Into the Mess
Missed you at Bible study."
Those were, quite literally, the very first words I heard spoken inside the Bush White House. I had just stepped through the side door to the West Wing?not the front door you see on television, the one the marine guard in red-striped pants opens for congressmen and ambassadors, but the staff door, which is one floor down and a little to the side. I had been invited into the West Wing to have breakfast in the mess with Michael Gerson, George W. Bush's chief speechwriter and the principal author of the inaugural address Bush had delivered just five days before. The reproach about missing Bible study was directed to Gerson, not to me. Even so, it made me twitch. It had been a month since Gerson had asked me to consider joining the new administration's speechwriting staff. Today we were to discuss the proposition in earnest over breakfast in the White House mess. The news that this was a White House where attendance at Bible study was, if not compulsory, not quite uncompulsory, either, was disconcerting to a non-Christian like me.
My appointment that morning had been scheduled for 8:10. Not 8:00, not 8:15, but 8:10?my first introduction to the White House habit of parceling the day into five-minute increments. I already knew enough about the new administration to know that I had better arrive exactly on time.
The mess is a windowless suite of wood-paneled rooms decorated with nautical prints and old brass shipfittings. As Gerson spoke about the job, I found myself fingering the blue-bordered paper menu, trying not to gawk at the room as if I were Gerson's third cousin from Des Moines. I had to keepmy attention focused on the business at hand: explaining to him the reasons why I believed I was unsuited to the job he was offering me.
I had no connection to the Bush campaign or the Bush family. I had no experience in government and little of political campaigns. I had never written a speech for anyone other than myself. And I had been only a moderately enthusiastic supporter of George W. Bush. True, I had preferred Bush to John McCain in the primaries; the whole point of the McCain campaign had seemed to be to vex and annoy conservative Republicans like me. But like many even within the Republican party, I was not excited by Bush. No, it was worse than that: I strongly doubted that he was the right man for the job.
Although people who met Bush individually or in small groups claimed to be highly impressed by him, on television he did not look like a man ready to be president. The late-night comedians and Bush's Democratic opponents had an easy explanation for Bush's awkwardness: stupidity. David Letterman offered these top ten headlines from a George W. Bush presidency: president fails in shoe-tying bid and america held hostage: day 16 of president's head stuck in banister. Jay Leno called Bush-Cheney the "Wizard of Oz ticket": "One needs a heart, the other needs a brain." Saturday Night Live depicted Bush as a party-hearty frat boy interested only in "huntin' and executin'," who responded to tough debate questions with a good-natured "Pass." Slate magazine published a daily digest of Bush's verbal gaffes; former Clinton aide Paul Begala used one of those gaffes for the title of his anti-Bush book: "Is Our Children Learning?"
Bush cheerfully replied that his critics "misunderestimated" him, and Bush's supporters explained that their man's stumbles and malapropisms were signs of nervousness, not ignorance. That was not a whole lot more encouraging: For a president, nerves are even more indispensable than brains. It is important that a president be in command of his words. It is essential that he be in command of himself.
My fellow conservatives did not worry that the candidate was too dumb; they worried that his campaign was too clever. Bush had borrowed a maneuver from Dick Morris: He ran almost as hard against his own party as he did against the other. In the space of a single week in October 1999, Bush accused congressional Republicans of "balancing the budget on the backs of the poor" and complained in a major address in New York City that too often "my party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah"?Slouching Towards Gomorrah being the title of a recent best-selling book by conservative hero Robert Bork.
Bush described himself as a "compassionate conservative," which sounded less like a philosophy than a marketing slogan: Love conservatism but hate arguing about abortion? Try our new compassionate conservatism?great ideological taste, now with less controversy. Conservatives disliked the "compassionate conservative" label in the same way that people on the Left would dislike it if a Democratic candidate for president called himself a "patriotic liberal."
In August, I traveled up to Philadelphia to hear Bush speak to the Republican national convention. I was filing three reports a day for three different newspapers, and I think I witnessed every event, media event, and pseudoevent over the convention's four-day span. It was pretty disheartening. The same metal detectors that inspected for bombs and guns seemed also to have been calibrated to block out ideas?not merely conservative ideas, but any ideas. Instead, the delegates heard from a professional wrestler, watched a pep rally by inner-city schoolchildren, and listened in prime time to the testimony of a woman who had lost a sister to breast cancer. In the evenings, the convention showcased minorities, women, and heartwarming anecdotes, all seemingly intended to prove that Newt Gingrich's GOP had been remade into as soft a box of caramels as ever melted inside a glove compartment.
By the time Bush himself came to the rostrum to speak, I was as ready to scoff as any of the cynical journalists in the press boxes. When he finished, I was wobbled. The speech was not only very good, it was very smart?and not smart in the disturbing way that the campaign had been smart, but smart in an interesting way, even a promising way.
Bush's first challenge was to explain why voters should vote against incumbents after eight years of prosperity. The Democrats had lost in 1984 and 1988 by denying that the prosperity of the 1980s was real. Bush avoided that mistake. He acknowledged the prosperity?and then changed the subject to the moral failings of the people who had presided over it. "For eight years, the Clinton/Gore administration has coasted through prosperity. And the path of least resistance is always downhill. But America's way is the rising road."
Bush found a way to identify with his baby boom generation without boasting or condemning. "My generation tested limits?and our country, in some ways, is better for it. Women are now treated more equally. Racial progress has been steady, if still too slow. We are learning to protect the natural world around us. We will continue this progress, and we will not turn back. At times, we lost our way. But we are coming home." Conservatives had attacked the baby boomers for producing Bill Clinton; Bush sorrowfully reproached Clinton for betraying the boomers. "Our current president embodied the potential of a generation. So many talents. So much charm. Such great skill. But, in the end, to what end? So much promise, to no great purpose."
Then Bush did something truly ingenious. He took his greatest personal vulnerability?his reputation for wildness?and used it to cancel his party's greatest vulnerability?its image as a claque of moralistic Church Ladies. "I believe in a God who calls us, not to judge our neighbors, but to love them. I believe in grace, because I have seen it; in peace, because I have felt it; in forgiveness, because I have needed it."
Altogether, a superb performance. But was it wholly convincing? Everyone knew Bush hadn't written his words. Whose voice were we really hearing?
The 2000 election was the messiest and most nerve-racking in 125 years. Bush's reinvention of the Republican Party did not quite work. He lost the popular vote by half a million ballots and had to be carried over the finish line by the U.S. Supreme Court. To put that in perspective, remember that we call the 2000 election "the closest in history" only because Bush was declared the winner in the end. If the recount had gone the other way?if Gore had somehow found the five-hundred-plus votes he needed to carry Florida?Gore's margin over Bush would actually have been larger than Kennedy's over Nixon in 1960.
In the elections of the nineteenth century, at least three presidents received fewer votes than their main opponent.* But it has been a long time since it last happened, and in the meantime, the country's attitudes toward voting and democracy have changed dramatically. Bush arrived in office politically crippled.
On one of my first trips with Bush after I joined his staff, I fell into conversation with a local Republican activist, a woman in her early forties who had quit a high-powered job to stay home with her children. Somehow she had failed to obtain a ticket to the event at which Bush was speaking. I was able to persuade the Secret Service to let her through. "Thank you," she said, "I wanted so badly to see my president." She had summed up Bush's dilemma in two words. To half the country, he was "my president." To the other half, he was not the president at all.
The lines that divided those two halves from each other were not mainly lines of race. (Although Bush lost the black vote overwhelmingly, he won a smaller share of the white vote than his father did in 1988.) Nor were they lines of class. (The large majority of Americans who described themselves to exit pollsters as "middle class" divided their votes between Bush and Gore almost exactly equally.) They were lines defined by family status and religious observance. Bush beat Gore by fifteen points among married people with children and by seventeen points among people who attend church every week. Gore beat Bush by nineteen points among women who work outside the home and by twenty-nine points among people who never attend church at all.
Bush's strongest supporters were not the richest Americans?in fact, Americans who described themselves as "upper class" voted for Gore over Bush. Bush's strongest supporters were the people most outraged by Clinton's misconduct. One of the questions the exit pollsters asked in 2000 was, "What is the most important thing to consider when you decide who to vote for?" One-quarter of all voters listed "honesty" as the most important thing. They voted 80 percent for Bush.
Bush's base liked his tax-cut plan. They supported him on missile defense, on Social Security reform, on faith-based charities, even (if less enthusiastically) on education. But what they most wanted from him was something much simpler: They wanted him not to be Clinton. In other words, Bush had come into office with half the country thinking him little better than some Paraguayan colonel who seized the presidential palace and the other half pretty much indifferent to everything in his program except the promise to lay off the interns. That was not much of a mandate to govern.
So now, in this new year, he would have to begin all over again: He would have to win the political majority that had eluded him in November. Then he would have to find something important and worthwhile to do with that majority. It was difficult to be optimistic about his chances.
But I wasn't a bookmaker. I was a journalist, and I was being offered an up-front view of the biggest story America has to tell. I had so often walked along Pennsylvania Avenue and looked inward at the old mansion, glowing cool and opal by night, refulgent with reflected sunlight in the day. Everybody in the world wants to know what goes on in there. So did I. An English historian once described government as "the endless adventure." Bush's adventure might succeed. I hoped so. But succeed or fail, it would be worth witnessing. My faith in Bush was not deep. But my curiosity was.
Besides, what was the alternative? Gerson challenged me directly: Conservatives had been losing political battles for a dozen years. Was I really content to heckle from the sidelines as they lost again? Gerson knew that as a journalist I had published articles critical of Bush. Yet Bush was willing to take a chance on me?would I refuse to take a chance on Bush?
The ceiling in the mess is very low, not even eight feet. You can feel the weight of the West Wing above your head, and with it the weight of American memory. The tape recorders that had wrecked the Nixon presidency had whirred away just a few feet from where I was sitting now. Over yonder was the colonnade where President Kennedy had paced during the terrifying hours of the Cuban missile crisis. Lincoln had walked here, too, when the White House stables stood where the Executive Office Building now stands and the West Wing itself was just a path leading to the telegraph offices in the War Department on the other side of Seventeenth Street. George Washington had watched the mansion rise, had chosen the contrasting round and peaked pediments of the mansion's windows, had perhaps touched the walls that every staffer touched whenever he or she thought nobody was looking.
Yes, I was ready to join the adventure myself. I had been looking in from the outside for a very long time. If only for a little while, I would like to look out from the inside. Besides, it wouldn't kill me to know my Bible better.
On the morning of January 30, 2001, I donned a dark suit and sober necktie and drove downtown to begin my first day of work in the Bush administration. Hundreds of other eager staffers did exactly the same thing. We parked in the White House parking lots, answered our White House telephones, printed out documents on White House stationery . . . everything that real White House employees do. But when we turned on our television sets?and almost every White House office has a television in it?we viewed a parallel universe, where ex-president Bill Clinton remained America's top news maker.
On inauguration weekend, Americans had learned that Clinton's final official act as president had been to pardon wealthy felons under circumstances most politely described as fishy. Americans learned that Hillary Clinton had requested and received hundreds of thousands of dollars of gifts from rich friends for her new houses in New York and Washington. And they learned that the Clintons had loaded hundreds of pieces of White House furniture into their moving trucks.
For Bush, this final storm of Clinton scandal was a very favorable wind out of port. The instant the scandal story broke, Bush's approval rating gusted up to 60 percent, and there it hovered for the rest of the winter and through the spring. It was no longer only a religious minority who hungered for an un-Clinton as president; the whole country seemed to have had enough. As I passed the open doorway of the Oval Office one weekend afternoon, a guard pointed out the famous Resolute desk, the desk used by Presidents Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, and now Bush.