Books: 'Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush'
Tuesday, September 11, 2007; 1:00 PM
GQ magazine national correspondent Robert Draper was online Tuesday, Sept. 11 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his book " Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush," which uses interviews with the president and his top advisers to take readers inside the conflicts and dynamics of his administration.
Review: Do-er's Profile (Post, Sept. 9)
The transcript follows.
Draper has been a national correspondent for GQ magazine for the past decade, and prior to that was senior editor at Texas Monthly. He is author of a novel, "Hadrian's Walls," and the biography "Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History."
Robert Draper: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Robert Draper, author of "Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush." I'm an assiduous reader of washingtonpost.com's Online Chat series, so it's gratifying to be on the other end of the cyber pipeline. There are already a lot of questions in the bin -- no surprise when it comes to a subject matter as polarizing as this one -- so let's get started. If my answers seem the least bit unfocused, I ask you to place the blame where it belongs, on the GQ party I attended at Cafe Milano last night!
Washington: Mr. Draper, why did you write this book?
Robert Draper: A pretty simple question, but the answer's somewhat complicated. Basically, my view was that whatever one thought of this president, his was a consequential presidency and therefore deserved biographical study. By the summer of 2004 there were more than a hundred books about Bush, but virtually all of them were either polemic or narrow. None really purported to be a straightforward literary narrative of this rather tumultuous presidency. I assigned myself the task, at the time not knowing what if any cooperation I would receive from the White House. Fortunately, over time they warmed to my approach.
Free Union, Va.: Do you believe that President Bush has a conscience?
Robert Draper: I do. It's evidenced by his willingness to visit wounded soldiers and the families of killed soldiers. Though the president often says that he sleeps untroubled, his wife indicated to me that the grind of war wears on him. And the president himself hinted at this when he said to me of his visits to military hospitals that "the healer gets healed."
Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon! I'm putting your book on my Christmas list. Were you surprised at the access you were given? Was there a seminal moment when you thought "holy cow, I can't believe they're telling me all this stuff"? Was there a moment when you sort of got used to it, or were you bemused right until the end?
Robert Draper: Was I surprised? It's funny -- as a journalist, you sort of grind away, taking rejections as they come, building on whatever advances you've achieved. My access was very slow in coming. Throughout 2005, I probably didn't talk to more than two dozen people in the White House. By March of 2006, I'd spoken to more than a hundred members of the administration. Certain senior staffers (whom I can't call out, because the interviews were on background) were particularly helpful, and I think some of this owes to the fact that they'd never spoken to a reporter before and frankly were grateful for the opportunity to share insights and recollections. The experience was enormously gratifying. Occasionally I would have to remind myself that this was no ordinary thing, shuffling in and out of the West Wing lobby several times a week.
Palo Alto, Calif.: Your book is wonderful work that leaves me shaking my head and full of questions. I have to believe your expressed fondness for your subject is sincere, but I can't for the life of me figure out how that can be. This president has created nothing but disaster for our nation, a disaster that has bled the military, the nations treasury, and erased our good standing in the world of nations and cost countless lives and limbs. Given these unmistakable facts, how can you maintain this fondness?
Robert Draper: I don't want to paint myself as some kind of saint -- that would be laughable -- but I do think I've been able over the years to write humanely about subjects who are controversial and even contemptible. For Texas Monthly and GQ, I've profiled pedophiles, stalkers, serial rapists, prison gang members and corrupt politicians. I didn't find it difficult to suspend judgment about President Bush and take him on his own terms. And I have to say, he's a likable fellow, whatever else one thinks of his deeds.
Ithaca, N.Y.: In your interview at Salon.com, you state that Bush's optimism is basic to him and genuine. I ask this with all sincerity: Do you think that the circumstances of his life have something to do with that? That is, he always had a "rich family," a safety net to catch him, he never had to go to war, he had jobs handed to him even after he failed, etc. Who wouldn't be optimistic?
Robert Draper: That's a very salient point, and it was certainly in my mind as I sketched Bush's character. As I mention in the Texas chapter, this was not a man possessed by Biblical torments -- his travails fell short of mythic. I also would add that there's an interesting dimension to Bush's optimism, which my book highlights -- a kind of determined, self-enforced, don't-look-down aspect, as opposed to the sunniness intrinsic to, say, Ronald Reagan.
Philadelphia: How open did George Bush appear to you to different ideas? I ask because other reporters have claimed that George Bush has continued to believe all his policies on the Iraq War are correct, even when challenged by Colin Powell and Andrew Card and intelligence reports. What makes Bush so steadfast in his views on Iraq?
Robert Draper: I'd sum it up this way: The president rather enjoys hearing opposing viewpoints from his subordinates, as long as they're opposing each other. And he can in fact be budged from small and/or tactical decisions he's made. It seems nearly impossible, however, to turn him around on major issues, fundamental precepts, etc. "There's no need to argue about the Freedom Agenda," he told me during one of the interviews. Of course, many people would disagree with that. This quality of Bush's can be seen as steadfastness or as abject stubbornness -- hence the title of my book.
Baltimore: Mr. Draper, Re: the dissolution of the Iraqi Army -- was President Bush really so blase about not knowing why Jerry Bremer dissolved the Iraqi Army? The quote I have seen in which he tells you "Hadley has notes about that" is pretty astonishing, given that sending tens of thousands of armed Iraqis home without a job is seen as the signal blunder of the early phase of the occupation. Thanks for any further insights.
Robert Draper: I was myself astonished, given that this policy reversal had dramatic consequences. There has been some controversy on this point, with Bremer releasing a memo to Bush that mentions, albeit as a virtual afterthought, that he intended to disband the army. I don't know why Bremer didn't mention this memo either in his book or in his interview with me. Regardless, the real point is that his decision to reverse policy received no serious discussion either by the president or by those in State and the National Security Council who had vigorously opposed this approach.
New London, N.H.: I've been studying the debate transcripts for four years. Is the president an angry person?
Robert Draper: I think what you saw in the 2004 debates was a man who, according to one of my sources in the West Wing, "wasn't used to anyone getting up in his grill." He was peevish, indignant and thrown off-stride. However, I don't think of Bush as a particularly angry person -- if anything, he has a facility for not harboring grudges, for letting things roll off of his back after momentarily bristling.
Boston: How smart is President Bush, and what role does faith and personal providence play in his foreign policy decisions?
Robert Draper: The matter of Bush and faith properly has preoccupied scholars and will continue to do so. My sense is that he's not messianic, but rather calls on his faith as a source of strength. Obviously one could argue about whether his policies reflect those of a true Christian, but I have no doubt that he is one. He's also a smart man, assuming one goes by these measures: Does he read? (A lot, and not simple books, either.) Is he an adroit arguer? (Yes -- he has a great talent for finding the weak thread in a point of view.) I've never found him to be a simpleton, though I think the caricature has served him well in that his adversaries continually "misunderestimate" him.
Eastern Shore, Md.: As you may or may not know, many conservatives (as opposed to Republicans, perhaps) are very disenchanted with Bush's presidency. For instance, most conservatives oppose his big spending policies and his immigration policies, among other gripes. Does President Bush even acknowledge the conservative angst with his administration, or is he so isolated that he thinks all is hunky-dory between him and conservatives?
Robert Draper: Bush always has viewed himself as an "activist," which flies in the face of some conservative notions, such as the federal government's role in education. The failed Harriet Miers nomination was the first real evidence of a divide between Bush and conservatives, and I think it remains a sore spot with him. He understands their distress regarding immigration reform, but the matter of a temporary guest worker program is an abiding passion of his, not to mention evidence of political foresight, given Bush and Rove's shared belief that Republicans alienate the Hispanic demographic at their peril.
Lyme, Ct.: Did you get a sense of the flow of information within the White House? Who does George Bush listen to and hear advice from? What level reports reach him, and which level reports are appropriate that they do not pass the vice president or the chief of staff? Finally, does George W. Bush seem satisfied with his staff and how things operate? Does he seem to respect loyalty, as has been written, and how does he reward loyalty?
Robert Draper: Bush made a point of emphasizing to me that unlike his father's administration, his was one of significant "walk-in access" to the Oval Office. Of course, there's a distinction between occasional and constant contact, and without question the president has relied on an inner circle (consisting of Rove, Vice President Cheney, Secretary Rice, Josh Bolten, formerly Dan Bartlett and Karen Hughes and Alberto Gonzales, Joe Hagin and a couple of others) to the near-exclusion of others, including Cabinet members other than Rice. Loyalty is huge with Bush, and Exhibit A of this is the long tenure of certain highly loyal senior staffers who were kept on arguably longer than would've been prudent.
Baltimore: Does president bush ever comment on people like Keith Olbermann or other liberals who really hate him?
Robert Draper: Never! He is not one to pay attention of any kind to his critics. And for that matter, Bush told me, he doesn't watch TV ... though it's untrue that he doesn't read the newspapers.
Springfield, Mo.: I have not read the book yet but I fully intend to. Why is it so difficult for some individuals to accept the fact that a biography can be anything other than a whitewash? In my view that kind of narrow-mindedness is the analogy of radicalism without serious judgment.
Robert Draper: I appreciate the sentiment. It was my intent all along to write a nonjudgmental narrative of Bush's presidency. Along the way, a number of liberal friends of mine expressed disgust that I would spend time on such an endeavor. One even told me that my refusal to strangulate Karl Rove while interviewing him bordered on treason! But I meant it when I said to the president that I didn't think anyone 50 years from now was going to care what I thought about George W. Bush. What they'll care about is: who was this undistinguished Midland oilman who changed the world?
Bennett Point, Md.: What will President Bush do in his 25 years or so as ex-president? Is he out of politics almost completely, more or less like his father, Dwight Eisenhower, LBJ and Ronald Reagan, or is he more active like Harry Truman, Herbert Hoover and Bill Clinton?
Robert Draper: The president openly talked to me about his impending retirement. He said that he would like to open a "Freedom Institute" as an adjunct to his presidential library in Dallas, and that he would be active in that self-styled think tank when not reposing in Crawford. He also told me that he would hit the lecture circuit, a comment which has generated a fair amount of controversy, though I don't really think Bush is a greedy man.
Rochester, N.Y.: My question for you this: How do you think Bush's psychology and decision-making processes compare with other recent presidents? My impression is that he is very much an aberration, that other recent presidents generally were compromisers by nature -- even Nixon and Johnson to some extent. Do you think his intransigence is the result of a limited political background, as opposed to the years of compromising other recent presidents had to do before they got into the White House? Thanks again for the chat and for your fine book.
Robert Draper: Thanks for this excellent question. I think there's an underlying insecurity to Bush with a rather classical genesis -- namely his being the eldest son of a famous father. (Someone pointed out to me recently that all presidents had "father issues.") I think this has propelled his need to be distinctive, to do big things. Insecurity is a dominant theme in the personalities of presidents Johnson, Nixon and Clinton, among others, and it doesn't always have injurious consequences. I think your point about intransigence and inexperience is a fine one and goes to this matter of insecurity, of not wishing to have his fundamental precepts challenged.
Boston: How aware is Bush of all the backroom policy machinations of Cheney and his staff? Did he understand the levers of power when he initially delegated so much power to Cheney?
Robert Draper: This is the $64,000 question, of course. I learned from a member of the West Wing a few weeks ago that the president was furious about The Washington Post series on Cheney ("The Angler"). What galled him was its basic premise -- namely, that even though Bush is "The Decider," Cheney decides what's on the menu from which "The Decider" decides. For whatever reason, Cheney's machinations haven't felt threatening to the president -- who indeed selected him as vice president in no small measure because, as Bush told me, "he didn't want it."
Arlington, Va.: The Hadley-has-the-notes comment reminds us that when they leave office, Bush and Cheney by law will turn over their records and those of their advisors to the National Archives. These obviously have the potential to illuminate or fill in the blanks on a number of issues. Do you think the president's confidence in himself and the path he chose while in office will show itself in a willingness to permit a maximum amount of information to be released from the archives for scholars to study? Or do you have a sense that the restrictive records order that Bush signed in 2001 points to future struggles regarding historical disclosure after he leaves office?
Robert Draper: We're all dying to find out, of course. This is where the rubber meets the road -- here we have a president who has come to value history and historical analysis, who has read a multitude of texts that owe their existence to the disclosure of the very kind of documents you're describing. Will he capitulate to history, or maintain his aversion to disclosure?
Washington: Is the President a "Texan"? As someone who worked for the Texas Monthly and who has spent substantial time with the president, you are uniquely qualified to answer this. Here is a guy whose entire family has roots deep in New England, who went to one of the most prestigious prep schools in the nations, did his undergrad at Yale and has a Harvard MBA, yet displays himself as brush-clearin', boot-wearin', pickup-drivin', "g"-droppin' son of the Texas soil. Am I the only one who wonders if Mr. Bush authentic?
Robert Draper: Listen, if anything, Bush is a Texan to a fault! I think that he's vintage Midland, from his scruffy mannerisms to his his embrace of the entrepreneurial ethic that ultimately gave rise to his Freedom Agenda and the Opportunity Society. Now, do I think he plays up his Texan-ness? Without question. He's hardly the first Texan to do so.
Washington: Please understand that I respect you and your work, but I must say that historians will look back at "Dead Certain" and be amazed that in the waning moments of a failed administration such a positive tome could be published. There is certainly value in getting the perspective of all sides, but after almost seven years the public record speaks for itself. There is a cognitive dissonance between the leader you portray -- confident, self-assured -- and the reality outside the White House, at home and abroad. What we have in the Bush II presidency is the most outsized example of the Emperor's New Clothes imaginable. And I'm afraid your book is another invisible article of clothing.
Robert Draper: Your point is well taken. For what it's worth, I've gotten it from both sides. Yesterday I was told by a White House senior staffer that my book was "disdainful" of the president, and I've been labeled a "betrayer," among other things. What I attempted to do in this book is to examine the "confident, self-assured" persona rather than accept it at face value. The title of the book should suggest a kind of edge, the belief that his certainty is both real and at the same time akin to protesting too much.
Lansing, Mich.: Wouldn't "Dead Wrong" have made a better title?
Robert Draper: Maybe a little too obvious!
Freising, Germany: Apparently staffers found it very hard "to stick one's arm into the fiercely whirring gears of Team Bush's institutionalized optimism and say, 'Let's ... slow... down. And rethink this.' " Where did this institutionalized optimism come from? Was it an extension of Bush's personality or a product of the group dynamics of Team Bush?
Robert Draper: I don't think Bush is driven by "group dynamics." For better or for worse, he is first among equals at the Executive table. Though the immensity of the Executive Branch is such that a Rove or a Cheney can wield a vast and somewhat clandestine portfolio, no one who knows Bush honestly can think that he is a bystander to his own presidency. As for the optimism, I think it's a native quality of his -- borne out in part, as someone noted earlier, by his privileged upbringing -- but there's also a whiff of fear to it: we cannot afford to fail, therefore we must succeed, therefore we are succeeding!
Alexandria, Va.: Given that John Roberts specifically has repudiated your claim that he recommended Harriet Miers for a Supreme Court nomination, why should we rely on the accuracy of anything else in your book?
Robert Draper: I don't blame Chief Justice Roberts for attempting to disassociate himself from an ill-advised recommendation. But two well-placed administration officials told me about Roberts' advice, and I'm confident in their veracity. By the way, his spokesperson's statement was parse-worthy: "Chief Justice Roberts did not recommend Harriet Miers to President Bush." I believe that's correct; according to my sources, Roberts didn't issue his recommendation directly to the president.
Washington: Ordered your book on Amazon, but I wondered -- you said on one of the shows that Bush might be surprised his quotes were coming out so soon. In the same way he told you he was playing for October or November, is that when he thought your book was coming out? Otherwise, why would he be shocked that the quotes from him came out sooner?
Robert Draper: The president knew when my book would be published and in fact asked me more than once before answering a question, "now, when is this book coming out?" I don't think he anticipated that several of the quotes in the book would dominate the news cycle; neither did I.
Robert Draper: Thanks very much for all of the questions. This has been a vigorous exchange, and it's gratifying to me that so many of you have found this book worthy of discussion. Have a great day.
Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.