The Bush/Cheney Legacy and the Bush Family Political Dynasty

Russ Baker
Journalist and Author
Thursday, January 15, 2009; 2:00 PM

As George W. Bush's second term in office comes to a close, and in conjunction with The Washington Post's Bush/Cheney Legacy series, Russ Baker was online Thursday, Jan. 15 at 2 p.m. ET to take questions and comments about how the president will be remembered, as well as Bush 43's role in one of the most powerful families in American politics.

The transcript follows.

Russ Baker, author of Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, the Powerful Forces That Put It in the White House, and What Their Influence Means for America, is an investigative reporter who has written for the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the Nation, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Village Voice and Esquire. He is the founder of WhoWhatWhy/the Real News Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization.


Russ Baker: Howdy, Post readers. I'm looking forward to answering your questions here. Let's get to it....


Austin, Texas: Mr. Baker, Here's a quick comparison question I've been asking of many Washington Post chatters. I'd like to hear your opinions of which of the following in each pair was a bigger Bush mistake, disappointment, faux pas, what have you... choose the worse action from each of the following pairs:

Choosing Cheney to chair VP search committee (and thus as VP) OR Choosing Gonzales as AG?

Going down the Enemy Combatants road OR Going down the Invade Iraq road?

Failure to act in the summer before 9/11 OR Failure to act (effectively) in the wake of Katrina?

Seeing Putin's soul (or at least claiming he did) OR Giving the (female) German Chancellor a shoulder rub?

Russ Baker: Boy, that's like those old questions we used to ask each other as kids -- would you rather date Phyllis Diller or Herman Munster? I don't think any of these work well as either/or comparisons. But I would certainly say that the Iraq invasion was as big a doozy as any. And what's wrong with a shoulder rub? But he should have given one to Putin, too.


Chicago, Ill.: No one should be above the law. If there is small evidence Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have broken the law or lied to the citizens of United State of America, they should stand trial for their choices. We should not give "get out of jail free" cards to selfish and irresponsible people. The last name should not over-weight the law.

Russ Baker: Agreed. If some consensual sexual activity in the Oval Office gets everyone so worked up, can't we show some indignation toward the most fundamental abuse of the office?


New York, N.Y.: I saw Cheney on CNN, and he reminded me of the person who worked in the Ford Administration. He noted that the election of Obama bespoke progress for America. I see the Cheney of the Bush years as a very different person, and many of his friends have said the same thing. What do you think happened?

Russ Baker: No idea. He can keep on telling conservative audiences that Saddam did have WMDs or Al Qaeda, or that we didn't torture. But I think he had to say something dignified about Obama. There has to be a lot of denial going on to function as he does.


Washington, D.C.: Why did Bush and Cheney think it was okay to lie to the American people about topics such as no chemicals and weapons in Iraq, "we don't torture" (yet they did), and spying on Americans (which they did)? Why did they think they could get away with this behavior?

Russ Baker: They thought it was okay to lie because lies often work. To this day, many Americans remain convinced that Bush-Cheney were telling the truth, and that if they weren't, they were lying in the public interest. It is the responsibility of the media to establish as conclusively as possible what the administration really knew about the weapons, and about why they made the claims they did. There is far too much focus on what is said, rather than on what actually took place.


Las Vegas, Nev.: In your opinion, why did the American people re-elect President Bush after it became apparent that he was disengaged from the actual responsibilities that an American president has? In my opinion, the emperor had no clothes.

Russ Baker: I attribute that almost exclusively to the very successful effort to tarnish John Kerry and divert the media from inquiring into Bush's missing military service years with the CBS News brouhaha. It was a brilliant example of moving the public's eye off the ball: which should have been the Iraq deception. Bush's disengagement was less of an issue -- Ike and other presidents were not especially engaged.


Arlington, Va.: Mr. Baker -- Bush and Cheney apparently believe that they will be viewed favorably by future historians. My guess is that their legacy will improve considerably once the US oil companies, ExxonMobil and Chevron, obtain long-term leases in the large northern Iraqi oilfields. (BP will get the Basra-area leases, but the French and Russian companies likely will be disappointed.) This appears to be what Bush and Cheney are counting on to provide the basis for a positive legacy. What do you think?

Russ Baker: Certainly, Iraq was all about oil from the get-go. Whether posterity will smile on this kind of resource-grab, especially one that benefits their key backers, remains to be seen. Certainly, a more enlightened energy policy would have gone much further with the American public, and world opinion.


Richmond, Va.: Do you really think the last-minute spin machine interviews by Bush, Cheney and top White House officials will really change the way we and history will judge him?

I hope not. If there is anything we need to remember, it is what our non-participation and not letting our voices be heard to correct our path has done to our country.

We need to listen closely and support Obama when he is right. We need to speak loudly when we disagree. He promised us he will listen.

Russ Baker: I think they are giving it their best shot, but the smoke machine is completely exhausted. Nevertheless, there will always be a few people who need only the smallest morsel tossed their way to stay on board.

I agree that part of the problem has been public disengagement from the affairs of our country. We can see the consequences of not paying adequate attention.

With Obama, we certainly need to do a better job of holding him accountable than we did Bush. If he fulfills even a fraction of the promises he has made, some public faith in government will be restored.


Wye River, Md.: As a conservative, I find one of the legacies of the Bush-Cheney years is that they have discredited conservatism without governing as conservatives. Is Bush obtuse to what he has done to conservatism or does he not care? As for the more analytical Cheney, does he comprehend how the Bush legacy has politically damaged conservatism?

Russ Baker: I would question whether either man was a real conservative. They are, more accurately, corporatists, and comfortable with tilting the playing field for their friends. Real conservatives are highly principled, and believe in a fair shake based on performance. What we have seen, time and again, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina response and elsewhere was that their friends and cronies got contracts, then ended up overbilling and doing a poor job.


Cincinnati, Ohio: Wonderful book so far. So much of this needs to come out.

My question: though W. leaves office soon, will the Bush family still make money in Iraq through contracts awarded to friends and family-connected companies?

I have longed suspected the families investment in companies that have secured billions in Iraq and Afghanistan contracts.

Thanks again for a wonderful book.

Russ Baker: As I suggest in Family of Secrets, I don't see the Bushes as principally driven by monetary motivations. Through many generations, they have shown themselves to be eager soldiers for a narrow sliver of interests in oil, finance and intelligence. But it isn't just about personal enrichment. There is a deep mindset of cultural superiority and a sense of knowing better than "ordinary folks" how to save civilization.


New York : The Bush Legacy? That's ridiculously easy. Bush did the impossible: He made Clinton look like a great president and the 90's look like The Age of Pericles. God willing, we'll never ever have so disengaged, intellectually un-curious, and superficial a person elected president again. The wide-spread repugnance that attended the nomination of Palin is a good sign in that direction. The majority of voters last year had learned from experience that we cannot accept this concept of "leadership" again. You can't exercise world leadership with leaders who don't want to know anything about the world and who are proud of their ignorance. Lesson learned, expensively.

Russ Baker: Well, I agree with you to an extent. Certainly, he was incurious and poorly informed. But the real story is that of the big money that wanted such a person in power in the first place -- and why. The people who made his rise possible knew exactly what they were foisting on the world, and completely untroubled by it. Though to be fair, they may not have foreseen how it would play out, especially given things like 9/11 and Katrina.


Arlington, Va.: The Bush "legacy" can be summed up in a few choice photo-ops: reading "My Pet Goat" down in Florida when hearing about the planes hitting the towers; the "Mission Accomplished" banner on the aircraft carrier; and goofing off in Crawford and delivering a birthday cake to John McCain while New Orleans drowned. Everything else is just gravy on top of that.

Russ Baker: I would emphatically disagree. That's all surface material. During the five years I spent investigating the people and factors behind the rise of the Bush dynasty for my book Family of Secrets, I found a much more profound explanation of the motivations at work. It's complicated -- and deep.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Among the major legacies of the Bush II administration is their systematic assault on science. George W. Bush's political appointees altered or changed professional staff opinions to water down regulations on mercury contamination, block stem cell research, and deny global warming, among others. What are the factors in W.'s background that helps to explain his drive to pervert science?

Russ Baker: I don't think there was any real drive on Bush's part to "pervert" science. But when one is so single-mindedly devoted to advancing both a corporate agenda and doing things that play to a political base with animosity to science, science itself just doesn't get the consideration. Also, I suspect that the ideologues and p.r. flacks the administration placed in nearly every agency were just completely blind to the urgent need for responsible policy. Kind of a "not in my backyard" mentality, where you only worry about your own well being poisoned.


Raleigh, N.C.: Jimmy Carter is a good example of a president who revived his career and standing after leaving the White House. Reagan is pretty much the opposite. Where do you see Bush II ending up on this scale?

Russ Baker: This is one presidency that will need an enormous assist -- from where, I cannot imagine -- in order to rescue its place in history. I think the mountain of revelations will only grow, and that we will not see his standing improve. But never know.


Orlando, Fla.: What do you think economic and political historians will think of President Bush's decreasing taxes in 2002 while increasing spending on prescription pharmaceuticals and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Russ Baker: Tax cuts are so often cynical ploys. They basically buy votes, but they don't usually place enough money in any of our pockets to meaningfully change our lives. And he was so focused on returning cash to those who need it least. When you couple the tax cuts with the increase in spending, you obviously have a prescription...for disaster.


Minneapolis: Hi Russ -- Thanks for taking questions today. Maybe it's just me, but I not only have "Bush fatigue," I have "Bush goodbye fatigue." Have we always had these endless valedictories and post-mortems when a president leaves office, or is this a special case?

Russ Baker: Well, how surprising is it, really, that the empty goodbye exercise seems to warrant more energy than digging into the real events of the administration itself? We are a country that loves its spectacles. This is nothing new.


Orlando, Fla.: What were the major policy differences between devotees of the foreign policy philosophies of George H.W. Bush and the neo-conservative movement that changed many of these policies under George W. Bush?

Russ Baker: Bush 41 and his crowd were more oriented toward the behind-the-scenes style. The son was bumptious, loved to charge in like the bull in the china shop he was. But substantively, I believe that father and son, and their associates, all share general orientation toward resource extraction around the world -- oil, gold, what have you. Keep the military contracting budget large. Main difference between the so-called "traders" and the "warriors" is one of execution. But the father was inconsistent, shifting over his career from one camp to another and back.


Republican disappointment: As a Republican (albeit a moderate one), I find it disheartening that a Republican leaves office with a legacy of too much government interferance. Typically this is a complaint that conservatives have over liberals, but in this case, clearly the outgoing government enacted a systemic disregard for personal privacy. From wiretapping to unreasonable search and seizure to violating personal rights in prisons and Gitmo, this presidency leaves a very sour taste in the mouth of even some conservatives. I agree with Weingarten that Bush leaves office as one of the five weakest presidents ever and that time will not change that as it has with a couple of other former presidents.

Russ Baker: This is a selective kind of government interference -- doing something when it is not clearly in public interest (spying domestically), and doing nothing when it is (i.e. Katrina response, regulating pollution, overseeing Wall Street products, etc.)


Orlando, Fla.: How strong an adviser was Cheney? Did Bush mostly accept Cheney's advice and recommendations, and do we know of many policy decisions made by Bush to which Cheney strongly objected?

Russ Baker: On this point, I will do a shout out to the Post's reporters, who really nailed Cheney's extraordinary influence and remarkable insistence on secrecy. Barton Gellman's book is especially good on this. I recall a few decisions that did not go Cheney's way, but only a few.


Cedar Falls, Iowa: Does George H.W. Bush really want to put Jeb in the White House in future times?

Russ Baker: Absolutely. One of the things that struck me most during my research for the book was the sense that the Bush family has had of itself as indispensable to the country. We see it in four generations. Even Jeb's son seems to be getting ready to run for office. As a presidential hopeful, I think Jeb will be perceived as much more acceptable and competent than his brother, though I do not see them differing substantively.


Temple, Texas: From what I read, it seems sales of your book are going well. What would you like to write about next?

Russ Baker: Just as I found that there were so many secrets to the rise of the Bushes that never came out, I am now wondering if there are not more profound explanations of the financial collapse. Perhaps I will take a look at that. But I also think there is more work to be done in building on the revelations in Family of Secrets.


Anonymous: When is the press going to take their responsibility for the free ride they gave Bush? I think they were afraid of him.

Russ Baker: The press never admits responsibility. It's not what we do.

Reporters certainly were intimidated by the Bush apparatus, which very deliberately sought to intimidate. Others felt compelled to prove that they were not liberals by going too hard on people like Gore and Kerry and way too easy on Bush. Apparently, the Bush handling of the press worked so well that the Obama people have expressed admiration, and hope in some ways to emulate the formidable Bush p.r. machine. Let's hope not.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Thanks a million for your courage and tenacity in writing this book. It is cogent. I've only read about a third, but I posted a few questions earlier today.

Russ Baker: Thanks. I appreciate it.


Asheville, N.C.: Has the issue of whether Bush entered the White House intending to "finish the job" his father began, in Iraq too, been solved?

Russ Baker: Yes. In my book, I interview Bush's ghostwriter Mickey Herskowitz. He tells me that back in 1999, when George W. Bush was still just a candidate for president, Bush told Herskowitz that the main objective he could think of for his presidency was....invading Iraq. He said that presidents needed to win small wars, to be seen as a commander in chief, in order to accrue "political capital" and pass their programs.


Sugar Loaf, N.Y.: I have always been troubled by the president belonging to a secret society. I have real problems understanding how a man can serve two masters for two perhaps different agenda. How can a person entrusted with the powers of the president be allowed to belong to any secret society, club, etc.? The fact that he refuses to talk about it because he says it's so secret I find troubling also. Can a president serve two masters?

Russ Baker: I don't think so. Personally, I abhor all secret societies, and would never belong to one. But I think it is especially important in a democracy that our leaders not have sworn their allegiance to parties and values unknown. Keep in mind that in 2004 both Bush AND Kerry were Skull and Bones men.


Alexandria, Va.: Bush pointed out, when asked about the economy, that he inherited an economy that was in recession. It seemed to me that he was implying that today's mess was more or less an inherited problem that he couldn't fix, not one of his own making. What is your take on his comment?

Russ Baker: A few seeds had already been planted, there was already troubling deregulation of complex financial products under Clinton and the tech bubble, but I think that most of today's financial problems are attributable to policies and approaches of the Bush administration.


The Real Legacy: I think the real legacy that Bush/Cheney left was a poisoned well for pretty much everyone under 30 who watched how they operated in the White House. We've learned things like, "If you're important enough, you're above the law," and "accepting responsibility for mistakes is for the weak." The sheer destruction of civic pride that Bush did, and Obama is working to restore, is the legacy they left.

Russ Baker: True. These are people who do not believe in doing the honorable thing and falling on your sword. It would do this country a lot of good to have a president who admits error and holds himself and his people accountable. Lets see what happens.


Orlando, Fla.: One of the last legacies of the Bush Administration will be the appointment of Chief Justice John Roberts in particular and federal judgeships in general. What is the legacy of the Bush judicial influence?

Russ Baker: Bush has profoundly remade the country through his judicial appointments. And I think we can see that the notion of judges being above ideology and truly open to evaluating things on a case by case basis is nonsense. The ability to appoint judges certainly added to the importance of the most recent election.


Guangzhou, China: I am a Chinese editor. I have the following questions about Bush. Thank you very much!

1. Is Bush a president of failure? If not, why?

2. What's Bush's legacy?

3. After ten years, how will American people think of Bush, do you think? What will historians say of Bush?

Russ Baker: Yes -- pretty profound failure. Staggering failure, really.

The legacy is one of taking a remarkable opportunity given to a most unlikely president and squandering it, plunging his country and the world into more turmoil than it was already in.

I cannot see any way that history will be kind to Bush.


Denver, Colo.: I am anxious to see what is officially written about this president on the official White House site. It'd be interesting to see how honest the paragraph(s) is and to compare the major points of accomplishments with that of Clinton's. It will be interesting. What do you think?

Russ Baker: It is always amusing to read the White House website. Good practice for writing childrens books.


Annandale, Va.: The president's greatest legacy is making Jimmy Carter look like a good president.

I didn't think that was possible.

Russ Baker: Carter was underrated, treated harshly by the media -- and to some extent set up by his enemies. I go into this a bit in the book.


Russ Baker: Thanks, everyone. This was fun.


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