Bush-league White House from up close

November 10, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

As John Podhoretz recalls, it wasn't the economy that did in George Bush in the 1992 election.

It was the stupidity, stupid.

Mr. Bush "didn't believe in anything very much except that he wanted to be president, and finally, somehow, through some fluke of nature called Ronald Reagan, he made it," Mr. Podhoretz writes in this revealing and occasionally wickedly funny book. "In the final analysis, George Bush's presidency was a kind of cosmic joke."

The people around Mr. Bush were no improvement. Mr. Podhoretz quotes Samuel Skinner, Mr. Bush's second chief of staff, as complaining he had to work with "the weakest staff in White House history." Of this Mr. Skinner was certain: "You won't find anyone to disagree with that. It was just hopeless." But the author notes, acidly, "Actually, Skinner hadn't the least idea how to fix things in any case."

A clueless president, a "hopeless" staff. Was the Bush administration really a confederacy of dunces?

Mr. Podhoretz obviously thinks so. A former speech writer for Ronald Reagan and aide to drug czar William Bennett, Mr. Podhoretz ridicules Mr. Bush, his staff and almost everything else associated with the administration. This is from not a hostile member of the media, or a Democrat, but from a lifelong Republican and conservative (his parents are Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, two leaders of the neoconservative movement).

But perhaps it's precisely because Mr. Podhoretz considers himself such a strong Republican and conservative that his book is so pointed. A champion of Ronald Reagan, Mr. Podhoretz was amongthe many conservatives who instinctively distrusted Mr. Bush.

"They came to hate Bush," he writes, "with the bottomless rage of a shy and awkward straight-A coed who, courted aggressively by a Big Man on Campus she does not trust, receives flowers and candy and love poems, and with some misgivings allows herself to be taken to bed; whereupon, the seduction complete, he rises quickly and is out the door to spread the word that she is easy, she is anybody's for the taking."

So much for the Republicans' big-tent principle.

It should be noted that, the subtitle notwithstanding, this book is not written by a true insider from the Bush administration. Mr. Podhoretz spent only a few months as an aide to Mr. Bennett "because I feared that government service was a path to nowhere so I left it to go back into journalism."

He does not tell the reader this until the final chapter, so it's hard not to feel a little deceived.

Mr. Podhoretz does assure us that he conducted "two hundred hours of interviews" and went through "some ten thousand pages' worth of documents, speeches, statements, and memoranda that came out of the Bush White House." Still, it was wrong to establish his credentials in such a curious manner; it didn't add anything to the narrative and, to some readers, could make him appear less trustworthy.

In constructing "Hell of a Ride" Mr. Podhoretz alternates a chapter on the Bush administration that is basically a straightforward account -- one chapter is "Staffing Up, Staffing Down, or, Why the White House Didn't Work" -- with what he calls "freeze frames." These are portraits of unnamed White House aides at various points during the administration, from the glorious parade in Washington welcoming home Desert Storm veterans in June 1991 to the glum post-election days.

On the whole, the freeze frames work well; they give a good feel for the mind-set of White House staffers. But they are written in second person, and ultimately a couple of hundred "yous" a chapter wear the reader down.

The chapters of analysis have some exceptional passages on the workings inside the White House. Mr. Podhoretz is at his best as he explains the hierarchies, the petty gamesmanship between competing aides (some senior staffers would refuse attend meetings called by aides they didn't consider equals). And while it's often entertaining to find out, say, who the author deems the most incompetent (Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos) or the biggest prima donna (budget chief Dick Darman or chief of staff John Sununu) in the Bush administration, "Hell of a Ride" serves also as a primer on how the White House works -- or doesn't -- in any presidency.

Politics is like any enterprise in which lofty ideals are put into motion by flawed individuals, so the people governing us who can be petty or short-sighted or dimwitted at the worst of times. I get the feeling that John Podhoretz, looking back at the Bush administration, didn't know whether to laugh or cry. So he did both.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Hell of a Ride: Backstage at the White House Follies 1989-1993"

Author: John Podhoretz

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 249 pages, $21

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