What Bush Learned From Reagan

Special W. Dialogue Bonus: After reading this discussion, Michael Isikoff, co-author of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, was moved to respond. His post is below.

Oliver, Bob, Ron, and Jacob:

After reviewing this discussion, I’d like to weigh in on the debate over the core question: When and why did President Bush decide to go to war in Iraq? It is, when you think about it, rather amazing that there isn’t a consensus on this. It was, after all, the defining moment of Bush’s presidency.

My old and esteemed boss Bob Woodward contends he fully answered the question in his book Plan of Attack and places the moment when Bush chose war in January 2003. My new Newsweek colleague Jacob Weisberg demurs and places it sometime in the summer of 2002. My neighbor Ron Suskind argues the decision was already made by early 2002.

At the risk of being self-referential, I’d point Slate readers to one of the scenes Stone lifted wholesale from Hubris, the book David Corn and I co-authored in 2006 about the selling of the Iraq war. It appears, slightly modified, in the movie; Stone tinkers a bit with the actual dialogue. But he’s got the essence of it right. I think it tilts the scale toward Suskind.

The scene in question takes place May 1, 2002. Bush, while whacking tennis balls to his dogs on the White House lawn, is being briefed by press secretary Ari Fleischer and another communications aide, Adam Levine, for a History Channel interview he is about to give that afternoon about the life of Ronald Reagan. (That’s the real setting as reported in Hubris. In the movie, Stone substitutes Karl Rove for the somewhat obscure Levine, and Fleischer walks in midway through the discussion.) Fleischer relates the pesky questions he was getting at the press briefing that day from Helen Thomas about why Bush seems so intent on starting a war and getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Bush lets a loose with a string of expletives.

“Did you tell her I don’t like motherfuckers who gas their own people?””Did I tell you I don’t like assholes who lie to the world?””Did you tell her I’m going to kick his sorry motherfucking ass all over the Mideast?”Fleischer replies: “I told her half of that.”

In the movie, Stone actually tones down the expletives and substitutes a different line—”Did you tell her I don’t like assholes who try to kill my father?”—in the middle of this tirade. (Bush actually did make a crack about Saddam trying to kill his father, but that was at a Texas fundraiser for John Cornyn on Sept. 26, 2002.) But the rest of the movie dialogue is pretty much as Bush said it. And there wasn’t much doubt about what Bush had in mind. “You know where we’re going here,” Levine recalled thinking at the time.

There are two obvious points to make about this. The first is that Bush’s outburst was early—well before Congress authorized the war resolution in October 2002 and before the November 2002 U.N. Security Council resolution giving Saddam one last chance to come clean on his supposed weapons of mass destruction. It also came before Bush, according to Woodward, made the decision to wage war the following January. Woodward may well be right about the formal decision. But under the operating assumption that diplomacy isn’t the customary way to kick a foreign leader’s ass across international borders, I think the May outburst is fairly indicative that Bush had pretty much made up his mind about what he intended to do long before the final sign off.

My second point speaks to motivation, and here’s where the Ronald Reagan interview that day sheds some light. While researching Hubris, Corn and I got hold of the actual written memo prepared for Bush in which the White House communications staff had written out the likely questions the president would get from the History Channel interviewer. Bush then wrote on it, scribbling his thoughts about the points he wanted to emphasize. The memo with Bush’s jottings is a fascinating document. It offers a pretty good window into not just what Bush admired about Reagan but also how he saw himself in the spring of 2002. “Optimism and strength,” Bush scrawled at the top of the memo. Also, “decisive” and “faith.” Next to a question about Reagan’s direct, blunt style, Bush wrote “moral clarity.” He drew an arrow next to the word forceful. Alongside a question about the 1983 suicide-bombing attack on the U.S. Marines barracks in Lebanon (which killed 241 U.S. troops), Bush wrote, “There will be casualties.”

When it came time for the actual interview, Bush hit these points and used an interesting analogy that Stone includes in W.: Recalling one of the iconic speeches of the Reagan era, one that the late president’s admirers have long pointed to as a decisive moment in the fall of the Soviet Empire, Bush said that Reagan “didn’t say, ‘Well, Mr. Gorbachev, would you take the top three bricks off the wall?’ He said, ‘Tear it all down.’ … And the truth of the matter is, I spoke about the Axis of Evil, and I did it for a reason. I wanted the world to know exactly where the United States stood.”

We can debate endlessly what really motivated Bush in making the audacious decision to invade Iraq—the threat of WMD, the cooked-up evidence about connections between Saddam and al-Qaida, the need to be pre-emptive in the post-9/11 era, the desire to secure Mideast oil supplies. But I think the “tear it all down” line captures the essence of Bush’s worldview. Why monkey around with diplomacy, U.N. inspections, and halfway measures? And the search for one key moment to pinpoint the “decision” time is probably illusory. Bush the Decider didn’t actually decide in Cabinet or war-council meetings. His White House didn’t thrash out option memos and debate them endlessly.  He decided on what his gut told him, and his gut instincts were that he had had enough of trying to “box in” Saddam Hussein and that it was time to kick his ass and remove him through military force.

The enormous consequences of such gut decisions—the human and financial costs of the war in Iraq—may be one reason another Republican presidential candidate known for making gut decisions may be having such a difficult time in the polls right now.