A Matter Of Character

Inside The White House Of George W. Bush

by Ronald Kessler

Hardcover, 306 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $24.95 | purchase

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A Matter Of Character
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Inside The White House Of George W. Bush
Author
Ronald Kessler

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Book Summary

A thought-provoking look at the real President George W. Bush behind the two-dimensional public image promulgated by the media draws on interviews with key players in the Bush administration, as well as with friends, colleagues, and former aides, to reveal a man of clearly defined moral instinct, leadership style, and more. 45,000 first printing.

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Excerpt: A Matter Of Character

PROLOGUE

When Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton left the White House, the Secret Service and White House residence staff breathed a collective sigh of relief. Both chameleons, the Clintons would charm audiences and speak on television of their compassion for the little people. Only the Â"littleÂ" people around them—the Secret Service, maids, and butlers who helped them in their daily lives—knew what they were really like. Never on time, Bill Clinton alternately ignored the Secret Service and residence staff or flew into rages over imagined failings.

Â"Many of us thought, Â'Why would I want to sacrifice my life for someone who wonÂ't even recognize me?Â'Â" a Secret Service agent who guarded the president told me.

If Clinton was nasty and temperamental, Hillary Clinton could make Richard Nixon look benign. Everyone on the residence staff recalled what happened when Christopher B. Emery, a White House usher, committed the sin of returning Barbara BushÂ's call after she left the White House. Emery had helped Barbara learn to use her laptop. Now she was having computer trouble. Twice, Emery helped her out. For that, Hillary Clinton fired him. The father of four, Emery could not find another job for a year. According to W. David Watkins, a presidential assistant in charge of administration, Hillary was also behind the mass firings of White House travel office employees. When Hillary found a hapless White House electrician changing a lightbulb in the residence, she began screaming at him because she had ordered that all repair work was to be done when the First Family was out.

Â"She caught the guy on a ladder doing the lightbulb,Â" said Franette McCulloch, the assistant White House pastry chef. Â"He was a basket case.Â"1

Secret Service agents assigned at various points to guard Hillary during her campaign for the Senate were dismayed at how two-faced and unbalanced she was. Â"During the listening tour, she planned Â'impromptuÂ' visits at diners and local hangouts,Â" said a former Secret Service agent. Â"The events were all staged, and the questions were screened. She would stop off at diners. The campaign would tell them three days ahead that they were coming. They would talk to the owner and tell him to invite everyone and bring his friends. Hillary flew into rages when she thought her campaign staff had not corralled enough onlookers beforehand. Hillary had an explosive temper.Â"2

Publicly, Hillary courted law enforcement organizations, but privately she had disdain for police. Â"She did not want police officers in sight,Â" a former agent said. Â"How do you explain that to the police? She did not want Secret Service protection near. She wanted state troopers and local police to wear suits and stay in unmarked cars. If there were an incident, that could pose a big problem. People donÂ't know police are in the area unless officers wear uniforms and drive police cars. If they are unaware of a police presence, people are more likely to get out of control.Â" In Syracuse, a bearded man who aggressively sought autographs accosted Hillary as she went for a walk outside her hotel during her Senate race.

Â"He grabbed her,Â" an agent said. Â"She was livid. But she had insisted she did not want us near her.Â"

For her Senate campaign, the Secret Service purchased three Cadillac De Villes.

Â"She decided they were not compatible with her down-home image. They were used once or twice,Â" an agent said. Â"She wanted a conversion van with picture windows and two captain chairs. So we purchased three of them, each outfitted with armor, bulletproof glass, and a system to supply clean air. Each was positioned around New York State to help reduce travel time.Â"

Like her husband and his White House staff, Hillary and her staff were disorganized and habitually late. Â"She had children running her campaign,Â" an agent said. Â"She had a lack of organization and a lack of maturity. She could not keep a schedule.Â" When she stayed at the houses of Democratic supporters, Â"We would show up at their homes at 2 A.M., and she would sleep in the master bedroom,Â" he said.

During her Â"listening tour,Â" HillaryÂ's campaign staff planned a visit to a 4-H Club in dairy farm country in upstate New York. As they approached the outdoor event and she saw people dressed in jeans and surrounded by cows, Hillary flew into a rage.

Â"She turned to a staffer and said, Â'What the [expletive] did we come here for? ThereÂ's no money here,Â'Â" a former Secret Service agent said.3

As the Secret Service and residence staff saw it, Hillary and Bill Clinton had a business relationship, not a marriage. At night, their screaming arguments could be heard throughout the White House residence.

Â"They would talk on an encrypted phone,Â" an agent said. Â"He would give her advice. It was a political alliance. My impression was they didnÂ't have sex. She portrayed herself as devastated by the revelations of Monica [Lewinsky]. I doubt she cared.Â"

The ClintonsÂ' home in Chappaqua allowed Hillary to establish a residence in New York State and run for the Senate. They kept an apartment in New York, but Hillary lived mainly in Georgetown, according to a Secret Service source. They used the Chappaqua home for fund-raisers. More recently, the source said, Bill has been seeing a blonde mistress there.*

Â"Chappaqua was because she had to be a resident of New York,Â" an agent said. Â"That was the main reason for taking it. The only reason she ran for the Senate is to be president.Â"

In her book Living History, Hillary Clinton wrote of her gratitude to the White House staff. The truth was, said a Secret Service agent, Â"Hillary did not speak to us. We spent years with her. She never said thank you.Â"

* ClintonÂ's office did not respond to a request for comment.

1
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NEITHER FISH NOR FOWL

After the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush was Â"neither fish nor fowl,Â" as Andrew H. Card, Jr., who would become his chief of staff, put it. As the battle over the results raged on, Bush and Card met for hours on end to discuss the kind of White House and presidency Bush wanted.

Card, a fifty-three-year-old former Massachusetts state representative and General Motors director of government affairs, never got over his first encounter with Bush. Card was driving BushÂ's father, then ambassador to the United Nations, from Logan International Airport in Boston to Kennebunkport, where the younger Bush was staying with his family.

Â"I thought IÂ'd see a close replica of George H.W. Bush,Â" Card said. Â"I expected a Connecticut Yankee. What I got was a real West Texan. He was chewing tobacco. He had a red flannel shirt on. It was buttoned wrong, the way a two-year-old would button his shirt. He was wearing jeans. There was a tear in the left knee of his jeans. He had a Styrofoam cup. There was a little bit of drool coming out of the corner of his mouth. He proceeded to spit into the cup.Â"4

Â"What are you doing?!Â" Barbara Bush yelled at the thirty-three-year-old future president of the United States.

Andy Card retained his Boston accent and never could acclimate himself to the dry heat of Crawford, Texas, where Bush had his 1,583-acre, $1.8 million ranch. But Card was uniquely suited to carry out the task of managing the White House on behalf of the president. Card had worked in the White Houses of both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He could be tough as nails—he once personally demanded the White House passes of several Reagan staffers who had been fired—but he had a dulcet manner.

Â"I learned an awful lot about how they vetted decisions and made them,Â" Card told me in his spacious corner office with a beige carpet on the first floor of the West Wing. Â"I also learned a lot from those who served those presidents: Jim Baker, chief of staff for Reagan, then Don Regan, Howard Baker, Ken Duberstein. Then under Bush, John Sununu, Sam Skinner.Â"

If Card had learned from experience how to operate in the White House, he also had learned from Sununu how not to operate. Sununu was known for his arrogance, symbolized by his use of military planes to go on skiing trips. He ultimately had to reimburse the government $5,665, the total of what these and other trips would have cost at commercial rates.

In retrospect, Card said, the interregnum between the election and BushÂ's certification as president was a blessing. During that time, Card met with Bush at the GovernorÂ's Mansion in Austin and at the Crawford ranch.

Â"We would spend hours talking,Â" he said. Â"Sometimes it was while clearing brush. Other times it was eating ice cream. We talked about the kind of White House he wanted and how it would run and about the rules of the road in Washington as opposed to Austin. That luxury would not have been there if he had won the election outright on election night. We would have started discussing policy, seeing members of Congress, starting to select candidates for the Cabinet, working with the Inaugural Committee. I think it allowed him to give thought to the mundane details of the organization of the White House and the presidency.Â"

Since his first meeting with him, Bush had Â"matured,Â" as Card put it, but he had not given up his Texas roots.

Â"You donÂ't find a lot of nuance in what he says,Â" Card said. Â"HeÂ's a tell-it-like-it-is person. He does not pick his words to obfuscate. A lot of diplomats will choose words to obfuscate. I think it goes back to Texas and Texas oilmen. HeÂ's from the rough-and-tumble world of Midland, Texas. Your word means more than the contract there. In Midland, when you shake hands, that means more than your signature on the contract. So they speak plainly. ItÂ's yes or no. ItÂ's, Â'We have a dealÂ' or, Â'We donÂ't have a deal.Â' He accepts people who can be with him or against him, but itÂ's the people who are with him and against him at the same time that he has trouble with.Â"

Card knew that there was nothing Bush hated more than people who were snobbish, full of themselves, given to pretense. Â"George Bush knows that his feet touch the ground,Â" Card would say. Card would make sure that no one in the Bush White House ever forgot they worked for a man whose idea of having fun was clearing underbrush on his ranch.

BushÂ's Texas mannerisms fed caricatures created by liberal critics and the media. They ridiculed his speech and intellect, saying that the man who graduated from Phillips Academy at Andover, from Yale, and from Harvard Business School was a dimwit. When he mangled his speech, as he did when trying to say too many things at once, they heaped scorn on him. Gail Sheehy, in an article in Vanity Fair, even suggested that Bush was dyslexic, forgetting that Bush had no problem with reading. Reading difficulty is by definition a component of dyslexia. In fact, Nancy LaFevers, one of the two experts Sheehy quoted to support her conclusion, told me she had told Sheehy that Bush was not dyslexic.

Â"She initially asked me if I had noticed some of the words or expressions Mr. Bush mangled in his speech,Â" LaFevers, a speech language pathologist, said. Â"I told her I had not noticed them. She then quoted some of them to me and asked if these could indicate that he was dyslexic. I told her that these oral language characteristics were consistent with dyslexia.Â"5

Â"Oh, I like that,Â" LaFevers quoted Sheehy as saying. Â"Consistent with dyslexia.Â"

Â"However,Â" LaFevers continued, Â"I also told her that I was unaware of any history that Mr. Bush had of difficulty learning to read, and that dyslexia, first and foremost, is a reading disability. She then told me that Mr. BushÂ's mother had worked with him after school with flash cards, and I pointed out that flash cards did not necessarily mean that he was working on reading words.Â" In fact, Barbara Bush, like many supportive parents, used flash cards with her son to expand his vocabulary. She wanted him to learn at least twenty-five new words a week.

Â"I then told her [Sheehy] that I did not think she could make the leap to dyslexia on the basis of his difficulties with oral language alone,Â" LaFevers said. Â"He has syntactical difficulty. When heÂ's under the gun, thatÂ's how it comes out. HeÂ's a plain speaker. He is not dyslexic. She was out to do a hatchet job. I threw Vanity Fair in the trash.Â"

Susan Horn, the second expert quoted by Sheehy, claimed that Bush was Â"probably dyslexic.Â" She based that on the fact that, when Bush was at Andover, he used the word Â"laceratesÂ" as a synonym for Â"tearsÂ" in a paper describing his reaction at the age of seven to his sister RobinÂ's death from leukemia. Along with BushÂ's scrambled words, his improper choice of a word meant that Bush Â"really didnÂ't understand the language,Â" Horn was quoted as saying.

Apparently, Sheehy did not tell Horn that Bush had merely chosen the wrong word from the RogetÂ's Thesaurus his mother gave him as a going-away present when he left Texas for Andover. For their twentieth Andover reunion, Bush and Clay Johnson III, an Andover classmate and lifelong close friend, flew up to Massachusetts with their wives. Bush told Johnson how devastated he was when his teacher gave him a zero and wrote on his paper Â"See me immediatelyÂ" because he had mistakenly chosen Â"laceratesÂ" as a synonym for Â"tearsÂ" in the essay about the death of Robin.

Â"His mother had said, Â'HereÂ's a thesaurus,Â'Â" Johnson told me. Â"Â'DonÂ't use the same word all the time. Just go here and look up another word.Â' So he looked up Â'tearsÂ' and mistakenly used the word Â'lacerates,Â' as in Â'to rip.Â'Â"6

Asked twice whether Sheehy had quoted her accurately and whether she actually thought that Bush had dyslexia based on the incorrect choice of a word when Bush was in high school, Horn declined to comment.

Â"If choosing a wrong word once meant that someone has dyslexia, we would all have it,Â" LaFevers said.

If the liberal elite hated him, the people who knew Bush loved him.

Â"With Bush, there was an instant change,Â" a former Secret Service agent told me. Â"He was punctual. Clinton was never on time for anything. It was embarrassing. Bush and his wife treated you normally, decently. They had conversations with us. The Clintons were arrogant, standoffish, and paranoid. Everyone got a morale boost with Bush. He was the complete opposite of Clinton.Â" Â"If he was in a hurry, Clinton would literally push staff out of his way,Â" a former Secret Service agent said. Â"He could turn on you instantly. Bush stays focused,Â" he said. Â"Clinton couldnÂ't stay focused if he tried.Â"

Â"With the Clintons, you heard salty language all the time,Â" a third former Secret Service agent said. Â"I never heard either Bush or his father swear,Â" he said. Â"With Bush, his religious beliefs are for real ... Bush is down-to-earth, caring. He and Laura offer food to agents. They are always thinking of people around them.Â" The difference, compared with the Clintons, Â"is striking.Â"

To generations brought up to judge presidents by the image they convey on television, such differences in character and competence are often brushed aside. But there is a direct correlation between those traits and the long-term success of a president. Because of the secrecy the White House residence staff and Secret Service agents are sworn to maintain, voters usually do not know what presidents and presidential candidates are really like. If they did, said a former Secret Service agent, Â"They would scream.Â"

Charles E. Â"ChuckÂ" Taylor, a former Secret Service agent, recalled driving Lyndon Johnson, who was then vice president, with another agent from the Capitol to the White House for a 4:00 P.M. appointment with President John F. Kennedy. Johnson was not ready to leave until 3:45 P.M. and, because of traffic along Pennsylvania Avenue, they were going to be late.

Â"Johnson said to jump the curb and drive on the sidewalk,Â" Taylor said. Â"There were people on the sidewalk getting out of work. I told him, Â'No.Â' He said, Â'I told you to jump the curb.Â' He took a newspaper and hit the other agent, who was driving, on the head. He said, Â'YouÂ're both fired.Â' We got to the White House, and I told Evelyn Lincoln, KennedyÂ's secretary, Â'IÂ've been fired.Â' She shook her head. I was not fired.Â"7

Â"We were serving roast beef one time,Â" Robert M. MacMillan, a former Air Force One steward, said. Â"He [Johnson] came back in the cabin. Jack Valenti [JohnsonÂ's aide] was sitting there. He had just gotten his dinner tray. On it was a beautiful slice of rare roast beef. Johnson grabbed that tray and said, Â'You dumb [jerk]. You are eating raw meat.Â' He brought it back to the galley and said, Â'You two [jerks], look at this. This is raw. You gotta cook the meat on my airplane. DonÂ't you serve my people raw meat. If you two boys serve raw meat on my airplane again, youÂ'll both end up in Vietnam.Â' He threw it upside down on the floor. He stormed off.Â"8

If Johnson was unbalanced, Richard Nixon was two-faced and vicious. He had a well-known history of questionable behavior going back to his secret acceptance from private donors of $18,000 when he ran for vice president in 1952, an issue he addressed in what became known as his Checkers speech.

One former Secret Service agent will never forget a reunion for Vietnam prisoners of war held outside NixonÂ's San Clemente home.

Â"This POW did a series of paintings of Hanoi camp scenes,Â" the former agent said. Â"He was quite good. He presented Nixon with a big painting of POWs. Later that evening, after everyone had left, Nixon was going back to his home. It was a warm night. His assistant turned to Nixon and said, Â'What do you want me to do with the picture? Should I bring it in the house?Â'Â"

Â"Take that damned thing in the garage,Â" Nixon said. Â"I donÂ't want to see that.Â"

Â"I shook my head and thought, Â'You smiled and shook hands with these guys, and you could care less. It was all show,Â'Â" the former agent told me.

The poor personal character of presidents like Nixon and Johnson translated into the kind of flawed judgment that led to Watergate and the continuing fruitless prosecution of the Vietnam War. Voters tend to forget that presidents are, first and foremost, people. If they are unbalanced, nasty, and hypocritical, that will be reflected in their judgment and job performance. If a friend, an electrician, a plumber, or a job applicant had a track record of acting unethically, being habitually late, or displaying the kind of unbalanced personality of a Johnson or a Nixon, few would want to deal with him. Yet in the case of presidents and other politicians, voters overlook the signs of poor character and focus instead on their acting ability on TV.

Â"You just shake your head when you think of all the things youÂ've heard and seen and the faith that people have in these celebrity-type people,Â" a former Secret Service agent said. Â"They are probably worse than most average individuals.Â" He added, Â"Americans have such an idealized notion of the presidency and the virtues that go with it, honesty and so forth. In most cases, thatÂ's the furthest thing from the truth ... If we would pay attention to their track records, itÂ's all there. We seem to put blinders on ourselves and overlook these frailties.Â"

No one can imagine the kind of pressure that being president of the United States imposes on an individual and how easily a president can be corrupted by power. To be in command of the most powerful country on Earth, to be able to fly anywhere at a momentÂ's notice on Air Force One, to be able to grant almost any wish, to take action that affects the lives of millions, is such a heady, intoxicating experience that only people with the most stable personalities and well-developed value systems can handle it. Simply inviting a friend to a White House party or having a secretary place a call and announce that Â"the White House is callingÂ" has such a profound effect on people that presidents and White House aides must constantly remind themselves that they are mortal. Â"The White House is a character crucible,Â" Bertram S. Brown, M.D., a psychiatrist who formerly headed the National Institute of Mental Health and was an aide to President John F. Kennedy, told me. Â"It either creates or distorts character. Few decent people want to subject themselves to the kind of grueling abuse candidates take when they run in the first place,Â" said Dr. Brown, who has seen in his practice many top Washington politicians and White House aides. Â"Many of those who run crave superficial celebrity. They are hollow people who have no principles and simply want to be elected. Even if an individual is balanced, once someone becomes president, how does one solve the conundrum of staying real and somewhat humble when one is surrounded by the most powerful office in the land and from becoming overwhelmed by an at times pathological environment that treats you every day as an emperor? Here is where the true strength of the character of the person, not his past accomplishments, will determine whether his presidency ends in accomplishment or failure.Â"9

Thus, unless a president comes to the office with good character and competence, the crushing force of the office and the adulation the chief executive receives will inevitably lead to disaster. Those personal qualities, in turn, shape the conduct and culture of the White House and its staff. In the case of George W. Bush and his ultrasecretive White House, the question was: What was behind the caricature?