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Before the Crack in Time
In August 1998, President George H. W. Bush called and invited me to spend time with him and Mrs. Barbara Bush in Maine. I had become close to President Bush in the years after I'd served as his Soviet specialist in the National Security Council, and they had hosted me a few times before at their wonderful family home in Kennebunkport. The weathered, shingle-style house, decorated in calming pastel chintz, has an elegant yet understated decor and a spectacular view of the ocean. I'm not all that fond of being in the water. But I love to look at it, and there isn't a prettier place to view the Atlantic than Walker's Point. I promptly accepted the invitation.
Driving along the rocky New England coast to the entrance of the property, I was struck by two flags flying over the compound: the Texas state flag for the governor and the Stars and Stripes for the former President. (The Florida state flag would later join them when Jeb Bush was elected governor.) It was a subtle reminder that this was no ordinary family and it would be no ordinary weekend.
The elder Bush didn't hide his desire to get me together with his son George just so we could get to know each other better and talk a little about foreign policy. Before a casual lobster dinner that night, I joined Governor Bush on the back porch, where he told me that he was confident of reelection in November and that if he won impressively (which he fully expected), he'd likely run for the presidency.
A run for the White House by the Texas governor struck me as having long odds for success. President Clinton's years had been morally tarnished but peaceful and relatively prosperous. The governor was untested and would likely face a real pro in Vice President Al Gore. I was too polite to say those things that night, but I sure thought them.
Throughout the weekend, while fishing (he fished, I sat in the boat and watched) or exercising side by side in the small family gym on the compound, we talked about Russia, China, and Latin America. He wanted to start thinking about what to do in foreign policy if he got elected. I soon realized that he knew our southern neighbors, particularly Mexico, far better than I did. I made a mental note to read a few articles about Mexico when I got back to my home in California.
But we also talked about other things. He was interested in my upbringing in segregated Birmingham. I was attracted to his passion for improving education for disadvantaged youth. We compared notes on the problems of college admission and affirmative action. I was more traditional in my support of race-based admission; he'd tried to increase diversity at the University of Texas by other means. He proudly said that he would likely receive half of the Hispanic vote and more than a quarter of the African American vote.
I liked him. He was funny and irreverent but serious about policy. We e_mailed back and forth several times during the fall, mostly friendly chitchat about whatever was in the news-the growing conflict in the Balkans or the Clinton administration's efforts to expand NATO. Then, a couple of days after the November election and the landslide victory Governor Bush had hoped for, I received a note from him. He wanted to follow international events more closely.
Early in March 1999, Karl Rove, the governor's political advisor, called to ask if I'd come down to Austin and speak with the governor about the upcoming campaign. "Will you book a hotel room for me?" I asked.
"You won't need a hotel," he replied. "The governor wants you to stay at the residence." It was a signal that he expected me to support his campaign, which was quickly becoming a serious endeavor. A few weeks later, when my picture appeared on the front page of the New York Times as a member of the "exploratory committee" dedicated to electing George W. Bush President of the United States, I was momentarily stunned by the sudden exposure but committed to the cause.
My father was the first person I called after the governor asked me to join his campaign. John Wesley Rice, Jr., loved politics. He watched news shows, particularly C-SPAN, for hours at a time, and had been a loyal Republican ever since a clerk affiliated with the Grand Old Party had helped him register to vote in segregated Alabama. My father could barely contain his excitement.
The campaign itself proved professionally fulfilling, but early on I realized that it would require my full-time focus. For six years I had been the provost-the chief operating officer-of Stanford University. I was ready to step down independent of the chance to join the Bush campaign. Foreign policy would be the governor's Achilles' heel against more seasoned candidates in the primaries and eventually in the general election. I knew that George W. Bush would look to me to help answer the inevitable questions about his readiness to assume the mantle of commander in chief.
Throughout 1999 I worked to assemble a small group of foreign policy specialists to develop policy for the governor. My first call was to Paul Wolfowitz, who had been ambassador to Indonesia under President Ronald Reagan and under secretary for policy in the Pentagon during George H. W. Bush's administration. Paul was a cerebral, almost otherworldly intellectual. He'd done his undergraduate work at Cornell and gone on to complete a PhD in the intense academic environment of the University of Chicago. Though Paul had already had a distinguished public policy career, he was really most comfortable debating ideas. We'd been friends since the 1980s, and when I asked him to join me as cochair of the foreign policy group, he readily did so.
Richard Armitage and Stephen Hadley had also been in the first Bush administration. Rich was a muscular, stout former naval officer who had served in Vietnam and specialized in Asian affairs. Many people believed that the Rambo character had been based on Rich. Yet, there was another side to him: he and his wife had adopted numerous special- needs kids. He was Colin Powell's best friend, a fact that would later lead to considerable conflict within the administration.
Steve was a quiet, Yale-trained lawyer from Cleveland, Ohio, who at the time wore horn-rimmed glasses. He was smart and methodical, and when there was real work to be produced for the campaign (rather than just things to be said and debated), we all looked to Steve to write the first draft of the paper. He did so selflessly and effectively.
Robert Zoellick, Robert Blackwill, and I had worked closely together during the extraordinary days of 1989-1991 at the end of the Cold War. They were among the best policy engineers I had ever known, capable of conceiving of a solution and then actually implementing it. Zoellick had been Secretary of State James Baker's closest aide at the State Department and the architect of many important initiatives concerning Central America and Europe. He had led the three-member U.S. delegation to the talks on German unification on which I had been the White House representative.
Bob Blackwill had been my boss for a while at the NSC the first time around as special assistant for European and Soviet affairs. He'd held numerous high-level positions. He was from Kansas, with very traditional values and a wicked sense of humor. But he could be abrasive and impatient, and he made enemies. Some thought that Bob would be high maintenance, but he would be valuable to the governor, and we were good enough friends to speak honestly about any problems that might arise.
I asked Richard Perle to join the group to represent the right wing of the Republican foreign policy establishment. Perle had been the bane of the party's foreign policy traditionalists such as Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger. He had a well-deserved reputation for ruthlessness too. But Governor Bush needed all elements of the party united behind him, and the group that I assembled was broadly representative enough to demonstrate his commitment to a foreign policy big tent. Dov Zakheim, who did most of the work supporting our Pentagon reform plans, rounded out the group. And we were able, too, to draw on the regional expertise of others such as Jendayi Frazer, who developed our Africa policy.
In general, we got along well. My job was to organize the group and to deal with the personalities and egos-to keep everyone on board so that we could concentrate on the governor's campaign, not ourselves. If there was any resentment of my role (I had been the most junior of those who had served together in George H. W. Bush's administration), I couldn't tell. In any case, they all knew that I was the one who was closest to the governor. I was the point of access. We worked smoothly and with little drama, just getting the job done in standing Sunday- night phone calls to coordinate requests, policy positions, and responses for Governor Bush.
Just for fun we decided to adopt a nickname and called ourselves the Vulcans, after the Roman God and symbol of my home city of Birmingham, Alabama. The name meant nothing more than that, but many a conspiracy theorist tried to divine some deeper significance.
The work in the campaign was proceeding well. I made frequent visits to Austin to brief the candidate, developed policy papers on a half- dozen major initiatives, and helped write a couple of major speeches. I also began doing press appearances on behalf of candidate Bush. The question was always the same: "What makes you think that the one-term governor of Texas is ready to be President of the United States?"
My first televised interview was on Chris Matthews's Hardball in June. Chris was a relentlessly challenging interviewer who rarely gave a guest time to really answer a question. Asked at one point whether George W. Bush's being in the Oval Office would be "on-the-job training," I pointed out that my candidate was already dealing with considerable complexity as governor of Texas. Texas is a big, complicated state, and the person running it has to be able to ask the right questions, digest information, stick to principles, and make decisions. The Texas governor has to be tough.
Chris, sensing that I was contrasting George W. Bush's readiness with that of Bill Clinton when he had first run for President, said, "Right. You sound like the wife of the governor in Primary Colors where she said, 'And he's governor of a real state, not Arkansas.'_" I don't know where it came from, but I shot back, "I come from Alabama, so I'm not going to talk about what real states are." Chris broke up laughing, and I thought that I'd passed my first media test on the campaign trail.
Anyone who is interested in politics should work on the ground floor of a campaign at least once. Early on we got stuck in traffic jams and carried our own bags. The crowds were enthusiastic but, in some places, quite small. The music track that introduced the governor at campaign rallies included Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)." I never understood why that song was chosen, but to this day I can't listen to it without vivid memories of stadiums, auditoriums, and cowboy bars full of early believers in George W. Bush.
I loved the pace and the sense of being a part of an adventure. Life had settled into a nice post-provost pattern, and I was quite content. When I arranged to have George W. Bush meet my father during a trip to Palo Alto in July of 1999, Daddy was hooked. He peppered me every night with questions about campaign strategy that I couldn't answer: "How in the world did we screw up in New Hampshire? George Bush isn't getting through to people that he is going to be a different kind of Republican. That's what people need to know!" He admired Governor Bush and was very proud of my association with the campaign.
In February 2000 I was back home, helping to rally the troops for the California primary in the wake of the disasters in New Hampshire and Michigan. I was getting ready to do an interview with a reporter named Ann Dowd for a profile of me. Ann had gone to interview my father that morning and was in the house when suddenly my father suffered cardiac arrest. She called 911 and then my longtime assistant, Marilyn Stanley. I was in a meeting, but Marilyn burst in and said that something had happened to my father and he was not breathing. I asked my assistant Ruth Elliot to come with me, rushed out, and sped to the house. It looked like a scene from ER. Daddy was on the floor, and they were shocking his heart. I heard the medic say, "I have a weak pulse." We all rushed to the hospital and waited. It hadn't been a heart attack, but his heart had stopped long enough to cause what his physician called an "anoxic brain event." Essentially, he'd been deprived of oxygen to his brain and was now in a coma. No one could say what the prognosis was.
Daddy continued in a coma for about a week and then began to stir. But he'd sustained significant brain damage. He never fully recovered, but he fought to live. Several times he was near death and refused to go. As I watched this giant of a man who'd loved me more than anyone in the world approach the end, it was hard to find much good in life. It seemed so unfair that I could no longer share stories of the campaign with my father. Here I was at the height of my professional career, and my father couldn't enjoy it with me. Not surprisingly, my absences from home became a source of guilt, and the campaign, which had been such a wonderful magical mystery tour, became something of a slog.
I kept going and told myself that Daddy undoubtedly approved of my decision to keep my commitment to the campaign. Slowly the governor was climbing in the polls, and he clearly had a real chance to be President. But we had not erased the questions about his foreign policy competence. In fact, early in the campaign, one particular misstep created a deep hole, and it took a while to climb out of it.
I arrived at the Austin airport one November evening in 1999, and my cell phone was going crazy. It was Joel Shin, an incredibly dedicated young man who actually slept in the campaign office. (Joshua Bolten, the policy director for the campaign and later deputy chief of staff, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and chief of staff, finally made him get an apartment.) Joel asked if I'd seen the governor's interview with Andy Hiller. I said that I'd been on the plane and hadn't. He read the transcript. My heart sank. "Can you name the president of Taiwan?" Answer: "Lee." "Can you name the general who is in charge of Pakistan?" Answer: "General." "And the prime minister of India?" No answer.
"Well, that reads pretty badly," I commented.
"It's worse," Joel said. "It's on videotape and being played over and over."