This week, Slate is publishing three exclusive excerpts from Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush by Robert Draper. In preparing this chronological narrative of the Bush presidency, Draper has had unprecedented journalistic access to the Bush White House, including six interviews with the president in late 2006 and 2007. In our final selection, a beleaguered president contemplates the situation in Iraq.
The Decider had decided: There would be a surge, or reinforcement, or whatever, and once again it was a time for hope. And Bush was hopeful, seemingly more than ever, to the surprise of many. “I have people walk up to me all the time,” Bush said one morning in early February 2007 as he sat with his boots sprawled across his desktop in the Oval Office. Snickering, he added, “They look at you like, ‘Wow.’ Like they expect to see something different.”
And three months later, on May 8, 2007, with every reason in the world to be wearing a Nixonian pallor—spotty progress at best in Iraq, an approval rating of 28, his press secretary Tony Snow diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer, Paul Wolfowitz forced out of office at the World Bank for showing professional favoritism to his girlfriend, former campaign strategist Matthew Dowd publicly airing his disillusionment with Bush to the Times, and attorney general Al Gonzales embroiled in a growing scandal over the highly suspicious dismissal of nine federal prosecutors—Bush seemed, somehow, even more serene. He was consuming history books with the same voraciousness with which he had pounded back the hot dog during lunch the previous December. Henry Kissinger had recommended a book on the Algerian revolution; Rove, a copy of Lynne Olson’s Troublesome Young Men, about the rise of Churchill. His presidency now all but consigned to history, Bush was immersed in the past, and gleaning from its portents what the future would say about America’s forty-third president.
And feeling eerily ducky about it all. Would Congress somehow recultivate an appetite for a continued military presence in the Middle East? “My bet is that when all is said and done, they will,” Bush said that afternoon. “The job of the president is to think over the horizon. I find that there are more and more people in Congress who are also thinking over the horizon. … Now we’ve got a presence in the region—but Iraq creates a different kind of opportunity for a presence.”
He imagined aloud that the surge would stabilize Iraq, which would hopefully encourage Bush’s successor “to stay longer at the request of the Iraqi government. Which would have the following effect. One, it would serve as a reminder to the region that we’re a force of stability. Two, it would remind certain actors that the United States is something to be reckoned with—Iran, for example, if they continue on the course they’re doing. … That’s where my head is at.”
But who else’s head was there, contemplating dead-certain success in Iraq, instead of the very real possibility of failure?
“The danger is that the United States won’t stay engaged,” Bush acknowledged. “The danger is, people come to office and say, ‘Let us promote stability—that’s more important.’ The problem is that in an ideological war, stability isn’t the answer to the root cause of why people kill and terrorize.”
Studying the past, thinking over the horizon, contemplating a hopeful future—these now brought Bush comfort. He had to lean on something. Had to keep things “relatively lighthearted” around the White House: “I can’t let my worries—I try not to wear my worries on my sleeve. I don’t want to burden them with that.” His parents and his siblings would call Bush, expressing worry for him. He assured them, too, that he was doing just great. Sleeping well. Showing them nothing in the way of fretfulness.
The burden was there, all the same. “I think he carries a lot of it around, for sure,” Laura Bush would say. “There’s no doubt about it.”
But to display it would be more than unseemly. “Self-pity is the worst thing that can happen to a presidency,” Bush said—adding, “This is a job where you can have a lot of self-pity.”
Though not on the subject of Iraq, Laura would remind him. ” ‘Well,’ she says, ‘you chose to do this.’ ” Bush went on. “She reminds me that I decided to do this. Nobody decided it but me … I’ve got God’s shoulder to cry on. And I cry a lot. I do a lot of crying in this job. I’ll bet I’ve shed more tears than you can count, as president. I’ll shed some tomorrow.”
Catching himself, Bush let his boots fall from his desktop, leaned forward and said, “But I don’t view this as a burden, being the president. I view it as a great opportunity. I truly believe we’re in the process of shaping history for the good. I know, I firmly believe, that decisions I have made were necessary to secure the country. Things could’ve been done differently—I’m confident of that. That’s what military historians do—they’ll review this, diplomatic historians will review that, political historians. …
“I made the decision to lead. And therefore there’ll be times when you make those decisions—one, it makes you unpopular; two, it makes people accuse you of unilateral arrogance. And that may be true. But the fundamental question is: Is the world better off as a result of your leadership?”
That was, inarguably, the fundamental question. At the moment, Congress and the public were unambiguous on the subject: Bush’s way was the wrong way. His power was waning. By the end of the year, his relevance would all but cease. And meanwhile, Iraq was a ticking time bomb.
Bush had his own calculations. In September, General Petraeus would testify before Congress about Baghdad’s progress. Bush had to hope that the additional troops would quell the violence. Had to speak with utter confidence that his hopes would be realized.
“So now I’m an October–November man,” Bush had said that February, a picture of rustic calm as his boots rested atop the fine historic desk. “I’m playing for October–November.”
And until then? He would travel overseas, take another crack at immigration and energy legislation, study his daily Terrorist Threat Matrix, hug war widows. But the present tense was, in a sense, no longer his domain—not with the public and the legislative branch so beyond the reach of his persuasions. Americans had soured on the president and his war. The First Optimist had made pessimists out of them.
His playing field was now the future. That, of course, assumed that October–November would at last bring stability to Iraq and thereby surge his depleted mandate. Bush did in fact operate with that belief—always. New Hampshire could not change that in him. The midterms could not change that in him. What had to be believed, he believed.
“I’m not afraid to make decisions,” Bush said. “Matter of fact, I like this aspect of the presidency.”
He yearned to make more decisions. And he just knew it: After October–November, the strategy would work, Bush would be proven right, and that big ball would be back in his hands again, and he would heave it long.