Cullen Murphy and Todd S. Purdum, "Farewell to All That: An Oral History of the Bush White House," Vanity Fair, February, includes candid and devastating commentary from within the Bush administration. The AP covers it in Staff, "Ex-aides say Bush never recovered from Katrina," AP, 29 December.The article is chronological, beginning Jan. 20, 2001, and ending Nov. 4, 2008, but also topical, as the subhead indicates: "The threat of 9/11 ignored. The threat of Iraq hyped and manipulated. Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. Hurricane Katrina. The shredding of civil liberties. The rise of Iran. Global warming. Economic disaster. How did one two-term presidency go so wrong? A sweeping draft of history—distilled from scores of interviews—offers fresh insight into the roles of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and other key players." The authors are identified as Cullen Murphy, VF's editor-at-large and Todd S. Purdum, its national editor with help from Philippe Sands "an international lawyer at the firm Matrix Chambers and a professor at University College London," but there's no indication of the sources of the quotes which make up virtually all the content.
As you can tell from its title, the AP post highlights Katrina as the hinge which swung the administration from invincible to all but powerless. There's much else that interests however. The VF piece is all of 20,000 words and 14 web pages in extent.
My draw down from the piece is not the stumbles that brought down the Bush people, but rather their ambition to attain virtually unilateral rule and their skill in achieving this goal. The article reminds me how greatly this presidency dominated the government within the US and how greatly it dominated world affairs.
Some of the more interesting quotes concern the manipulation of Bush by his close associates, their single-minded obsession with power, and their elevation of political tactics above any national strategy. But about these things we already knew much and suspected more.
Here are some no-context quotes that I pull out for their intrinsic interest:
Right around the time people started saying there’s going to be a permanent Republican majority, God kinda goes, No, I really don’t think so.
The threat is greater today than it was on September the 11th.
Bush had a lot of .45-caliber instincts, cowboy instincts.
We made even more mistakes in Afghanistan than we did in Iraq.
You had a president who basically took until late 2006 to understand how much trouble he was in in Iraq and seems to have taken till late 2008 to understand how much trouble he was in in Afghanistan.
The Cheney team had technological supremacy over the National Security Council staff. That is to say, they could read their e-mails. I remember one particular member of the N.S.C. staff wouldn’t use e-mail because he knew they were reading it. He did a test case, kind of like the Midway battle, when we’d broken the Japanese code. He thought he’d broken the code, so he sent a test e-mail out that he knew would rile Scooter [Libby], and within an hour Scooter was in his office.
Religious conservatives and the Republican Party have always had a very uneasy relationship. The reality in the White House is—if you look at the most senior staff—you’re seeing people who aren’t personally religious and have no particular affection for people who are religious-right leaders.
[The Bush people arranged] a double win for the Chinese leaders: they obtained valuable political goodwill from the Bush administration, which translated into gains on the Taiwan issues, and they helped to ensure that American troops would remain bogged down in Iraq for a long time.
[Powell's] task became essentially cleaning the dogshit off the carpet in the Oval Office. And he did that rather well. But it became all-consuming.
Jay Garner, retired army general and first overseer of the U.S. administration and reconstruction of Iraq: When I went to see Rumsfeld at the end of January, I said, O.K., I’ll do this for the next few months for you. I said, you know, Let me tell you something, Mr. Secretary. George Marshall started in 1942 working on a 1945 problem. You’re starting in February working on what’s probably a March or April problem. And he said, I know, but we have to do the best with the time that we have. So that kind of frames everything.
September 15, 2002: In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, the assistant to the president for economic policy, Lawrence Lindsey, estimates the cost of a war with Iraq to be in the neighborhood of $100 billion to $200 billion. Mitch Daniels, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, quickly revises the figure downward to $50 billion to $60 billion, and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld calls Lindsey’s estimate “baloney.” Lindsey is fired in December. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill is dismissed the same day. Years later, an analysis by Nobel-laureate economist Joseph E. Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda J. Bilmes will estimate the cost of the Iraq war to be $3 trillion.
Ari Fleischer, Bush’s first White House press secretary: What happened was the president made the point to the staff that, if America ever goes to war, we go to war because it’s the right thing to do regardless of the cost. That is a moral issue, and so we should not be talking to anybody about how much it may or may not cost; the whole issue is, do you or don’t you go? And if you go, you pay whatever the cost is to win. The day the president dismissed Larry and Secretary O’Neill, I remember he said to me that he noticed that morning that everybody in the Situation Room was sitting up a bit straighter.
Lawrence Wilkerson, top aide and later chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell: We had this confluence of characters—and I use that term very carefully—that included people like Powell, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, and so forth, which allowed one perception to be “the dream team.” It allowed everybody to believe that this Sarah Palin–like president—because, let’s face it, that’s what he was—was going to be protected by this national-security elite, tested in the cauldrons of fire. What in effect happened was that a very astute, probably the most astute, bureaucratic entrepreneur I’ve ever run into in my life became the vice president of the United States.
He became vice president well before George Bush picked him. And he began to manipulate things from that point on, knowing that he was going to be able to convince this guy to pick him, knowing that he was then going to be able to wade into the vacuums that existed around George Bush—personality vacuum, character vacuum, details vacuum, experience vacuum.