Hell of a Ride, by John Podhoretz
Hell of a Ride: Backstage at the White House Follies 1989-1993.
by John Podhoretz.
Simon & Schuster. 249 pp. $21.00.
There is no point trying to be solemn about Hell of a Ride. It is a very funny book about the political demise of President George Bush and his administration, and to opine at length on its implications for the future of democratic governance would only make one sound like the most pompous of the fools whom John Podhoretz skewers here.
Podhoretz is, of course, the son of COMMENTARY’s editor-in-chief. Moreover, many of the characters in the book are friends, acquaintances, or ideological antagonists of this reviewer. The whole arrangement thus amounts to a civil-service reformer’s nightmare of putative bias and conflict of interest; which adds to the pleasure of the task.
Hell of a Ride is serious and comic by turns. Half the chapters are more or less chronological, taking the reader from the end of the Gulf war in 1991, when President Bush’s popular-approval rating stood at a seemingly invincible 91 percent, to his humiliating defeat a mere year-and-a-half later in the election of 1992. More originally, Podhoretz alternates these chapters with eight “Freeze Frames,” as he calls them, each written from a point of view inside the head of a slightly disguised Bush staffer. Some of these relatively junior staffers he interviewed, while others were friends who had been confiding in him and/or crying on his shoulder as they watched Bush slipping and their own future prospects growing dimmer and dimmer. (Podhoretz himself, though he had been a speechwriter in the Reagan White House, and served on the staff of William J. Bennett when the latter was Bush’s drug czar, never worked directly for Bush.)
The serious part of the book is illuminating. Podhoretz, with great vividness, describes a White House that was, in part, like every other White House. Lower-ranking officials felt privileged to be inside the charmed political circle but were keenly aware of how far they sat from the true centers of influence. Junior staffers, insulated from the political mood of the country as a whole, occupied their time waging their bosses’ power struggles. Instead of sharing information about what was going on, they used what they knew as weaponry in the bureaucratic wars. As for the “ideas” people, such as the speechwriters, they were locked in poisonous combat with other officials who believed that not words but money, media, and organization were the keys to politics.
All that sounds familiar enough. But, in Podhoretz’s telling, the Bush White House was, in several important ways, very different from the operations run by other Presidents, and especially by Bush’s predecessor, Ronald Reagan.
The few Reaganites who remained on the Bush senior staff were there because they had longstanding personal connections to the new President. A larger part of the staff was composed of protégés of Bush’s many friends and congressional allies. Most numerous of all were ex-Bush campaign workers.
These “Bushies” were by no means the same human types as their Reaganite counterparts. In particular, they were not an ideological band of brothers; as one Bush official famously remarked, “Our people don’t have ideology; they have mortgages.” As a result, Podhoretz says, the Bush White House was swamped by mediocrity.
The Bush White House was also more tightly run than Reagan’s. Bush hated leaks passionately; he fought them partly by allowing very few officials into the decision-making loop. When a leak did occur, there would be a systematic hunt for it. Naturally, the flow of unauthorized information soon slowed to a trickle.
Bush thereby missed the chance to test reactions to his policies on an informal basis before they became graven in official stone. The lack of advance warning also made it hard to get press coverage for policies when they did emerge from the White House.
Even worse than this airlessness, in Podhoretz’s view, was that no one in the administration, including the President himself, had a clue to the role of ideas and popular leadership in building and sustaining presidential power.
After the Gulf war, the then-chief of staff, John Sununu, refused to put the President’s popularity to use in the service of conservative policies. As the economy worsened, administration officials like Jack Kemp, Bush’s HUD Secretary, wanted to challenge Congress to pass “growth legislation,” but the President had a real distaste for Kemp and other idea-driven political figures.
Bush not only hated ideological enthusiasm but, in Podhoretz’s account, had no ideological center himself. One result of this emptiness was to make the White House decision process excruciatingly lengthy. When, for instance, the state of Oregon asked for a Medicaid waiver in order to test a health plan that would have refused care to some high-risk patients, the staff argued about it for months. No one seemed to know, or to think it pertinent to find out, what Bush himself thought on the subject.
Then, inevitably, it came time to rev up Bush’s reelection effort. Presidential pollster Robert Teeter gave the speechwriters a campaign chart, which included a box labeled “Theme/Slogan/ Name.” There was nothing written in the box; the hitherto-despised speechwriters were supposed to fill it in. But it was much too late.
As they haplessly muse upon their fate, the Bushies in Podhoretz’s “Freeze Frames” manage to keep their sense of the ironic and the bizarre. “You,” one of them says to himself resignedly, “were born Republican in the same way as you were born Caucasian.” About his first meeting with George Bush, this staffer recalls nostalgically, “His face lit up when he heard your grandmother’s name.” Another of Podhoretz’s overworked and underslept White House aides describes what it feels like to be “a casual visitor to your own private life.” Yet another brings us greetings from Houston in 1992, “the first fully cellular convention,” where one operative, surrounded by the din of the Republican convention floor and unable to get the attention of another staffer ten feet away, phones the guy, cellular to cellular, and tells him to turn around.
As might be expected, Podhoretz in this book has his friends and his enemies. But he is unexpectedly dispassionate in describing both. He tells how the Bushies worked to expunge Reaganism from the White House—but also notes that when Reaganites complained about Bush’s treatment of the ex-President, they were in part using the Old Man as a cover for their own wounded pride.
Similarly, Podhoretz excoriates Bush’s budget director, Richard Darman, for luring the President into a disastrous budget deal and for being personally abusive. “But,” Podhoretz allows, “Darman was not evil. And he was one of the few people around who knew what they were doing.” When it comes to John Sununu, Podhoretz blames him for much that went wrong in the Bush White House, but also says: “If you were good at your job and followed instructions, he was nice to you, and thoughtful.” As Podhoretz pointedly remarks, the allegations of financial irregularity that drove Sununu from office were unfair even by the generally beastly standards of Washington.
And what of George Bush himself? Podhoretz portrays him as strangely solipsistic, unable to embrace any idea larger than himself even when his political life depended on it. Speaking to a crowd at the campaign’s end, Bush mistakenly read aloud his stage directions: “Message: I care.” In Podhoretz’s telling, this embarrassment was wholly typical of Bush’s ineptness in any but the most personal sort of politics. The President’s notes and personal courtesies were “the truest and best side of his character”—but politically, Bush accomplished what even the Democrats could not: “delegitimating Reaganism in the eyes of the American people.”
Podhoretz’s book is of course not altogether fair. After all, Bush did provide a high-level home for Constance Horner, William Kristol, Richard Cheney, and a score of other officials of whom Podhoretz very much approves. So, too, Chase Untermeyer, the administration’s first personnel director and a man whom Podhoretz calls the “ultimate Bushie,” chose to move from the White House to head the Voice of America—that shrine to words—and did a very good job there.
More generally, so many factors worked to seal the fate of the Bush administration that we will never know upon whom or what to place the greatest blame. How much was due to the President’s personal limitations? How much to the temporary exhaustion of a political idea after a decade of hard use, and a parallel exhaustion of enthusiasm and quality among Republicans? How much to a postwar national restlessness, of the type that once succeeded in driving even Winston Churchill from office?
Regimes that come to power on the flood tide of an idea bestow power and prestige on the makers of speeches; the regimes that follow them, which have the harder job of conserving a political legacy, confer power on technicians. Among the many limits of such conservators is their failure to understand that the scribblers always have the last word.
Still, Podhoretz did not set out to be fair. He set out first to show how working in the White House—any White House—looks from the inside, and then to give an accurate sense of what it was like to be in that place at one highly particular moment in American political history. He has done both, in spades, while delivering numerous laughs along the way.