Mr. Bush’s assertion in a new biography that Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld undercut George W. Bush’s presidency rattled the extended Bush political world, and forced the second Bush son now seeking the presidency, Jeb, to straddle an awkward line between family and politics.Friends of the Bush family say that the elder and younger ex-Presidents admire each other and get along well.
At 91 and in the twilight of a long and storied public life, the first President Bush evidently felt free to express views he had long suppressed in the interest of family harmony. Mr. Cheney, he said, was “very hard-line” and too eager to “use force to get our way”; Mr. Rumsfeld was an “arrogant fellow” full of “swagger.” He used the same phrase, “iron-ass,” to describe both men.
Yet few who know them well would assert that they see the world exactly the same way. The younger, brasher and more conservative George W. Bush has made clear that he shaped some of his policies in the White House based on the lessons of what he saw as his father’s mistakes. Friends of the older, more genteel and moderate President Bush have often said he was deeply uncomfortable with the more hawkish elements of his son’s administration.Indeed. The elder Bush was a mediocre president but a great diplomat, who always turned to his personal connections when he needed to get anything done. His memoirs are full of lines like "so I called my good friend the Emir," or, "I reached out to my friends on the Hill to see what could be done." It must have been jarring for him to watch his son publicly insult people his administration might have to do business with.
In the new book, the first President Bush expresses his love and support for his son and sticks by his decisions to go to war in Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power. But he gently chides his son for “hot rhetoric” like his “axis of evil” speech, and says that the real responsibility for the way Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld operated belonged to the president. “The buck stops there,” he said.
What was so surprising about the comments was not their sentiment, but rather that the older Mr. Bush would express them in public.
And while it is certainly true that W is ultimately to blame for his administration's crimes and blunders, I think his hard-line advisers did dominate his policies early on. Stepping straight from the ranch in Texas to the White House, without much foreign policy experience and unwilling to to trust his father's moderate friends, he was completely at sea after 9-11 and easily influenced to take on the belligerent views of Cheney, Addington, and Wolfowitz. Toward the end of his administration he cut loose from that crew and adopted more moderate stances, appointing Robert Gates to the Defense Department, ending waterboarding, and so on. In many ways Obama has continued the policies Bush adopted in his last two years.
An administration is more than a president, and the most important decisions a president makes are often personnel decisions. The worst mistake W made was surrounding himself with a bloody-minded crew of foreign policy experts, people determined to drag us into a war somewhere. When they got the chance, they did, and it would have been hard for W to stop them even if he had wanted to.