Secret Service agents, White House aides, and friends of President Bush were always struck by the difference between the Bush they saw at his press conferences and the person they knew.
In press conferences, Bush was stiff, closed, and combative. He often mangled his words.
The real Bush was just the opposite: In a small group, he was candid, articulate, and displayed a mastery of the issues.
In his book “Decision Points,” the real Bush comes out.
Bush’s memoirs include the requisite number of newsy items: Bush considered dropping Dick Cheney from the ticket in 2004. Cheney gave a biting response when Bush informed him he would not pardon his chief of staff, Scooter Libby. Bush felt “sick” when he realized no WMD would be found in Iraq.
At one point, sensors detected what was thought to be a possible botulinum toxin attack on the White House. Observations by Clay Johnson, Bush’s high school friend and later White House personnel director, led Bush to accept Andy Card’s offer to resign as chief of staff.
Bush acknowledges obvious mistakes: Doing an Air Force One fly-over of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Standing in front of a banner that said “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. Failing to recognize the pitfalls in nominating Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.
But what is far more revealing is the character of the man, the thinking behind his decisions, and his command of the issues as revealed in the engrossing pages of this book. When Laura asked if he could remember the last day he hadn’t had a drink, he got her point and soon gave up drinking.
“Quitting drinking was one of the toughest decisions I have ever made,” Bush writes. “Without it, none of the others that follow in this book would have been possible.”
While President Obama has made criticizing his predecessor into a cottage industry, Bush never says a negative word about him. In contrast to Obama, who unleashed the Justice Department on CIA officers who followed instructions to use enhanced interrogation techniques, Bush says he did not want to criticize “the hardworking patriots at the CIA for the faulty intelligence on Iraq.”
Bush’s character, in turn, enabled him to take the bold steps needed to prevent another attack. That included approving waterboarding, which elicited information that led to plots being rolled up. That included taking out Saddam Hussein, who would be threatening the U.S. today and murdering innocent Iraqis if he were still in power.
Bush fails to mention that in seven months of secret debriefings after his capture, Saddam admitted to FBI agent George Piro that he faked having weapons of mass destruction when he was in power but had planned on developing a WMD program with nuclear capability within a year.
For my book “The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to the Next Attack,” Piro described the debriefings, which had never been previously revealed.
Many think the fact that we have not had a successful attack since 9/11 is an accident or luck. They are wrong. The reason we have not had a successful attack is the infrastructure Bush put in place to detect plots and the hard work of the men and women of the FBI and CIA.
Bush made the FBI more prevention-oriented. In 2005, he established the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Va., where 200 analysts from the CIA and FBI sit side by side analyzing threats 24 hours a day.
Secure video conferences three times a day include representatives from all parts of the intelligence community and the White House, analyzing threats and parceling out leads.
Bush’s Patriot Act tore down the so-called wall that Attorney General Janet Reno imposed, a wall that prevented FBI agents from sharing information with each other and with the CIA.
Much maligned in the media, the act allowed the FBI to wiretap terrorists, regardless of what phones they happen to use, as the FBI already was doing in organized crime cases.
After 9/11, the FBI, the CIA, and the military rolled up about 5,000 terrorists worldwide. Every few months, the FBI announces new arrests of terrorists. Thus, many plots are never hatched because terrorists have been killed, arrested, or sent back to their own countries and imprisoned.
For all the talk about Bush excesses, the fact is that no abuse — meaning an illegal act for political or improper purposes — has been found.
Instead of hailing the efforts to connect the dots, the media demonized Bush and those who are trying to protect us, portraying the tools that uncover clues to plots as “spying on innocent Americans.” When a plot is quashed, the media have minimized it, relegating arrests to newspapers’ back pages.
In my view, Bush’s tight press policy, especially early on, was one of his greatest mistakes. It contributed to the media’s hostility toward him, helping to propagate myths about him and the war on terror, undermining his agenda.
The Bush approach, as explained to me by Bush counselor Dan Bartlett for my book “A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush,” was to present his message publicly in speeches and press conferences.
Bush saw himself as a CEO whose agenda would be undercut by the constant leaks that occurred when his father was president. He considered talking about his personal life and thinking to be pandering. So when it came to the press, the White House was known as a buttoned-down operation, often unwilling to feed reporters even harmless tidbits that would make their stories more colorful and make them want to come back for more.
But in the sweep of history, Bush will be remembered for one thing: He kept us safe. “On 9/11, I vowed that I would do what it took to protect America, within the Constitution and laws of our nation,” he writes. “History can debate the decisions I made, the policies I chose, and the tools I left behind. But there can be no debate about one fact: After the nightmare of Sept. 11, America went seven and a half years without another successful terrorist attack on our soil. If I had to summarize my most meaningful accomplishment as president in one sentence, that would be it.”
As for Bush’s fiscal record, as he points out, the deficit as a percentage of GDP during his administration was two percent, below the average during the previous 50 years and below the averages of his recent predecessors.
Just as Ronald Reagan was portrayed by the media as a fool and is now recognized for having been instrumental in ending the Cold War, I believe Bush one day will be seen as a great president.
He may have done it his way, but it was the right way.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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