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In April 1991, Patty Presock, Bush's secretary, reported to Burton Lee III, the White House physician, that Bush's handwriting had changed. The president's sleep patterns were erratic. He had lost 15 pounds. The next month, while jogging at Camp David, Bush had collapsed from shortness of breath. His heart was beating irregularly.
The diagnosis was Graves disease, an overactive thyroid. Bush had lost some of his zest and stamina. Fitzwater watched for any changes, knowing the press would notice them. He saw that Bush had some mood swings and was not as engaged in his presidency. The president kept delaying his decision to run for reelection in 1992.
After many delays and false starts, Bush decided to run. More than a year later, on July 24, 1992, amid the campaign, the president snapped at a heckler, "Shut up and sit down." Later that day campaigning in Ohio, Fitzwater was worried. Lee said Bush had had an irregular heart episode that morning. The doctor said he was having trouble regulating the president's medication. The dosage, he said, affected mental acuity.
Fitzwater was shocked. When Bush appeared looking terrible and pale, Fitzwater asked Bush's photographer what he was seeing. The photographer confirmed that the president seemed to be drained. Later Bush's shirt soaked through and his voice was weak.
When Fitzwater questioned Bush about his health, the president claimed everything was perfect. But the staff had to push the president, set up special meetings to get him focused. The more Bush denied any problem, the more Fitzwater and Lee realized it was real. The president eventually shut down on the topic and said he did not want to hear any more.
Barbara Bush, who also suffered from Graves' disease, was upset and angry. She faulted Lee for not getting on top of the problem and regulating her husband's medication more effectively.
Regardless of who was to blame, the drive and vitality went out of Bush and his presidency.
Scandals continued to plague the Bush administration during the fall election campaign. On Sunday, October 4, 1992, Newsweek disclosed that the FBI was investigating whether someone at the State Department had tampered with the passport files of Bill Clinton, the Democratic nominee. "For weeks news organizations have been chasing an unsubstantiated rumor that Clinton, as an anguished young Rhodes scholar, faced with the draft, considered applying for citizenship in some other country." Three news organizations had filed Freedom of Information Act requests seeking the file. "When State officials pulled Clinton's file late last week, they discovered that it had apparently been tampered with that several pages seemed to have been ripped out."
Bush dictated in his diary the next day that he was following stories about Clinton's anti-Vietnam protests. "According to the press," Bush dictated bitterly, "the debate on the draft, the lying and all of that have no bearing on the character issue."
Three days later, he dictated, "We cannot get this smoking gun on Clinton and his demonstrations, demonstrating against his country. There are all these rumors of him carrying a coffin. There are rumors that there was something in his State Department files that now apparently has been tampered with. All kinds of rumors as to who his hosts were in Russia, something he can't remember anything at all about. He hasn't come forward with his draft records and the press doesn't hone in on it. The press let up and they're not focusing on it, but I just can't help believe that the American people don't care about this."
Iran-contra would not go away. Independent counsel Walsh had indicted former secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger, but the judge in the case ruled that the indictment was technically flawed and demanded a proper re-indictment within the next month.
Walsh decided to include specific quotes from Weinberger's notes that had recently been discovered. One note recounted a January 7, 1986, meeting when President Reagan approved a large sale of arms to Iran "in return" for hostages. Weinberger's notes stated that he and Secretary of State Shultz "opposed," and then the notes said of Bush, "VP favored."
For five years Bush had denied that he was fully aware of the intensity and extent of the Weinberger-Shultz opposition, and had made general claims that he was "out of the loop."
On Friday morning, October 30, the Bush campaign daily tracking poll had the race a dead heat at 39 percent for Clinton, 39 percent for Bush and 12 percent for independent candidate Ross Perot. That afternoon, Walsh's grand jury voted the new indictment of Weinberger. The first wire story came out about 1 p.m.
Most news organizations have a strong policy against publishing or airing new issues or charges in the final days of a campaign. But the Weinberger re-indictment was an official grand jury action, and the "VP favored" was technically new. It was the first documented evidence that Bush had known the arms were a direct exchange for hostages and that Bush had been privy to the strong opposition of Weinberger and Shultz.
Clinton's running mate, Al Gore, jumped on the issue and used a Watergate analogy, calling it "a true smoking gun."
Bush was on a campaign train in Wisconsin the next day. His daily tracking poll was a shock. Clinton was still at 39 percent, but Bush had dropped 7 percentage points to 32 percent with those 7 points going straight to Perot, putting the Texas billionaire at 19. It happened to be Halloween. When Bush stopped in Chippewa Falls, a single-engine plane circled overhead with a fluttering banner streaking behind: "Iran-Contra Haunts You."
The president nearly flew off his hinges. "Today is Halloween, our opponents' favorite holiday," Bush declared to the crowd. "They're trying to scare America." If Clinton was elected, Bush said, "every day is going to be Halloween. Fright and terror!"
In Oshkosh, the president shouted, "Fright and terror! Witches and devils everywhere!"
A radio reporter asked Bush what he thought about the large and enthusiastic crowds. "Great!" Bush said, "I've only been mooned once!"
The next day, Sunday, November 1, Bush told CNN, "I think most people concede that the media has been very unfair." The president returned to the news coverage later. "I think the press has been the worst it's ever been, ever!"
On Tuesday, November 3, Clinton won the presidency with 43 percent to Bush's 38. Ross Perot took 19 percent of the vote. The next day a defeated Bush returned to the White House, where he was greeted by more than 1,000 supporters, Cabinet members and staff watching in a drizzle. "Let's finish this job with style," the president said in brief remarks, standing without a coat on a platform on the South Lawn.
As he walked into the White House, he spotted Attorney General William Barr in the crowd. With an index finger motion of "follow me," the president summoned Barr to the Oval Office. When they were alone, Bush exploded about the Weinberger re-indictment. "It appears this was very political!" he bellowed, following up with a string of very pungent remarks. "Cost me the election," he said furiously.
Barr said he thought the re-indictment was a crude political act with a political motive. Career Justice Department prosecutors would never bring out controversial information in an indictment just before an election. Barr said he wanted to dismiss Walsh. He knew the law well. He could remove Walsh for "misconduct."
"Walsh has abused his power!" Bush said, inviting the attorney general to fire Walsh. "I've had an itchy finger," Barr replied. During the previous 18 months, he had been tempted. The most recent outrage only renewed his interest. He said he had asked himself, "What is the standard that applies to this guy?"
He had consulted his most trusted and confidential advisers in the department. They worried that if Barr terminated Walsh, there would be a new firestorm. Because Walsh was appointed under the independent counsel law, Barr said, the courts would replace him with another person. The investigation would continue.
Neither man had to mention the obvious alternative: a presidential pardon for Weinberger.
Two weeks later, on Friday, November 20, James Baker, now the White House chief of staff, came to see Bush in the president's private study off the Oval Office. Baker was depressed about the passport matter. He had encouraged the release of Clinton's passport information before the election. He told the president that his career was ending in embarrassment. "Who needs this?" Baker said. He did not want to tarnish the president. Baker then took out a long letter of resignation and read it aloud. The passport matter was a blot on himself, on the president, and on the entire administration, Baker said.
Bush saw that the magnitude of the loss of the presidency was taking an emotional toll on Baker. He told Baker where he could stick his resignation. This was crazy and out of proportion. Baker was overly worried about perceptions and the news media and was torturing himself for no reason.
"Jim Baker is still all uptight about the passport mess and there is nothing else that he can think of," Bush dictated on December 9. On December 15, Bush dictated, "Jim Baker has lost all interest in what's going on at the White House. There isn't much for him to do and he's worried about this passport deal still. He's got a lawyer, and the lawyer tells him that they can't find anything that he could even be charged with.... He seems somewhat relieved but still totally preoccupied."
Bush noted that Baker was working with him on some speeches. "But his heart isn't in any of that. It's just gone. He wanted to leave but doesn't feel he can as long as this passport is beeping along out there."
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