By Lou Cannon and Carl M. Cannon, PublicAffairs, January 29, 2008, 1586484486
I read this book in March 2008. I liked it. I’m not a Reagan or Bush fan. They had their strengths.
Reagan’s Disciple compares George W Bush to Reagan, and asks the question: how did W measure up? The book is balanced and well-written. Lou Cannon worked for the San Jose Mercury News so he covered Reagan when he was governor of California. He knows Reagan.
Reagan worked with the Democrats. He was the Great Mediator, not necessarily just the Great Communicator. He used to say that if “we could get 80%, we’re happy.” Later in his term, he moved the needle to 60%. Tip O’Neill had respect for Reagan so they could work together.
Bush matched Reagan on taxes. There’s a good point about taxes and deficits below: if it really did cost us $800B in military spending to end the Soviet Union, it was worth it.
Bush did not match Reagan on foreign policy. Reagan left Lebanon, Bush hung on everywhere. In my opinion, maybe Reagan left too early, or didn’t work hard enough on Middle East policy, leaving the place in a mess. In any event, Bush didn’t live up to Reagan’s legacy on foreign policy, which I would agree with.
[p39] Viewed in isolation, these staggering deficits (higher in proportion to the size of the economy than the George W. Bush deficits) seem a black mark. But history did not end when Reagan left office, and the dividends produced by the accumulated debt were substantial. The United States, along with most other nations, has always run deficits during wartime, and the Cold War was an expensive war, although usually not a shooting one in terms of direct U.S.-Soviet military conflict. (Millions of people nonetheless died in a hundred wars and insurgencies during the Cold War years.) If one believes, as the historical evidence suggests, that the military buildup of the Reagan era hastened the demise of the Soviet empire, then that extra $800 billion of defense spending, roughly half the accumulated deficit, was a negligible price to pay. No price tag can be put on reducing the threat of a nuclear war that could have destroyed civilization. Whether such a war would have occurred is a matter of conjecture. What is not conjectural is that the buildup of the Reagan years was followed by a substantial reduction in U.S. military spending after the Soviet Union collapsed. The disappearance of wartime deficits, albeit temporarily, was a principal reason that a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, neither giving credit to the other, were able to balance the budget in the mid-1990s.
[p48] After Reagan was narrowly bested for the Republican presidential nomination by President Gerald Ford in 1976, he strode onto the stage of the auditorium in Kansas City and warned that nuclear war was the greatest danger facing the nation and the world. In part because of the late hour, the speech was not covered well in the media, and most of what little attention it did receive focused on its political aspects, not Reagan’s warning. Three years later, when Reagan was preparing himself for the next presidential campaign, he toured the headquarters of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado and was told there was nothing that could be done about an incoming Soviet missile except to track it. Reagan was shaken. “We have spent all that money and have all that equipment, and there is nothing we can do to prevent a nuclear missile from hitting us,” he said to adviser Martin Anderson as the two of them flew back to Los Angeles.
[p118] Liberal opponents of the war disputed the view (expressed by Johnson and Goldwater alike) that the loss of South Vietnam would send a signal of weakness and lead to other Communist victories in Asia. On the Right, the clear preference was for victory, which at the outset of the U.S. intervention seemed within reach. After Johnson had ordered bombing raids and the first heavy deployment of U.S. troops in October 1965, Reagan had given a sanguine and somewhat jingoistic assessment: “We should declare war on Vietnam. We could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home by Christmas.” By the time ofTet, more than two years later, Reagan and other conservaves held a more realistic view.
[p119] MacArthur had favored dropping nuclear bombs on China and Manchuria after China had sent troops across the Yalu, and both Truman and Eisenhower had considered using nuclear weapons in the Korean War (although in a much more limited way than MacArthur had in mind). Popular opinion in 1952 was evenly divided, with half the American people saying they favored using nuclear weapons, if necessary, to end the war in Korea. By the time of the Vietnam deployments, however, only a quarter of Americans favored a nuclear option. In the interval between Korea and Vietnam, a significant event had taken place that had frightened Americans and made them more aware of the probable consequences of nuclear war: the Cuban missile crisis.
[p122] Nixon resigned in August because of the Watergate scandal, and the war ended in April 1975 on President Gerald Ford’s watch. By this time Reagan was poised to oppose Ford for the 1976 Republican presi- dential nomination. The Vietnam War was an emotional subtext of his challenge. “Let us tell those who fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to win,” Reagan said repeatedly. It was an inevitable applause line–and one that would have historical resonance. When George W. Bush ran for president, he would declare in his campaign autobiography, A Charge to Keep: “We must not go into a conflict unless we go in committed to win.
[p213] The cliche in political coverage is that George W. Bush is “incurious.” Although the accuracy of that assessment may be open to question, it is reasonable to conclude thar Bush did not ask enough tough questions about the limits of “hard” power before embarking on the course he pursued. The discussion benveen Bush and Tenet that led to Tenet’s infamous “slam dunk” response is the only recorded instance of an expression of healthy skepticism on Bush’s part before he made the decision to invade. But a successful president must regularly exhibit that kind of skepticism in the Oval Office in order to get at the truth of a situation. And the only known exclamation of self-doubt by those manning the top echelons of the Bush administration was heard not in the White House, hut in Colin Powell’s office at the State Department–a moment of private angst expressed to someone not in Bush’s inner circle.
[p223] Bush bonded with a little boy at the [Project P.U.L.L., a youth center in Houston’s impoverished Third Ward] named Jimmy Dean, who eschewed the opportunity to pair off with a famous African-American athlete and instead gravitated to the scruffy white dude in the flight jacket. When Jimmy Dean lacked shoes, Bush bought them for him. Twenty-seven years later, when a reporter for The Washington Post asked Bush about Jimmy, he replied that as a teenager, the boy had been gunned down. “He was like my adopted little brother,” Bush added quietly.
[p225] In an interview with Lou Cannon on July 31, 1981, nearly twenty years after concluding his association with General Electric, Reagan waxed rhapsodic about Cordiner: “[General Electric] had 139 plants in 38 states, and he was the one that had the courage as the chief executive officer and chairman of the board to say to the managers of these plants, ‘I want you to run them as if they were your plants.’ They never had to get a ruling from the board of directors.”
[p291] All presidents, no matter how much they know or think they know, gain from experience in the White House, and Bush’s learning curve continued well into his second term. Humbled somewhat by the realities of governance and by the deadly impasse in Iraq, Bush became more willing to concede misjudgments. Most of these admissions were at the margins and behind the scenes in discreet conversations with friends, aides, or sympathetic journalists. Privately, for example, Bush expressed a change of heart about Vladimir Putin. The “sense of his soul” that Bush had detected in Putin during the summer of 2001 gave way to a more realistic view of a former KGB functionary whose spirituality was buried under layers of paranoia and authoritarianism.
[p311] Bush also sounded very much like Nixon on the subject of setting deadlines for bringing the troops home:
NIXON: “I have not and do not intend to announce the timetable for our program. And there are obvious reasons for this decision, which I am sure you will understand…. The enemy … would simply wait until our forces had withdrawn and then move in.”
BUSH: “Setting an artificial timetable would send the wrong message to the Iraqis …. It would send the wrong message to our troops … and it would send the wrong message to the enemy, who would know that all they have to do is to wait us out.”