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A future American history exam will ask students to recall a U.S. president who relied heavily on the political intelligence-gathering and counsel of one or more of his adult children. This president bypassed the foreign policy and diplomatic bureaucracy and practiced a notably personal style of international dealmaking. He also invested what some considered an inordinate amount of trust in his direct relationship with a controversial Saudi Arabian sheikh and the strategic importance of the Desert Kingdom’s oil resources.
One acceptable answer would be Franklin Roosevelt. The White House during his era had no one styled “chief of staff.” Jefferson’s White House with Meriwether Lewis, and Lincoln’s with John Hay, had top aides known as “private secretary” or a similar title. For part of FDR’s presidency, his de facto chief of staff was his eldest son James, snarkily described by Henry Luce’s Time magazine in 1938 as the “Assistant President of the United States.”
FDR famously conducted direct diplomacy with Churchill and Stalin to guide the Allies to victory over Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. His personal chemistry and understandings with the British statesman and the Soviet dictator were essential both to the war’s success and to negotiating the tragic era of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe following the war.
After the fateful February 1945 summit with Churchill and Stalin in Yalta, Roosevelt flew from the Crimea to the Suez Canal, where the Navy’s U.S.S. Quincy served as his floating Oval Office. There he met with the founder of the current Saudi Arabian dynasty, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud. The Saudi monarch and FDR made an agreement—still in force today—providing U.S. security assurances to Saudi Arabia in exchange for access to the kingdom’s abundant oil resources.
Of course, FDR was probably not the president most readers had in mind. The answer that probably came first to mind is Donald Trump. Anyone who knows anything about the politics of the moment is familiar with the diplomatic and White House staff preeminence of Jared Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump. The first son-in-law, a New York City real estate magnate in his own right, was indispensable in negotiating a new United States-Mexico-Canada agreement on trade. He also is the principal interlocutor between the Trump Administration and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, a grandson of FDR’s counterpart.
Yet another correct answer, and a timely one this week, is George Herbert Walker Bush.
Fascinating Parallels—and a Story Never Before Told
As much as the Republican NeverTrump faction, in concert with the Democrats, wants us to think otherwise, there are important similarities between the context, goals, and methods of the Bush 41 White House and those of Donald Trump’s administration.
Like Trump, the Bushes trust blood relatives above all others. During the 1988 and 1992 campaigns, Jeb Bush led the family’s Florida organization. He also was an essential advisor to his father on many matters of policy, notably U.S.-Latin American relations.
And speaking of the Bush family, during the 1988 campaign I paid a brief visit to a tiny, closet-sized office with army-surplus or worse furnishings in the then-decrepit old Woodward Building on Washington’s 15th street—low-budget real estate rented to house the Bush presidential campaign headquarters. There I had a direct interaction with an intense, scowling 42-year-old entrusted with what might be called the counterintelligence function of the Bush operation. This is a story I’ve never made public before, but now that all of the older generation of protagonists have died, I’ll do so.
A Republican fundraiser of my acquaintance arranged and brought me to the meeting. At the time I was working as a Reagan appointee in the State Department for that building’s strongest advocate of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, retired General Edward Rowny. Like Lincoln, Reagan had a national security cabinet of rivals. Rowny’s principal rival was the wealthy, urbane Paul Nitze, a Cold War Democrat who had been an architect of the reorganization of the U.S. national security bureaucracy and the containment strategy under President Truman. He was the crème de la crème of Washington High Society.
A Cold War Democrat critic of President Jimmy Carter’s failed SALT II arms control treaty with the Soviets, Nitze accepted an appointment at the beginning of the Reagan Administration, in parallel with Rowny, as a senior negotiator and advisor.
By 1988, Nitze was constantly to the left of Rowny’s policy positions, which were in line with those of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. Nitze wanted to make more concessions to the Soviets, and he disconcerted missile defense stalwarts with hints he kept dropping that SDI perhaps could be negotiated away as a bargaining chip.
One day a fellow staff member of mine reported he had attended, not as a partisan but as a foreign policy professional, a public speech in Washington on national security policy by Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. He reported that Nitze—once and always a Democrat—was at the front of the audience applauding Dukakis enthusiastically. Nitze was at that time a serving ambassador-at-large in the Reagan-Bush administration.
With Rowny’s permission, I looked for a way to get this piece of information to the Bush campaign. Within very short order, I was escorted into the cramped little office in the Woodward Building. There sat a not very friendly young man who, maybe just because the room was so small, did not rise from his chair. His name was George W. Bush. I stood there for a moment and passed along my tidbit. His eyes, already intense, narrowed.
“Is that right?” he glowered.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
He thanked me and I walked back out to 15th Street.
A few months later, following Bush’s election victory over Dukakis, Rowny was one of the few Reagan arms control experts asked to remain in post under the new president. Nitze was not. (It came to pass that Rowny’s counsel was never valued by President Bush or Secretary of State Baker as it had been by President Reagan, and Rowny resigned out of frustration after a year and a half of trying to make the relationship work.)
The point of the story, anyway, is to show how remarkably similar have been the roles of Jimmy Roosevelt, “George Junior” Bush, and Jared Kushner. Resented by the career bureaucracy as well as by political people who had not been chosen by God to be born or married into presidential families, each of these men has been a vital, implicitly trustworthy advisor to his paterfamilias.
Administrations Come and Go—Deep State Enmity Lasts Forever
Today it is especially timely to consider some parallels between the presidencies of George H. W. Bush and Donald Trump.
While the genteel elder Bush is rightly remembered for a much closer affinity with the elite “Establishment” than the bombastic, purposefully disruptive Trump, it’s almost uncanny how similar were some of their confrontations against elements of what now might be called the “hard left” and the “deep state.”
Trump today is undermined by the collaboration of criminal leakers from within the intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The Steele dossier and the roles in that of McCabe, Strzok, Lisa Page, et al., is a prominent example. Another is the selective leaking of CIA reports on the killing of a Saudi intelligence agent/sometime writer and broadcaster for Saudi state-controlled media, Jamal Khashoggi. Trump and his defenders are rightly outraged by the illegal leaks and the twisted political purposes to which they have been employed.
What perhaps is forgotten is how besieged President George H. W. Bush was by leaks and politicized efforts to bring about his impeachment at the behest of some of his foreign policy foes. As one who worked on the White House staff in 1991 and 1992, I can state that the president’s top lawyers at that time were extremely concerned about a deep state effort to impeach President George Bush for his role as vice president in the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra affair. Reagan-era special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh was still at work as Bush’s presidential term came to a close—shades of Donald Trump’s remark to the New York Post last week about the probe he is facing, “Mueller would like it to go for the rest of his life.”
Senior Bush aides were deathly afraid he might face impeachment proceedings had he been re-elected in 1992. Lawrence Walsh really did want his investigation to go on for the rest of his life.
Then as now, an ironclad alliance of the Washington Post, New York Times and other establishment media with leftist Democrats on Capitol Hill and eager leakers and collaborators within the national security agencies was gunning to destroy the presidency of a Republican president.
So nefarious is this cabal that not even Bush’s own sterling establishment and deep state credentials—including Yale, Skull and Bones, and former directorship of the CIA—immunized him from their vendetta. Bush had committed the unforgivable sin of serving as Reagan’s vice president and supporting Reagan’s efforts to roll back Marxist regimes and guerrilla movements in Latin America.
Deep State Eats Its Own
When the deep state cross-breeds with the hard left, the deep state devours its own—unless their loyalty is to the hard left.
One of the speeches I wrote for President Bush during my time on the White House staff was for the annual dinner of Veterans of the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II predecessor to the CIA. The president added some very strong, personal words to the draft I had prepared.
You can read the full text here.
I never would have dared to draft language as forceful as the words the president added to the speech; such words never would have been cleared by the bureaucracy.
In President Bush’s own words: “…we will show no tolerance for those who leak secrets that protect our intelligence professionals’ lives. I was only out at Langley a short time. I want to relate something to you because few moments for me have been more painful than the occasion I had just before I became DCI, to meet with the son of Richard Welch, a CIA station chief who had been murdered by left-wing terrorists after his name and position had been disclosed to the press. What was I to say to this young man? Why has his father died? So that a reckless ideologue could sell more books, Philip Agee’s Counterspy having blown Richard Welch’s cover? I don’t care how long I live, I will never forgive Philip Agee and those like him who wantonly sacrifice the lives of intelligence officers who loyally serve their country.”
Reflect upon the phrase from the last sentence: “. . . and those like him.”
Those like Philip Agee and his publishers are, today, the CIA leakers and their friends at the Washington Post who propagate their version of how the killing of Jamal Khashoggi came about. Their pretense of sorrow over Khashoggi’s death is phony and cynical. How many covers have they blown? Just imagine the “sources and methods” compromised, and the human beings whose names we’ll never know who will be tortured to death in the exquisite Middle Eastern fashion, because of these comfortable, criminal Langley leakers.
The enduring presence of Saudi Arabia near the center of U.S. national security concerns is another thread connecting the late President Bush with President Trump, and both of them with Franklin Roosevelt.
Bush was committed to the Saudi security relationship; it was a prime motive for America’s war to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, because without expulsion Saddam posed an imminent threat to invade Saudi Arabia. The relationship was built upon careful and constant communication, face to face, between Bush and the ostentatious Saudi Ambassador in Washington at the time, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a cousin of today’s Crown Prince Mohammed. That is how one does business with Riyadh. It is not a government of civil servants.
A week before Bush’s speech in October 1991 to the OSS veterans, the Senate confirmed Clarence Thomas as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. The morning after the OSS veterans’ dinner, Bush spoke to a gathering of the American Society for Public Administration.
He devoted great attention in the latter speech to the deformation of the Clarence Thomas hearings, through “outrageous” leaks of allegations of sexual misconduct, from “what should have been a confidential investigation into what many people who wrote me described as ‘a circus’ and ‘a travesty.’”
The president said, “The Senate should immediately appoint a special counsel to find out who leaked what and for what reasons . . . . Frankly, the American people just will not understand it if the Senate fails to bring the leaker or leakers to justice.”
That was 27 years ago. The grinning Senate Democrat who chaired the Clarence Thomas hearings, a man named Joe Biden, never brought the leakers to justice. Nor, for those with shorter memories, has justice caught up with leakers on Senator Dianne Feinstein’s team since a few months ago when they leaked confidential, uncorroborated accusations of sexual misconduct by Brett Kavanaugh.
An Opportunity for Grace and Illumination
Among ordinary citizens, there’s a great continuum from the coalition that elected the Reagan-Bush ticket in 1980 to the Trump-Pence ticket in 2016. Millions and millions of the same people—Republicans, independents and conservative-leaning Democrats—voted for the winning presidential candidates in 1980, 1984, 1988, 2000, 2004 and 2016.
There’s remarkable continuity of goals and tactics of the hard left-deep state alliance over the past three decades.
A critical difference today is the existence of the NeverTrump Republican faction. NeverTrump Republicans are few in number—insignificant at the ballot box. But they have outsized power and prestige in Washington, D.C.’s “permanent village.” Some Bushies, and most neoconservatives, are in the NeverTrump camp.
It’s evident that Bushies and MAGA people disdain one another. For true Bushies, this is something bred in the bone, but it is mostly a matter of manners. Neoconservative NeverTrumpers are power-hungry ideologues. They make extravagant displays of their supposed moral revulsion at Trump, without the decency and sincerity of the always-in-good-taste Bushies.
I don’t hold out much hope for the power-hungry ideologues to have a change of heart. But I do pray that the passing of George H.W. Bush might become a moment of grace and illumination for those Bushies who now oppose Trump.
It’s in the Bushies’ interest—not to mention the nation’s—that they overcome their heartburn about the indelicate New Yorker who currently occupies their genteel hero’s old Oval Office. They should put aside their differences with the Trump administration. They should recognize that the forces that sought to destroy Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh are the same, and their playbook is the same.
The deep state-hard left combination that aims to impeach Trump also was implacable in its efforts to impeach George H.W. Bush, and, for that matter, to impeach Ronald Reagan, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush.
Those who revered George H.W. Bush, those who saw what was best in that good, patriotic public servant and statesman, have a chance now to honor his memory and complete some of his unfinished business. Would they like to vindicate Bush’s deeply felt outrage regarding the leakers who caused Richard Welch’s murder and tried to destroy Clarence Thomas? To do so they’ll need to make common cause with Donald Trump and the rambunctious MAGA movement.
The deep state/hard left cabal is getting uglier and more powerful by the day. Moderate-to-conservative America needs the brains, breeding, and decency of the Bushies for the upcoming confrontations.
Photo Credit: Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images