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War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generalsby David Halberstam
For a brief, glorious, almost Olympian moment it appeared that the presidency itself could serve as the campaign. Rarely had an American president seemed so sure of reelection. In the summer and fall of 1991, George Bush appeared to be politically invincible. His personal approval ratings in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War had reached 90 percent, unheard of for any sitting president, and even more remarkable for someone like Bush, a competent political insider whose charisma and capacity to inspire had in the past escaped most of his fellow citizens. Of his essential decency and competence there had been little doubt, and the skill with which he had presided over the end of the Cold War had impressed not merely the inner club that monitored foreign policy decision-making, but much of the country as well. With exceptional sensitivity, he had juggled and balanced his own political needs with the greater political needs of his newest partner in this joint endeavor, Mikhail Gorbachev. For Bush was quite aware that Gorbachev's political equation was much more fragile than his own, and he had been careful to be the more generous member of this unlikely two-man team that was negotiating the end of almost forty-five years of terrifying bipolar tensions.
One moment had seemed to symbolize the supreme confidence of the Bush people during this remarkable chain of events. It came in mid-August of 1991, when some Russian right-wingers mounted a coup against Gorbachev and Bush held firm, trying at first to support Gorbachev and, unable to reach him, then using his influence to help the embattled Boris Yeltsin. The coup had failed. A few days later, Gorbachev, restored to power in part because of the leverage of Washington, had resigned from the Communist Party. To the Bush people that attempted coup had been a reminder that with the Cold War officially ended or not, the Berlin Wall up or down, the world was still a dangerous place, which meant that the country would surely need and want an experienced leader, preferably a Republican, at the helm. Aboard Air Force One at that time, flying with his father from Washington back to the Bush family's vacation home in Maine, was George W. Bush, the president's son. He was just coming of age as a political operative in his own right, and he was euphoric about the meaning of these latest events. "Do you think the American people are going to turn to a Democrat now?" he asked.
Bush himself believed he was invulnerable. He had presided over the end of the Cold War with considerable distinction. He had handled the delicate job of dealing with the complicated international events that had led to the end of European communism, thereby freeing the satellite nations of Eastern Europe, and perhaps most remarkably of all, gaining, with Russian approval, a unified Germany that was a member of NATO. But typically he had held back on participating in any kind of celebration to mark those stunning events.
When the Berlin Wall had come down, many in the right wing, and a number of people around Bush himself, wanted some kind of ceremony, for this was a historic moment and they believed it deserved a commemoration not unlike those that had attended V-E and V-J Days in World War II, the victories in Europe over Germany, and in the Pacific over Japan. The destruction of the wall represented not merely the West's triumph in a long, difficult struggle against a formidable adversary, but equally important, a triumph in their minds of good over evil, proof that we had been right and they had been wrong, and that our system was politically, economically, ethically, and spiritually superior to theirs. At the very least there should be, they believed, one momentous speech to recount the history of the Cold War and celebrate the victory of the forces of light over darkness.
But Bush was uncomfortable with the idea of a celebration, aware that he had little flare for the dramatic. "I'm not going to dance on the wall," he told his aides. Even as the wall was coming down, Marlin Fitzwater, his press officer, had invited a small group of reporters into the Oval Office to talk with the president, but they found his answers cautious, curiously without emotion, almost joyless. Bush was sparring with them. Why wasn't he more excited? a reporter asked. I'm not an emotional kind of guy, he answered. "Maybe," he said later by way of explaining his self-restraint, "I should have given them one of these," and he leapt in the air in a parody of a then popular Toyota commercial portraying a happy car owner jumping and clicking his heels together. On Saturday Night Live, a comic named Dana Carvey, who often parodied Bush, showed him watching scenes of Berliners celebrating the destruction of the wall but refusing to join in. "Wouldn't be prudent," he said. Then Carvey-as-Bush pointed at himself: "Place in history? Se-cure!"
So, much to the disappointment of many on the right, Bush was anxious to minimize the event as a symbolic occasion. It was against his nature. Taking personal credit for any kind of larger success, not all of which was his, conflicted with the way he had been brought up. He believed — an attitude that was surely old-fashioned and quite optimistic in an age of ever more carefully orchestrated political spin, when the sizzle was more important than the steak — that if you did the right things in the right way, people would know about it. You should never call attention to yourself or, worse, advertise your accomplishments. Besides, Bush put a primacy on personal relationships, and by then he had begun to forge one with Mikhail Gorbachev and was obviously unwilling to do anything that would make things more difficult for his new ally. The more Bush celebrated, the more vulnerable Gorbachev and the other more democratically inclined figures in the Soviet Union were likely to be. Celebrating was like gloating and Bush would not gloat. (A few months later, getting close to an election campaign, Bush was more emboldened, and when he delivered his January 1992 State of the Union speech, with an election year just beginning, he did give the United States credit for winning the Cold War. Gorbachev, by then ousted from power, was not amused and said that the end of the Cold War was "our common victory. We should give credit to all politicians who participated in that victory.")
It was probably just as well that Bush did not try to grab too much credit for the collapse of communism, for what had transpired was a triumphal victory for an idea rather than for any one man or political faction. The Soviet Union had turned out to be, however involuntarily, the perfect advertisement for the free society, suggesting in the end that harsh, authoritarian controls and systems did not merely limit political, intellectual, and spiritual freedom, but economic freedom and military development as well. They limited not just the freedom of the individual, something that many rulers in many parts of the world would gladly accommodate to, but in the end limited the sum strength and might of the state, which was a very different thing. Therefore, what the proponents of an open society had long argued, that freedom was indivisible, and that the freedom to speak openly and candidly about political matters was in the long run inseparable from the freedom to invent some new high-technology device, or to run a brilliant new company, was true. The rights of man included not merely the right to compose and send an angry letter to a newspaper complaining about the government, they included as well as the right to choose where he went to work, and his right to garner, if he so chose and worked hard enough and with enough originality, far greater material rewards than his neighbors. The Soviet system was a devastating argument for what the lack of choice did, and what happened when a society was run top to bottom, instead of bottom to top. When George Bush had taken office, the Soviet system had begun to collapse of its own weight. Clearly by the eighties, Communist rule, as critics had long suggested, had undermined the nation itself, weakening it, particularly in a high-tech age when there was such an immediate and direct connection between the vitality of the domestic economy and a nation's military capacity, and when the gap between American weaponry and that of the Soviets had begun to widen at an ever greater rate.
Symbols had never been Bush's strength, and those who were dissatisfied with his innate caution liked to imagine what Ronald Reagan — who was always so brilliant with symbols and had a God-given sense of when and how to use them — might have done had he still been president when the wall fell. Possibly he would have ventured to Berlin for some wonderful kind of ceremony that the entire nation, perhaps the entire free world, could have shared. But Reagan was then and Bush was now, and unlike his predecessor (and his successor), Bush tended to downplay ceremonial moments. Many in the right wing who had often found him to be of too little ideological faith were again let down. Once more he had proven himself unworthy, placing success in a delicate and as yet unfinished geopolitical process above the temptation to savor what might have been a glorious historic moment.
Bush's belief that process always took precedence over image confirmed his reputation, essentially well-deserved, as a cautious insider rather than a public figure who knew how to rise to historic occasions and use symbols to bring the nation together. In a way it was Bush at both his best and worst. At his worst, he failed to take a memorable event and outline what it meant in larger terms of the long, hard struggle of a free society against a totalitarian state, and perhaps at the very least to showcase those remarkable people in Eastern Europe whose faith in a better, more democratic way during the long, dark hours of communist suppression was finally being rewarded. But it was also Bush at his best, because he was unwilling to exploit a vulnerable colleague — Gorbachev — and his distress and humiliation for political profit. Bush, after all, was first and foremost a team player, and unlikely though it might have seemed just a few years earlier, Gorbachev was now his teammate.
Whether or not he celebrated the end of the Cold War, it appeared to be just one more significant boost to his presidency. And it came at virtually the same time that American military forces, as the dominating part of the United Nations coalition, had defeated the Iraqi army in a devastating four-day land war, a rout preceded by five weeks of lethal, high-precision, high-technology air dominance. The stunning success of the American units in the Persian Gulf War, the cool efficiency of their weapons and the almost immediate collapse of the Iraqi forces, had been savored by most Americans as more than a victory over an Arab nation about which they knew little and which had invaded a small, autocratic, oil-producing duchy about which they knew even less. Rather, it had ended a period of frustration and self-doubt that had tormented many Americans for some twenty years as a result of any number of factors: the deep embarrassment of the Vietnam War, the humiliation suffered during the Iranian hostage crisis, and the uneasiness about a core economy that was in disrepair and was falling behind the new muscle of a confident, powerful Japan, known now in American business circles as Japan Inc.
The Gulf War showed that the American military had recovered from the malaise of the Vietnam debacle and was once again the envy of the rest of the world, with the morale and skill level of the fighting men themselves matching the wonders of the weapons they now had at their disposal. The lessons of the Gulf War were obvious, transcending simple military capacity and extending in some larger psychological sense to a broader national view of our abilities. We were back, and American forces could not be pushed around again. Perhaps we had slipped a bit in the production of cars, but American goods, in this case its modern weapons, were still the best in the world. The nation became, once again, strong, resilient, and optimistic.
The troops who fought in the Gulf War were honored as the troops who had fought in Vietnam were not. Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, the presiding generals of the war, were celebrated as William Westmoreland had never been. Shades of World War II: Powell was the new Eisenhower, the thoughtful, careful, tough but benign overall planner; and Schwarzkopf was the new Patton, the crusty, cigar-chomping, hell-for-leather combat commander. There was a joyous victory parade in Washington, and then they were honored again at a tumultuous ticker-tape parade in New York. Powell's security people had suggested that he wear a flak vest, but he felt he was heavy enough without one, and he was driven along the parade route in an open 1959 Buick convertible without protection. Both Schwarzkopf and Powell were from the New York area, Schwarzkopf the son of the head of the New Jersey State Police, and Powell the son of parents who had both worked in the garment district. Powell's memory of occasions like this was of newsreel clips of parades for Lindbergh, Eisenhower, and MacArthur. Now riding through a blizzard of ticker tape raining down on himself and Schwarzkopf, he had been delighted; all this fuss, he thought, for two local boys who had made good.
Nineteen ninety-one had been an excellent year for George Bush. It had ended with the ultimate Christmas present for an American president when Gorbachev had called to wish him well personally, and to inform him that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR, was resigning and turning over power to Boris Yeltsin, the new leader of Russia. Earlier in the day, Gorbachev had told Ted Koppel of Nightline that he was a something of a modern-day Russian pioneer because he was participating in the peaceful transfer of power, acting in accordance with a formula that was democratic, something relatively new in Moscow. Then, in a warm, rather affectionate conversation with Bush he said was turning over what he called the little suitcase, the bag that contained the authorization codes to activate the Soviet nuclear arsenal, to the president of the Russian Republic. Even so, he could not bear to mention Yeltsin, his sworn enemy, by name. The deed was done and Gorbachev was gone. (As Raisa Gorbachev had shrewdly observed after returning from an immensely successful trip to the United States in June 1990, "The thing about innovations is that sooner or later they turn around and destroy the innovators.")
Some of that special call announcing the end of the Soviet Union was even watched on television. Gorbachev, the product of the most secretive society in the world, was now a media-savvy man who had learned to play to international as well as domestic opinion. Bush would later discover that Gorbachev had allowed Koppel and Nightline to televise his end of their two-person phone call. It was the climax of a year that most American presidents only dream of. It seemed like the rarest of times when almost all the news was good and Bush was the primary beneficiary. His presidency was an immense success and his reelection appeared to be a sure thing.
But there were already signs that a powerful new undertow was at work in American politics, and Bush and the people around him were for a variety of reasons, most of them generational, slow to recognize it. But the signs of significant political and social change were there nonetheless. They reflected a certain lack of gratitude on the part of all kinds of ordinary people for the successes of the last three years, and a growing anger — indeed perhaps rage — about the state of the American economy. There was also a concurrent belief that George Bush was certainly capable of being an effective world leader, but domestic problems and issues, in this case, principally, the economy, did not matter as much to him as foreign affairs. A number of different pollsters were picking up this undertow of discontent, among them Stan Greenberg, a former Yale professor who was polling for the young would-be Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, and Fred Steeper, who had impeccable Republican connections and was polling for the Republican National Committee. Steeper was working out of the office of Bob Teeter, a leading Republican public opinion expert, who was one of George Bush's closest friends and political allies and would be among the men directing his campaign for reelection. Normally Steeper would have been polling for Bush directly, but due to a temporary breakdown in polling in 1991 because of factional differences in the White House, he had ended up working for the RNC.
By the early nineties, polling had become an ever more exact and important instrument of American politics, though some old-timers from an earlier political era were made uneasy by it. They especially distrusted those politicians who used it on all occasions for all purposes and appeared to have no inner value system or beliefs that could withstand the alleged truths produced by polling. But used properly, polls could reveal some things. Used properly, they could serve as a good DEW-line alert system for forces that might soon represent important shifts of public opinion. At the very least they could reveal the primacy of issues, and this would turn out to be one of those occasions. Fred Steeper thought he had been detecting signs of a growing economic malaise for quite a while and a resulting public disenchantment with Bush's attempts to deal with the economy. The huge budget deficits produced by Reagan's tax policies had led to a bitterly debated decision in 1990 on the part of George Bush to go for a tax increase. Campaigning for election in 1988, he had vowed not to raise taxes — "Read my lips. No new taxes," he had said during the campaign. By breaking that promise he had angered many in his own party. The bright and angry young Republican conservatives in the House, led by Newt Gingrich, had broken with him on that issue, and he had got the tax increase through Congress largely with support from the Democrats. But it would become a not-insignificant wound.
By the summer and fall of 1991, the polls had begun to show a potential vulnerability for Bush. His personal ratings still remained high, but there was a growing public restlessness about the direction of the economy and therefore of the country. The economy, then, that was turning into a slow-burning but eventually inflammatory issue for the incumbent. Several regions in the nation were suffering from a recession, and by the end of 1991, the entire country would be declared in a recession. One type of economy, a blue-collar industrial one, was coming to an end, and the new high-tech digital one that would soon replace much of it had not yet arrived with sufficient impact to compensate for its predecessor's decline. The Japanese were producing heavy industrial goods of a higher quality than we were, and America's industrial heartland was being called the Rust Belt. The budget deficit was growing larger every year, as was the trade imbalance with Japan. Ordinary people who did not usually monitor such economic trends felt squeezed and believed they were working harder and harder just to stand still. It was one of those moments in American life, despite the continuing growth of the postwar economy, when economics and politics converged because normally abstract economic numbers were becoming deeply personal.
Steeper had discovered in late 1990 and early 1991 that there were increasingly serious political problems stemming from what was a stagnant economy. The irony of the Gulf War was that it had momentarily changed the lead topic on the national agenda from a growing concern about the economy to pride in our newly manifested military might. That, of course, was of immediate political benefit for Bush, resulting in the quantum increase in his personal popularity. Yet his vulnerability on economic issues was there. Right before the Gulf War, despite the success of the administration in ending the Cold War, the responses to the most elemental question a pollster can ask — "Is the administration on the right track or the wrong track?" — had been disturbing. Steeper's polls showed that roughly two out of three Americans thought the country was headed down the wrong track. Clearly there had not been much domestic political bounce to the amazing events that marked the end of the Cold War. But then came the triumph of the Gulf War. A mere two days into the fighting, a poll had shown a complete reversal of that most important index: two out of three Americans now thought we were headed in the right direction.
The Gulf War, however, had only temporarily obscured deep dissatisfaction in the country, particularly about the economy. That was new problem number one. Problem number two was that despite the warm and enthusiastic welcome accorded the returning troops, the Gulf War itself had surprisingly little traction. Yes, the country had sat transfixed for those few days, watching the television coverage released by the Department of Defense — video clips of high-technology bombs landing precisely on their intended targets. And yes, everything had gone not only as well as it was supposed to, but unlike most events in warfare, even better than expected. The entire country had fallen in love with the troops and their amazingly swift victory. If not everyone loves a sword, then almost everyone on the winning side loves a swift sword. But in truth, it was a war without real resonance. The actual land combat had lasted just four days, and it had been conducted by an elite professional army, thereby touching relatively few American homes. For much of the country it was a kind of virtual war, something few people were engaged in or had sacrificed for. Thus, like many things celebrated in the modern media, it was distant and oddly nonparticipatory; when it was over, it was over, leaving remarkably little trace. People had tied yellow ribbons to their mailboxes or gateposts as a sign of their support for those fighting, but it was very different, indeed, from the time during World War II when small flags with stars were displayed in windows to signify that a member of the family was in service, probably overseas and in harm's way.
The different pollsters tracking George Bush in the period after the Gulf War, from March until well into the fall of 1991, found a steady decline in the president's approval ratings, a decline, depending on the pollster, of some twenty or twenty-five percent. That was bad enough, but it was relatively easy to justify — after all, his ratings at the moment of victory in the desert had been almost unconscionably high. What went up that high certainly had to come down. Much more alarming was that people were again becoming mutinous over the economy, even as the aura of good feeling about the Gulf War was beginning to vanish.
The White House, for a variety of reasons, tended to cut itself off from that ominous trend. Steeper's polls and those of other pollsters showed that much of the country, perhaps as many as 80 percent of those polled, thought the country was in a recession. But the president's economic advisers — Michael Boskin, who was the head of the Council of Economic Advisers, effectively Bush's own personal economist, Dick Darman, his budget director, and Nick Brady, his secretary of the treasury — all told him that the recession was over. Some of his political people were furious with that stance; they thought the economists were dead wrong and were underestimating a potentially destructive political issue in order to justify their past advice. Nonetheless, Bush, in the fall of 1991, went public and declared that the recession was over. That was a critical mistake; it put him in direct conflict with the way a vast majority of Americans felt on an issue that was growing ever more serious in the public mind.
This was the predicament of the Bush White House at the end of 1991. It had been Bush's best year in office, yet a powerful political current was beginning to work against him. Furthermore, he was being given little credit for his considerate skill in negotiating the end of the Cold War. In fact, the end of the Cold War was now possibly also working against him, as the release from Cold War tensions accelerated the change in the primacy of issues, from foreign affairs, where the Republicans in general and Bush in particular had been the beneficiaries, to domestic affairs, at a time when the economy was soft and the chief beneficiaries on economic issues were the Democrats.
Among the first to spot this change was Fred Steeper. In December 1991, at exactly the time when the Soviet Union was breaking up and a once-feared adversary was losing its strength, he was holding a series of focus groups with ordinary citizens, trying to figure out how they felt about the issues that would face the Republican Party in the upcoming election year. The results were deadly. Not only was the primary issue the economy, not only did most ordinary people feel the country was mired deep in a recession, in contrast to what the president and his economic advisers were saying, but they were furious with Bush, who, they believed, was not that interested in them and their problems. Even more devastating, there were signs that it was already too late for him to right himself on this issue.
Because of these findings Steeper wrote a memo for his boss, Bob Teeter, suggesting the possibility of what he termed the Churchill Factor or the Churchill Parallel. At the end of July 1945, just after Germany had surrendered, a tired England had not even waited for the war to end in the Pacific before voting out Winston Churchill, its gallant and beloved wartime leader, whose bulldog determination had symbolized England's strength and faith during Europe's darkest hour, and replacing him with the obviously less charismatic Labor Party leader, Clement Attlee. (He is a modest man and has much to be modest about, Churchill once said of Attlee.) The British had believed that Churchill's primary passion was defense and foreign policy, not domestic affairs, and they wanted someone who they thought would pay more attention to their postwar needs.
The same thing might now happen to George Bush, Steeper warned, and it was imperative that the president not bank too heavily on his foreign policy successes in the campaign ahead. The economy was hurting a wide range of people and becoming preeminent in their minds. Bob Teeter warned Bush of much the same thing. But the president was more confident, loath to move against his top people — his economists — and still content to believe their rosier economic forecasts. Thus, a critical election year would begin with Americans bothered by the state of the economy and yearning for benefits from the end of the Cold War, and with George Bush under assault from a Democratic challenger for paying too much attention to foreign policy and too little to domestic policy. All of this would take place as the Balkan state of Yugoslavia began to unravel with horrendous human consequences.
Copyright © 2001 by The Amateurs, Inc.
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