President George W. Bush and “Decision Points”
I just concluded an interview with President Bush about his new memoir, Decision Points. It is a fascinating read, and our conversation covers some of the most interesting passages, including those about election 2000, the job of picking generals, Lincoln and Truman, his reading habits while president —Lee Childs and Tim Keller will be happy to hear they are on the president’s current reading list, joining Vince Flynn and Daniel Silva there– as well as Vladimir Putin and the problem of leaking operatives in the CIA.
I got through about a third of my questions. Perhaps he will come back after the book tour slows down.
A transcript will be posted here later, and the interview plays in the first and third hour of today’s program.
HH: President George W. Bush, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show, great to have you.
GWB: How are you, Hugh?
HH: I’m great, and congratulations, four weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list for Decision Points.
GWB: Miracles never cease to happen.
HH: (laughing) In the book there are a lot of good portraits, and your funniest critic, she’s probably not your toughest critic, but your funniest, is First Lady Barbara Bush yelling at you, “Keep moving, George. There are fat people ahead of you” at the Houston marathon,” and telling you, “You can’t win,” when you ran for governor. What does First Lady Barbara Bush think of the book?
GWB: She likes it a lot. She’s got a good sense of humor, and the book is riddled with anecdotes that I hope people think are funny. And I think that she thinks it accurately portrays my relationship with her. We’re very close. As I noted in the book, I have many of her characteristics, some of which got me in trouble at times, like speaking bluntly.
GWB: But she’s very happy with it, and is pleased it’s selling.
HH: One of the things that’s not recorded in the book, you spent election night, after you decided you hadn’t lost, you went over to the Governor’s mansion in 2000 with your mother and your father and brother, Jeb. Your mother’s reactions aren’t recorded when Al Gore called to, as you put it, unconcede.
GWB: Yeah, I think she was…you know, I can’t remember them, frankly. What was interesting is there was a debate as to whether or not I ought to charge out and declare victory in front of 30,000 people, and I chose not to do that.
HH: Your brother, Jeb, advised you not to?
GWB: He did, and he was wise to say that. Some urged to go ahead and do it. I mean, people were out there anticipating a victory statement. Instead, we sent, I think Donnie Evans went out and basically said the outcome was in doubt. But Jeb was getting numbers out of Florida, and saw that the polls were closing, and cautioned me about doing it.
HH: Now it’s been ten years and a day since, as you put it on Page 81 of Decision Points, you were the first person to learn, “he had won the presidency while lying in bed with his wife watching TV.” If you were, if you had been in Vice President Gore’s position, down by a few hundred votes at the close of election night in 2000, would you have demanded the recount?
GWB: You know, it’s hard for me to…that’s a little too hypothetical, Hugh. You know, I was in the lead. And it was a painful experience for both of us, and sadly, it kind of set the tone for some of the debate during my presidency.
HH: How did it impact…
GWB: I don’t know what I would have done. What I wish hadn’t happened is, as I pointed out in the book, they hadn’t have declared Al Gore the winner in Florida before a major portion, or a significant portion of the votes had been cast in the panhandle of Florida, which is one of my stronger, stronger parts of the state. And I truly do believe that affected the size of the Florida vote.
HH: You wrote in Decision Points that the DUI announcement cost you about two million votes over the weekend, Rove’s estimate, Karl Rove’s estimate. What about that early call of Florida? Do you have any idea what it cost you?
GWB: You know, I don’t know. I mean, Karl believes it cost a lot. And even if it cost ten thousand votes, it still, it could have been more than that, it would have made the election night much simpler.
HH: How did that controversy of ten years ago impact your ability to govern, President Bush?
GWB: Initially, it didn’t so much. But beneath the surface was a lot of anger. And I never talked to some of these people, but it was apparent to me that they were kind of seeking, that they didn’t view the presidency, or the election, as a legitimate election. And there was some bitterness that spilled out, excuse me, during the inauguration, and then afterwards. But when I first got to Washington, people seemed, you know, fairly amenable to working together, and we accomplished some objectives like the tax cuts and No Child Left Behind. And then September 11th, of course, unified the country. But the war in Iraq really was a divisive moment. And it’s hard to speculate what life would have been like. When you’re the president, you only get to deal with what life is like.
HH: Yeah. At the end of the book, in the Epilogue, you write that you read the Bible every day when you were president. Did you have any particular order to doing that, by the way?
GWB: Any order?
GWB: Yeah, there’s a one year Bible that I used, or use, and it was Old Testament/New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs. And it helped structure my reading. Some years, you know, like I would study C.S. Lewis as opposed to reading the Bible, and some years, and on that very same year, I’d use a devotional. Sometimes, for example, Charles Stanley is one I used, and My Utmost To The Highest was another one.
HH: Any particular Lewis work a favorite of yours?
GWB: I’m reading, I’m actually rereading The Screwtape Letters. And I find them to be very illuminating. What’s interesting about faith, at least my faith, is that as I begin to better understand, works like C.S. Lewis’ work become more clear. And I recently read a guy who I really had been reading a lot about, by a guy named Tim Keller, who wrote a fabulous book called A Reason For God. And I find him to be one of the, really, most interesting and enlightening theologians of our time.
HH: He is an amazing pastor and preacher. I’ve heard him preach. You told Rick Warren about a week ago, when you were talking Decision Points with him, maybe it was earlier this month, that you read and thought a lot about Lincoln. In fact, you told some of the talk show hosts when we got together with you the same thing. In his Second Inaugural, President Lincoln said about the Union and the confederacy that both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the others, and that the prayers of both could not be answered. Obviously, the enemies of the United States invoke God all the time. But so did you, and of course, both can’t be right. What’s that balance for you, then, when you’re…
GWB: Well, I think people who murder the innocent…I do believe there’s good and evil in the world. And people who murder the innocent to achieve a political objective are evil people, and therefore had no compunction about putting forth an agenda that would bring them to justice before they hurt us again.
HH: When you talked about faith, though, in this age of pluralism, obviously that’s the easy call. But how delicate was it? You’re obviously a Christian and a devout one, and you don’t believe the things that other world religions believe. So how does a president walk that narrow line?
GWB: I think the first thing, Hugh, is to understand you’re not God, and that you don’t get to decide. Secondly, I believe a faithful person is someone who fully understands his or her own inadequacies, and therefore relies upon a loving, redemptive Savior. And so it was, in one way, it was easy not to be judgmental when I’m trying to strengthen my own faith. And in the other way, though, it was easy to be judgmental when it came time to the practicalities of protecting the country. And I was very judgmental. I said these people are evil, and we will bring them to justice, because the most important job of the president is to protect the homeland.
HH: This is a God-drenched book, Decision Points. He’s not in the Index, but He’s pretty much in every chapter, and on almost every page.
HH: I’m curious as to what impact, having been the most powerful man in the world, has had on your understanding of Christ and your faith?
GWB: That’s a very interesting question. I think what you realize, at least when you’re in the position I was in, it enabled me to better understand the need for a loving God’s strength and comfort. I guess the more power you had, the more it accentuated the fact that you needed help.
HH: I know you’re not a theologian. Neither am I. But in Philippians…
GWB: You sound like one. You’re doing a pretty good job of it.
HH: No, I’m not (laughing). In Philippians, when it talks about Christ emptying himself to become that, that’s giving up all power. And power is a worldly thing. Was it, did it ever crop up to you that being president is just not consistent with Christian theology, and you have to kind of take a different look at Christian theology as a result?
GWB: You know, it’s interesting, and Tim Keller helped me understand this, that if you allow power to become your god, then it is corrupting. If you allow fame to become your god, it is corrupting. If you allow money to become your god, it is corrupting. And what religion helped me was to understand that that was those truths. And so power can be used effectively to help people, or it can be intoxicating, in which case it is difficult to have a proper relationship, if you’re a Christian, with Christ.
HH: Did you, in all the reading that you did, and you did a lot of reading when you were president. Did you think any of the previous presidents had become intoxicated with power? Did anyone stand out? I mean, you obviously admire Lincoln, and of course, your father. But was there anyone out there that you marked out as someone who just fell prey to all those intoxications?
GWB: Interestingly enough, not American presidents, because it’s hard to become so totally intoxicated with power when you’re responsive to the people. But the people that became intoxicated by power that affected me were like those idealistic souls that convinced others that their vision for the future was the right one, whether it be the folks who led the French revolution, or those who bought into Mao, or those who corrupted the Leninist movement in Russia. These are people that became so intoxicated with power that they ended up being murderers.
HH: Yeah. You mention, back to Lincoln, did you happen to read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team Of Rivals book?
GWB: I did, and liked it a lot.
HH: There is so much heartbreaking sadness. And it seems like every wartime president, whether it’s FDR or Truman, or LBJ or Nixon, and now President Obama and yourself, that they have to deal with this overwhelming amount of grief.
GWB: It’s true.
HH: Did it ever knock you backwards?
GWB: Of course it does when you hug a mother who lost a loved one in combat. What was interesting, though, because we have a volunteer army, and because many of the folks who lost their life signed up after 9/11 and knew exactly what they were getting into, the parents really wanted to tell me how much that the sacrifice, how much their child really wanted to do what they were doing. And frankly, in many instances, they were there to determine whether or not I was going to make decisions based upon my own personal standing, or whether or not I was going to make decisions so that sacrifice would not go in vain. And it’s hard for people to understand this, but often times, or most of the time I met with families of the fallen, I became the comforted one. I was supposed to comfort them, and they comforted me.
HH: Yeah, that story about Bud Clay and his son, Marine Sergeant Daniel Clay in Decision Points…
HH: …is really quite moving, as is Staff Sergeant Christian Bagge and all these other stories. You’ve been down to Fort Hood after the massacre, President Bush, and you’ve been at the airport greeting troops. Do you ever see your relationship with the American military changing?
GWB: No, because my affection and admiration for our military runs deep. And the only way I think the relationship can be affected is if I ever were to take our military for granted and be cynical about our military. And that’ll never happen. I truly don’t miss much of the presidency, and I’m a happy guy, and I enjoy my life. But one thing I do miss is being the commander-in-chief. And I have great admiration for our troops and their families. Plus, you know, Hugh, I think over eight years of working with our military, I developed a kinship that’ll never change.
HH: I want to go back to that role of commander-in-chief and Lincoln again. His most famous mistakes involved generals. He went through eight changes in the top, seven of them, he did McClellan twice. You had Generals Franks and Sanchez and Abizaid and Casey, who you call not flashy or glamorous, but solid and straightforward. Abizaid, you called cerebral. Then you end up with General Petraeus. First question, if you had gotten to Petraeus sooner, would the hardest stretches of Iraq been avoided? Or was that just something that had to happen?
GWB: You know, it’s hard to tell, Hugh. I do know this, that had we had to do it over again, I would have insisted we keep more troops in Baghdad right off the bat in order to quell the outbreak of violence that occurred upon liberation. For a while, it looked like our strategy was working. And somebody called me…and therefore, I stayed with it. It’s just hard for me, as I look back, to say had I made a personnel decision sooner, something would have changed. I’m not sure that’s true. Somebody called me the other day and said well, you’ve got to make sure in your book, make it clear that you weren’t responsible for these military decisions. And I said to that person, this is before the book came out, obviously, and I said to that person I am responsible. There’s only one person that you can hold responsible, and that’s the commander-in-chief. And so the book is really not an attempt to settle up scores. It’s just an attempt to tell the story, and people can draw their own conclusions from it.
HH: Absolutely not. In fact, there are no apologies here. In fact, I have it later in my notes, you don’t take self-pity or excuses very well in here. You’re talking about Mayor Holloway of Biloxi, Mississippi, or the guy there who told you I’m alive, my mother’s alive, I’m doing well. You don’t have much time for people that have self-pity or second excuses, do you?
GWB: Well, you know, when you read a lot of history and when you’re the president, you realize many presidents had it worse than you did. And you’ve made the decision to put our troops into harm’s way. There’s nothing worse than to be full of self-pity. I mean, one, it either shows that you don’t understand history, or secondly, it shows an insensitivity toward some kid who’s in Baghdad, Iraq, fighting for America. I mean, you could imagine the signal it would send if I were kind of agonizing about things publicly while these people were sacrificing on our behalf. And the commander-in-chief has to be very careful about the signals he sends to our troops. And so in the book, I talk about some of the language I used, like bring it on, and I try to analyze that for the reader, so that the reader understands the audience that I was speaking to in that case were our own troops, basically saying nobody can whip our troops, they’re the best, and the enemy. Because the enemy’s only tactic is to inflict unspeakable damage in the hopes that we retreat. And my message was we’re not going go retreat in front of your barbaric behavior.
HH: One of the fascinating parts of Decision Points is that you consulted with many people from outside of the White House during the war – Robert Kaplan, Eliot Cohen, Fred Kagan, Col. McMasters. How did you find these people?
GWB: Well, we’ve got a good staff of people who knew them. And I read Cohen’s book and McMaster’s book, and was fascinated by their writings, and wanted to hear from them. One of the interesting things, I’ll tell you an interesting anecdote. I one time read a book called Aquariums In Pyongyang. Henry Kissinger gave it to me, and it was about a kid who escaped from a North Korean labor camp. And I was fascinated by the book, and fascinated by the story. And off-handedly, I said gosh, it would be neat to meet him. And about, you know, maybe two or three months later, I look on my schedule and there’s a name in there I didn’t recognize, and I said who is this person? They said well, that’s the guy that wrote Aquariums In Pyongyang. You wanted to meet him. And so my only point is that as president, sometimes people are able to facilitate a lot of meetings that’ll help you do your job.
HH: You know, last night, I was talking to my wife, who like your wife, has a lot to say about what I do. And she said you know, I’d like to know if there was anyone he didn’t meet when he was in the White House that you wished you had when you had that opportunity to invite them in that cache.
GWB: That’s an interesting question. Gosh, I’m sure there’s a lot, but you know, I wish you’d have given me advance notice of the questions.
HH: All right.
GWB: I probably would have been able to come up with a better answer than uh.
HH: I’ll tell her that. (laughing) How crucial is it for the president to keep reading and reading and reading the way that you were doing?
GWB: Well for me, it was important. I didn’t watch much TV, or hardly any TV. Instead, I read. And it’s just a fascinating experience to be reading history and making history. And one of the things that I put in the book was when I read about Truman, and realized that many of the decisions he made were affecting my ability to do the job, such as a democratic South Korea made peace more possible in the Far East. And one of the contributions I think we made to the country was to get in a law, tools necessary for presidents to help protect the country. Some presidents may use them, some presidents may not use the tools, but they’re all available.
HH: I’ve got to ask you while I’m talking about reading, did you have fiction tastes as well? And I think you read Vince Flynn, and maybe Daniel Silva, but did you read much fiction?
GWB: Yeah, I read Silva. I used to ride mountain bikes with Silva, and I got to know both he and Flynn. I read them. I read, you know, I love to read mysteries, kind of as entertainment.
HH: Have you read C.J. Box yet? We’ll send you some books, Mr. President. I think you’ll like him.
GWB: I wish you would. I have not.
HH: Steven Pressfield, the novels on Afghanistan?
GWB: I’m reading Lee Child right now.
HH: Who is that, Lee Child? Okay, very good.
GWB: Lee Child. He’s good.
HH: I want to switch back to foreign policy and talk to you about Putin, President Putin in Russia. You quote Lincoln, again, there’s a lot of Lincoln in Decision Points. “If you would win a man to your cause,” Lincoln said, and you quote him, “first convince him you’re his friend.” And you tell the story of the cross that Putin received from his mother, and you end up saying to him at the end, “Vladimir, that’s the story of the cross. Things are meant to be.” Were you affirming to him at that moment the truth of the Gospel?
GWB: Well, I was, yes. (laughing) That’s what the whole point of the sentence was. And I was amazed as I described the scene about him describing the cross that his mother had blessed in Jerusalem. The whole atmosphere changed, which is what led me to the answer to the question ‘do you trust Vladimir Putin’. And I said I do, and he said why, and I said because I looked in his eyes and saw his soul. And the reason why I said that is because I remembered him talking movingly about his mother and the cross that she gave him that she had blessed in Jerusalem. Nobody knows that, and I never tried to make an explanation of why I said what I said until the book.
HH: Well, that’s a fascinating exchange. You also go on to say Putin’s given you lots of reasons to be disappointed in him since.
GWB: Well, he did. And the last anecdote in the book about Putin is at the opening games in China, and Putin is sitting down the aisle from me and Laura, and they had just invaded Georgia. And I had just had a pretty tough conversation with Medvedev, and so Vladimir came down, and you’re trying to have this heated conversation with a smile on your face, because the TV cameras are watching you. And the last thing I said was I’ve been telling you for years that Saakashvili was hot blooded. Vladimir said I am hot blooded. And I said no, Vladimir, you’re cold blooded. And the reason I told him that is because I was convinced at the time that Russia was headed toward Tbilisi. And Georgia was a democratically-elected ally. I mean, they had a democratically-elected leader, and the country was an ally. And I was real concerned that we were watching a re-assertive Russia use force to change the neighborhood.
HH: So what was that, did he just head fake you then when you first met him in the story of the cross? Or do you think he changed as the weight of the office…
GWB: I think to a certain extent, he changed. You know, in that very same conversation, the first conversation was about Soviet debt saddling the Russian Federation. And one of the later conversations we had was he was asking me how their mortgage-backed securities were doing. So in other words, he’d gone from creditor, I mean, from debtor to creditor.
GWB: And so that affected him, and I think if you…and if you read carefully, you’ll see that the Schroeder-Chirac relationship with Putin emboldened him…
GWB: …to kind of accumulate power. And so I always had a relationship with Vladimir where we could discuss things very frankly. It’s just that he became more assertive, and, it seemed like, accumulated more power amongst a few there in Russia.
HH: Mr. President, I did read carefully, and there is one line. It’s tucked away in the account of the 2004 campaign that I made a note about. You wrote, “renegade staffers at the CIA leaked information to embarrass the administration.”
HH: Now that’s very ominous. How often do you think that happened, and how big of a problem is it that we have people at that agency in particular who will do that thing?
GWB: Well, it is ominous, and I put that in there for a reason as a…you know, to send signals that it’s unacceptable that people, that are in our intelligence community, tried to affect the election. And I was convinced there were some, and very few, I’m talking about a handful versus the thousands that are dedicated patriots, but they were leaking information that kept getting into the New York Times, for example, that seemed to me, and was trying to make it difficult for me to be reelected. It’s like the same thing about the leaks on some of our security programs that emanated, perhaps, out of that agency. And to me, that’s unacceptable behavior. When people get into the CIA, they have sworn to secrecy, and that their job is to provide the president with the information necessary to make tough decisions, not to try to undermine the process.
HH: Last question, Mr. President, thanks for your time today. The back cover photo’s got you holding a mug. It looks like it’s a Cleveland Browns mug there. I’m wondering if Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave that to you.
GWB: (laughing) Very good. You talk about a guy doing his research. It’s not.
HH: Is that a Cleveland Browns mug?
GWB: No, it’s not a Cleveland Browns mug.
HH: I think it looks like that to me, so I was hoping.
HH: Mr. President, thanks for your time, congratulations on Decision Points. It’s a wonderful read.
GWB: Really enjoyed it, Hugh. Thank you very much for your time. The Hugh Hewitt Show – it’s an honor to be on it.
HH: Thank you, sir.
GWB: Thank you, buddy.
End of interview.