slapped down the menu and asked, "What is the purpose of this book?"
He was edgy that day. Earlier that morning, Bush had decided that a major address slotted for next week was going to have to wait another month. The subject was Iraq, and he was, frankly, unsure of what to say on the subject. A bipartisan commission called the Iraq Study Group cochaired by longtime Bush family consigliere James A. Baker III had recently returned its report, which had labeled that country's condition "grave and deteriorating." Progress in that ongoing conflict had been inchwise even before sectarian violence began to develop its awful momentum in the spring of 2006 and threaten to tear the country apart. Bush had repeatedly said that the war was winnable. He had said that the American-led Coalition was, in fact, winning. No one, including Bush, was claiming imminent victory anymore.
So, what to say? Bush was a quarterback now playing defense. Five weeks before, the Democrats had seized back the House and the Senate in an election that even Bush had to concede was to some degree a referendum on the tragic misadventures in Iraq. The Democrats, with public backing, were clamoring for a change in course. So was the Iraq Study Group. And so with their tongues freshly loosened by the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were the generals in whose trust Bush had placed the mission. Stung by this reality, Bush nonetheless was digging in his heels. The day after the midterms, he had announced his intention to replace Rumsfeld with Robert Gates. Beyond that, Bush would not veer in haste. He would take the holidays to think about it.
"If you're weak internally? This job will run you all over town," the president observed. He was sitting in the small conference room beside the Oval Office where his predecessor, Bill Clinton, infamously found leisure time with Monica Lewinsky. His back was to the White House lawn. He had flung himself into his chair like a dirty sweatshirt and continued to pop pieces of cheese into his mouth. Stress was hammered into his face. The subject was himself how his leadership skills had evolved over time, and how he had dealt with disappointment and defeat, going back to his loss to Senator John McCain in the New Hampshire primary of 2000 and now, once again, in 2006.
Bush, as always, bridled at the request to navel-gaze. "You're the observer," he said as he worked the cheese in his mouth. "I'm not. I really do not feel comfortable in the role of analyzing myself. I'll try. But I don't spend a lot of time. I will tell you, the primaries strip you down to your bare essence, and you get to determine whether or not you're willing to fight through to prevail. It's a real test of will, I agree to that. I think the whole process was responsible for testing my will. No question getting defeated was a powerful moment."
He added, "I've never run a race where I thought I wouldn't win. I thought we were gonna hold the House and the Senate in '06. I thought we'd lose nine or ten seats, and I thought we'd be one or two up in the Senate."
Bush had held that view, almost manic in its optimism, all the way up to election day, in defiance of all available polling data. At the very mention of such data, his face began to curdle. "I understand you can't let polls tell you what to think," he declared one of his most frequently expressed sentiments, but now he went further: "And part of being a leader is: people watch you. I walk in that hall, I say to those commanders well, guess what would happen if I walk in and say, 'Well, maybe it's not worth it.' When I'm out in the public" and now he was fully animated, yanked out of his slouch and his eyes clenched like little blue fists "I fully understand that the enemy watches me, the Iraqis are watching me, the troops watch me, and the people watch me.
"The other thing is that you can't fake it. You have to believe it. And I believe it. I believe we'll succeed."
In spite of his stated preference that he be viewed as a simple guy, Bush now and then would reveal subtle shadings or outright dualities in his character. Here he was, for example, saying that he would not be influenced by polls and then, a sentence later, saying that the job required acute consciousness of public perceptions. His father was better known for discretion and attention to appearances, Bush acknowledged. "My dad was one time speaking to the Press Club," he reminisced. "And the last question is always kind of a funny question: 'Why are you wearing a blue tie?' And he kind of balked. I whispered, 'Tell him you spilled gravy on your red one.'
"Now I don't know how that happened. It popped in my head. I didn't train for the quip. By the way: He said it, and the place went wild. And then typical George Bush he said, 'Well, my son told me that!' He had to share the credit, instead of taking it and running with it!"
Interest in the relationship between the 41st and 43rd presidents was unquenchable, for reasons historical, political, and Oedipal. Despite their mutual love and their common experiences which included such not-so-trifling matters as invading Iraq and appointing Dick Cheney to positions of high power they were two profoundly different men. Above all, George W. had long emphasized, he was his own man. Seldom did he call on his father as a useful executive resource.
"Yeah, I asked him about it," he said when the subject turned to choosing Cheney as his vice president. "He said, 'You'll like working with him.' My relationship with my dad is, y'know I don't call him and say, 'Give me your list of potential candidates, man!' Or, 'What are the five things you would do if you were me?' It's more, 'Y'know, I'm really thinking about Dick Cheney, Dad.' Or, 'I'm thinking about Bob Gates. You've worked with Bob Gates, what's he like?' He knows as an ex-president, he doesn't have nearly the amount of knowledge I've got on current things. I mean, I get briefed every day, twice a day sometimes. He knows that. And plus, once the president gets a strategy in mind I mean, there's no need to argue about the Freedom Agenda! I'm sure he subscribes to a lot of it. Now, the rumors are that he and his people don't. But I don't necessarily think it's true. But, look, you can't talk me out of thinking freedom's a good thing!"
His hot dog arrived. Bush ate rapidly, with a sort of voracious disinterest. He was a man who required comfort and routine. Food, for him, was fuel and familiarity. It was not a thing to reflect on.
"The job of the president," he continued, through an ample wad of bread and sausage, "is to think strategically so that you can accomplish big objectives. As opposed to playing mini-ball. You can't play miniball with the influence we have and expect there to be peace. You've gotta think, think BIG. The Iranian issue," he said as bread crumbs tumbled out of his mouth and onto his chin, "is the strategic threat right now facing a generation of Americans, because Iran is promoting an extreme form of religion that is competing with another extreme form of religion. Iran's a destabilizing force. And instability in that part of the world has deeply adverse consequences, like energy falling in the hands of extremist people that would use it to blackmail the West. And to couple all of that with a nuclear" as always, he pronounced it nu-ku-ler "weapon, then you've got a dangerous situation. ...That's what I mean by strategic thought. I don't know how you learn that. I don't think there's a moment where that happened to me. I really don't. I know you're searching for it. I know it's difficult. I do know y'know, how do you decide, how do you learn to decide things? When you make up your mind, and you stick by it I don't know that there's a moment, Robert. I really You either know how to do it or you don't. I think part of this is it: I ran for reasons. Principled reasons. There were principles by which I will stand on. And when I leave this office I'll stand on them. And therefore you can't get driven by polls. Polls aren't driven by principles. They're driven by the moment. By the nanosecond."
A moment later, press secretary Tony Snow stepped into the doorway and immediately assumed a deferential tone. "When I go in front of the press," he said, referring to the daily briefing he was about to conduct, "can I just say, 'We will not be giving the speech until the New Year'? I mean "
"The New Year," Bush cut in, "and the reason why is, the president still has other people to listen to, and there's a lot of work to be done on a very important task. And I think you oughta just say, 'He's gonna be very deliberate and listen, he's not gonna be rushed.' "
"Yeah," said Snow.
"And if their argument is, 'Well, what happens if there's an attack in Baghdad?' You can say, 'He talked to his commanders today, and there's a current strategy in place.' "
"Of dealing, protecting whatever."
"Can we say you're moving in a direction and assigning tasks to people to try and work out there are hard political issues "
"Yeah." Bush's voice rose, as if facing the truculent press at that very moment: "I want to make sure before we put the policy in place that Gates I don't have a secretary of defense!"
"Right, I'm working that out "
" 'The president wants to make sure that all the key players on the national security team are well briefed, well versed, and ready to make a measured judgment,' " Bush finished.
"Good. Perfect. Sorry to interrupt," Snow said as he vacated the room.
"It's okay," remarked Bush. "This is worthless, anyway." Then, in a sudden bellow: "I'd like an ice cream! Please! You want some ice cream, Robert?"
Bush dived into his vanilla ice cream. "The presidency is you get tired," he confessed. Then, leaning back from the bowl: "This is a tiring period we're in now. I've got Iraq on my mind. A lot. You know, every day I see the casualties, I get the reports I am immersed in this war."
He was taking pains to sound factual instead of anything that could be construed as overwrought. "Look it's war," he went on. "Listening to a lot of people right now. Plus the trips I've been on," referring to the late-November meetings in Eastern Europe and then Asia. "Plus the sixteen holiday events we're doing. Eight thousand, nine thousand hands I'll be shaking...I'm actually feeling pretty good," he insisted. "Exercise helps. And I think prayer helps. I really do."
Bush added, "I'm also sustained by the discipline of the faithful experience. I don't think I'd be sitting here if not for the discipline. I was undisciplined at times. Never over the edge, but undisciplined. I wouldn't be president if I kept drinking. You get sloppy, can't make decisions, it clouds your reason, absolutely."
Laughing, he said, "I remember eating chocolate in the evenings after I quit drinking, because my body was saying, 'Where's that sugar, man?' And so I can still, interestingly enough, I still remember the feeling of a hangover, even though I haven't had a drink in twenty years."
Now that the speech had been postponed, the next days would be light for Bush before he spent Christmas at Camp David. One of the few events on his schedule was a trip to Walter Reed Medical Center to visit soldiers wounded in Iraq. Bush had met with more than a thousand such soldiers and grieving family members over the course of his presidency. It was one of those duties that the former Texas governor had not foreseen when he decided to run for office in 1999. The world was relatively peaceful back then. These days, Bush began each morning with a Presidential Daily Briefing. The first item was always Iraq, and the report listed the day's damage: this many killed and wounded, that many targets bombed. It had become Bush's habit to take out his pen and circle the number of casualties. Then to close his eyes for a moment. And then to turn the page.
He viewed it as the commander in chief's obligation to visit with those who had suffered loss as a result of his decisions. "Sometimes it's not pleasant, and I understand that," Bush said as he leaned back from his vanquished bowl of ice cream. "And they have every right to be unpleasant. Sometimes there are disagreements.... Yeah, it's hard. And to see the wounded, the head injuries. But that's part of the presidency, to immerse yourself in their emotions. Because they look at the president and they most of them say, 'My son or daughter did what they wanted to do.' The interesting thing is, the healer gets healed. I appreciate it."
The healer gets healed. Bush seldom if ever implied that he carried the burden of regret or self-doubt that he required healing of any sort. Did the grieving sense that need in him? For, as he acknowledged, "I'm told by some politicians here that the people they meet with say, 'Get out now.' That just doesn't happen with me. A couple of wives I think in Fort Hood might've said, 'It's not worth it. Bring 'em home now.' Some say, 'Get 'em home as soon as you can but my child volunteered, they're proud of what they're doing.' The interesting thing about this war is that our military understands better than most what's happening and that we are making some progress there. No question, it's tough. But what they see is a different picture from what America sees. And they are in the mission!
"I tell people I read an interesting book by [Richard] Carwardine I'm on my eighty-seventh book this year." With rueful admiration, he added, "Rove's on, like, a hundred two. Anyway, this book [Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power] talks about the constituency that Lincoln had. And one was religious people who were going through this Second Awakening, that loved Lincoln's position that all men are created equal: there is a God, and all men are created equal by that God, and so it's a moral position. And the military loved Lincoln to the point where," and Bush offered up a sly politician's grin, "Lincoln made sure that they were able to get to the polls in 1864.
"There's a parallel here. And that's that our military understands this. And a key constituency in the global war is for our military to be appreciated and respected, starting with the commander in chief. And they look at me they want to know whether I've got the resolution necessary to see this through. And I do. I believe I know we'll succeed. And I know it's necessary to succeed. And anyway. There wasn't a moment when I knew you were supposed to do that," he said, returning of his own volition to that irritating first question about the evolution of his leadership abilities. "I can't tell you the moment. I can tell you that, uh...that, uh..."
For the first and only time in that seventy-minute monologuedominated conversation, Bush fell silent for several seconds. "Yeah, well," he finally said. "When you're responsible for putting a kid in harm's way, you better understand that if that kid thinks you're making a decision based on polls or something other than what you think is right, or wrong, based upon principles then you're letting that kid down. And you're creating conditions for doubt. And you can't give a kid a gun and have him doubt whether or not the president thinks it's right, and have him doubt whether or not he's gonna be suppportive in all ways. And you can't learn that until you're the guy sitting behind the desk."
"There's no preparation for that," ventured the guest.
"There's none," said Bush.
He then pushed away from the table and abruptly strode back to the aforementioned desk in the Oval Office. His next visitor, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, would not be terribly receptive to talk of "some progress" in that country. Hashemi's brother and sister had been assassinated in Baghdad earlier in 2006. A few weeks ago, another one of his brothers had been gunned down as well.
And Bush could not show doubt to this man, either. I know we'll succeed he had to show that confidence, which would not be difficult, because he did know: America would succeed in Iraq because it had to succeed.
He would take the holidays to figure out how.
Copyright © 2007 by Robert Draper
Meet the Author
Robert Draper is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and National Geographic and a correspondent to GQ. He is the author of several books, most recently the New York Times bestseller Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush. He lives in Washington, DC.
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It takes a special kind of president and a special kind of writer to come together and create a special kind of hubris that is found in spades in DEAD CERTAIN, a breezy, high school hallway gossipy look at the first term and half of George W. Bush. It's a hot topic, a quick read, stuffed with trivia and fully accountable facts that are so fresh you don't feel the need to flip to the back to check the source, because, for the most part, you could be that source yourself. We've all been there with W. in one fashion or another, we've all seen the rise and now the slow and steady tumble, but what DEAD CERTAIN does, and does well, is tie the names in with the places and offer up a number of facts that are at once striking, yet also sadly bland, meaning it often reads like an Agatha Christie novel... there's lots of locations, but in the end it all comes down to one room, eight people and one killer, and here, clearly, it's the president himself. Dead certain, unwavering, a stick to it guy who has to be admired for his intelligence (yes, it's true, W. is a smart man), his dreams (which, while broad are admirable) and his ability to see over the horizon - it's all nobel and Draper does take the time to point these things out... but he also takes the time to twist the knife as well, and you can't blame him since time and again Bush has been handing those knives out for years now. Draper is a good writer, and the book reads very well, but it's also very hollow and feels rushed. He always seems in a hurry to get from one low point to the next that he often fails to hit enough high spots to show us just how deep these low spots really are. Iraq again is the 800 pound gorilla in the room and manages to eat up so much of the book that other events in W's term get the short shift. Draper spends about as much time on New Orelans as Bush does. Cheney's hunting accident is glossed over with a zinger or two, seemingly uninterested in how this single event clearly showed the breakdown in communication between the White House and... well, the White House. The SAME SEX marriage battle is shrugged off as a election ploy (rightly so), yet Draper ignores the Jeff Gannon story. Plus, everyone, while alive, real and seen on TV day and night, all come across like charatcers in the book. There's just stats, facts and quotes and that's it... of them all, and I guess it only makes sense, George W. Bush gets the most time spent on his life. But even here, it's really old news. You can lay the charge of 'bias' at Draper's door and not feel guilty (or vindicated) because the ebb and flow between the present and the past are edited together in a way to leave you with some, at times, disturbed thoughts. For both, Draper and the president, the hubris comes in with both an unfinished term and a incomplete book - how is it possible to write about a president that has yet to complete his term? Impossible. It's not finished, anything can (and will) happen, yet both Draper and Bush feel free to act like it's all in the past. Bush may like to say that he dosen't think about his next step, but he betrays this late in the book with the often quoted line about how much cash he can make in speeches and his Freedom Institute, but even before that he's been quoted as leaving it all up to HISTORY, which is just as good as throwing up your hands and walking away right there and then. And in the end, that's how DEAD CERTAIN closes. No conclusions are drawn, no real study has been made. It's headline rich, quotable and sure to be passed around like a Lynn Cheney novel. It's 1.5 HISTORY, quick, hot and soon to be overtaken and left in the dust by longer, more thoughtful studies down the road.
Author Robert Draper was given rare access to the president and we get a revealing look at Bush the man. And what we see is a man whose rhetoric does not always match his actions. Bush insists a leader shouldn¿t govern by polls and yet his White House is portrayed as prioritizing politics time and time again. For instance, Bush acknowledges that one of the main justifications for pursuing comprehensive immigration reform is the fact that it would help the GOP in the coming years. Also, the book takes us inside a White House prepping for re-election unusually early. We learn the eternal debates Bush partisans were having over who would be the strongest and weakest Democratic contenders in 2004 'the White House feared John Edwards and Dick Gephardt but looked forward to running against Howard Dean and the doomed John Kerry'. The book also outlines the administration¿s disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina and how political turf wars inside and outside the administration only exacerbated the situation. Also, want to know why Bush didn¿t get back to D.C. or get to New Orleans when the scope of the catastrophe was apparent to all? According to the book it was because it was Bush¿s pattern to shy away from tragic events and the president hated schedule changes. 'The section on Katrina also provides a hilarious depiction of Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu¿s response to the tragedy'. Bush¿s critics like to portray him as incurious and even dumb but the Bush that emerges in the book is an optimistic people person with shrewd political skills and just enough smarts to take advantage of opponents who make the mistake of underestimating him. Remember when Bush was derided for insisting he testify to the 9/11 Commission with Vice President Dick Cheney? Well it turns out Bush actually dominated the testimony and talked about 90 percent of the time. Bush also brags about reading up to 100 books a year and often invites historians to the White House for open discussion 'even though the president says he believes you learn more by doing than by reading'. And the author even details Bush¿s wonkinsh tendencies on some of his pet subjects like education. In ¿Dead Certain¿ the reader is able to relive the many highs and lows of the Bush presidency. We also learn President Bush is a man of extremely strong likes and dislikes. Exercise, faith, clarity, and Dr. Evil impressions are in one category nuance, long meetings, late nights and dancing are in the other. And if that¿s not enough, the author even reveals the top administration official who drives a Harley to work, is crushed on by members of the press and once dated actress Bo Derek. Pick up the book and find out who it is.