Barack Obama’s attendance at a private dinner party for conservative pundits suggests that he will be successful at taming Washington, a feat that eluded George Bush.
The dinner, at the Chevy Chase, Md., home of George Will, included Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Larry Kudlow, David Brooks, Rich Lowry, Peggy Noonan, Michael Barone, and Paul Gigot.
Barone of U.S. News and World Report described Obama afterwards as “an attractive person in a small setting. It’s harder to hate someone you’ve had close contact with and who has pleasant characteristics.”
Those who have spent time with Bush in intimate settings have a similar reaction. But unlike most presidents, Bush shunned the Washington social scene. Instead, he socialized with close friends who go back decades.
For my books on George and Laura Bush, I have interviewed nearly all those friends. I have never met finer, smarter, classier people. But by limiting himself to longtime buddies, Bush failed to take advantage of the greatest motivator a president can bestow: access.
Being able to say you had dinner with the president is an ego trip. And if you want to be invited back, you may think twice about knocking the guest of honor.
Ronald Reagan understood that. He once attended an annual party given by the Kennedy clan at Ethel Kennedy’s Hickory Hill home. According to Dave Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, the Kennedys never thought he would show up and were amazed when he did. Reagan gave a toast that had them in tears.
“Obama is smart on one level to take advantage of the political capital and good will that he has now,” Brian Jones, who was director of communications for the Republican National Committee under Bush, tells me. “But I think it’s also smart to reach across the aisle to people who maybe won’t be his pure ally but maybe will understand a little bit more where he’s coming from. It’s Washington 101.”
Bush’s buttoned-up approach extended to Congress, the press, and his conservative base. Early on, Bush invited Ted Kennedy and other members of Congress in for movies or drinks about once a month, and Bush attended a party given by Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post. But that sort of socializing with the Washington establishment did not continue.
“Members of Congress never said, ‘I’ll vote for Medicare if I get an invitation to dinner,’ but they are human, and those perks help to develop loyalty,” says David Fuller Holt, a former legislative aide in the Bush White House.
When it came to the press, Dan Bartlett, who was in charge of White House communications as counselor to President Bush, explained to me that Bush’s approach was to present his message publicly in speeches and at news conferences.
Bush saw himself as a CEO whose agenda would be undercut if subjected to the constant leaks that occurred when his father was president. So with the press, the White House became known as a tight-lipped operation, often unwilling to feed reporters even harmless tidbits that would make their stories more colorful.
Even hostile reporters find it harder to write slanted stories if they are receiving cooperation in obtaining behind-the-scenes vignettes or interviews. If they are not fed stories and leaks, they may look to the administration’s enemies for their material, as I know having been a Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reporter. Obama’s recent visit to The Washington Post to meet with reporters and editors — something Bush never did — is another example of his adroitness at generating goodwill.
Without excusing reporters who wrote slanted stories, Bush’s closed or “disciplined” approach to the press led to many of the myths about him and undercut his support and approval ratings. That in turn undermined his ability to further his agenda. In the last days of the administration, Dana Perino, press secretary, struggled to give reporters more access and help, but by then their story line had been set.
Yet in the sweep of history, little of this will matter because Bush did the most important thing of all: He kept us safe.
Many have claimed the fact we have not had another attack since 9/11 was an accident. They are wrong. The reason we have not had another attack is the sweeping changes Bush instigated in the intelligence community and the work of the FBI, the CIA, and our military under Bush’s direction.
Bush made the FBI become 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.
His 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. And the National Security Agency (NSA) intercepts he ordered opened a window for the FBI on terrorist activity within the U.S.
Overall, since 9/11, the FBI, the CIA, and the military have 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.
When the media and politicians run out of ways to deny Bush credit for making us safer, they will claim that al-Qaida has chosen to space out its attacks. But al-Qaida’s attempt to blow up nine American airliners crossing the Atlantic in 2006 is a reminder that al-Qaida is constantly on the attack.
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. After all the fulminating about the administration allegedly “spying on innocent Americans,” the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review recently ruled that warrantless intercepts involving overseas calls are constitutional.
Beyond stopping further attacks, Bush took down a man who killed 300,000 people. As recounted in my book “The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack,” Saddam Hussein confessed to FBI agent George Piro that until he was deposed, he was planning to resume his weapons of mass destruction program, including developing a nuclear weapon, within a year. [Editor's Note: Get Ron Kessler's book. Go here now.]
To be sure, Bush did not ensure that the Iraq war was prosecuted correctly after the invasion. But he then had the courage to turn things around with the surge.
While the economy imploded under Bush, the truth is that presidents have little influence on economic conditions. Almost since taking office, Bush warned about the need to bring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac under control. He introduced legislation to do so. Each time, Democrats and Republicans in Congress rejected the measures. Ultimately, he took bold action to help fix the financial meltdown.
Because of the $15 billion Bush sent to combat AIDS, deaths in Africa are down dramatically. For that reason, despite claims that America’s moral standing in the world has eroded, Bush’s approval rating in African countries stands at 80 percent or higher.
Finally, Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act helped to reintroduce the use of phonics — sounding out letters — to reading instruction. Now tests are reporting significant improvement in reading scores throughout the nation. In some areas, the achievement gap between black and white students has been cut in half.
For better or worse, Bush’s disinclination to tout himself or glad hand goes back to his upbringing in Midland, Texas, where boasting is close to sinful and forging friendships to promote an agenda is considered pandering. Only in his final press conference and exit interviews did Bush begin to loosen up and come across a bit closer to the way he is in private.
Between my books and articles, I have written more positive material about Bush and the first lady than any other journalist. As a result, I have lost some so-called friends. I do not regret a word I wrote.
Just as Ronald Reagan was portrayed in the media as a fool and is now recognized for having been instrumental in ending the Cold War, I firmly believe Bush one day will be seen as a great president and a heroic figure. Moreover, having been given access to Bush’s personal side, I know him to be an exceptionally decent, honorable man who is devoted to his country. I only wish that he had taken more advantage of his own natural gifts.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
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