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Searching for the Praetorian Guard at the George W. Bush Museum | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Searching for the Praetorian Guard at the George W. Bush Museum


Dick Cheney and other senior administration officials at a meeting in George W. Bush's Oval Office. (Reuters/Larry Downing)

George W. Bush’s presidency began on a note destined to inspire skepticism.

Bush did, after all, lose the ballot-box count at the close of his 2000 run for the nation’s top job by 543,895 votes. But with a boost from an outdated Electoral College system and a Supreme Court that decided to make an extraordinary intervention on his behalf, the son of the forty-first president of the United States became the forty-third president of the United States.

And in what historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., long ago identified as the era of the “imperial presidency,” the fact of his tenure entitles Bush to something George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison never got: an official presidential library and museum.

Bush has gone all in.

His library and museum are the biggest of the thirteen that have been established to recognize former presidents: 226,560 square feet on the grounds of the twenty-three-acre Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University near Dallas.

His is also the most expensive of these monumental endeavors, with a $250 million price tag.

But it may not be the most thorough.

News reports tell us that:

Politics is downplayed; the 2004 reelection campaign goes unmentioned. And essentially invisible are Karl Rove, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, who the president became somewhat estranged from in his second term.

Bush wants to be remembered as a statesman, not a hawk.

Why would anyone who is hoping to be remembered as a statesman want to avoid being associated with Karl Rove and Dick Cheney?

To ask the question is to answer it.

A case might be made for giving Bush a pass when it comes to downplaying Rumsfeld—whose Pentagon role kept him of the fringe of domestic policy making and who surely took a backseat to Cheney when it came to foreign policy.

But Cheney and Rove were not exactly spectators in the George W. Bush White House.

As Bush’s senior advisor, deputy chief of staff and political czar, Rove proudly positioned himself in the tradition of Mark Hanna, the Gilded Age political operative who created an assessment system to channel the riches of the robber barons into a scheme for “buying” elections with what came to be known as “The Money Power.” Rove’s updating of Hanna’s approach—via his network of contribution-bundling “Bush Rangers” and “Bush Pioneers” and his more recent machinations with the American Crossroads combine—created a crony capitalist behemoth that delivered mightily for Wall Street and the energy industry but steered the party away from core conservative principles and set the stage for the economic turbulence that rocked the last years of his protégé’s presidency.

As Bush’s first-term prince regent, Cheney guided Bush away from the basic premises and principles on which he had campaigned in 2000. Cheney showed little taste for the “compassionate conservatism” that was Bush’s most appealing—and I would suggest sincere—message of the 2000 campaign. And Cheney abandoned Bush’s stated skepticism about positioning the United States as a nation-building “policeman to the world,” embarking instead on a neoconservative rewrite of American foreign policy objectives which, from the very first days of the Bush-Cheney administration, saw the country begin to reject international diplomacy and cooperation in favor a heavy-handed approach that would eventually include invasions, occupations and pressure tactics so crude that some of the country’s closest allies distanced themselves from its endeavors.

Rove liked, or at least appreciated, Bush. They came up together politically and there is no question that at key “decision points” along the former president’s political trajectory, the man they called “Bush’s Brain” did his best to serve his candidate. Which, of course, also served Rove’s ambition to be a defining figure not just in the Republican Party but the broader conservative movement—in much the same way that Mark Hanna’s “service” to William McKinley made it possible for Hanna to define the politics of another era (and to become a very wealthy and powerful figure). But just as Hanna’s name became associated with the backroom deals and abuses of power that progressive reformers (many of them Republicans) decried a century ago, Rove’s name is now synonymous with manipulation of the political process by billionaires, corporations and their cronies.

Cheney’s relationship with Bush was always more complex than Rove’s. It is much harder to suggest that the former vice president ever really served Bush. As Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff during the harshest days of the Bush-Cheney tenure, well explained it, Cheney “became vice president well before George Bush picked him. And he began to manipulate things from that point on, knowing that he was going to be able to convince this guy to pick him, knowing that he was then going to be able to wade into the vacuums that existed around George Bush—personality vacuum, character vacuum, details vacuum, experience vacuum.”

What this all adds up to is a quite understandable choice by Bush to downplay his former associates.

Aides report that Bush was a very hands-on player in the development of his museum. “He literally looked at every exhibit and said ‘I want this one, and I want that,’ ” says George W. Bush Foundation President Mark Langdale.

So it is that the space devoted to the former president’s commendable efforts to tackle AIDS and malaria in Africa is by all accounts quite substantial. And the section dealing with his stated commitment to “Protecting the Environment” is a good deal grander than those mentioning his response to Hurricane Katrina or the Wall Street meltdown of September 2008.

Such choices fit within the broad debate about Bush’s legacy, which the former president—who is mounting a campaign to improve his image—well understands.

Bush seeks to make a case for himself.

But he does not want to shoulder the burden of the Rove and Cheney legacies.

This is understandable. Ron Suskind noted in his 2004 book, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill, that Rove and Cheney often appeared to roll over Bush in a mad rush to advance their preferred agendas.

Famously, following the Republican success in the 2002 off-year elections, Treasury Secretary O’Neill (a former deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and CEO of Alcoa) counseled that new tax cuts for the rich would be economically and fiscally unwise. Bush seemed to agree. “Haven’t we already given money to rich people?” Bush asked. “Shouldn’t we be giving money to the middle? Won’t people be able to say, ‘You did it once, and then you did it twice, and what was it good for?’ ”

Rove immediately told the president to: “Stick to principle. Stick to principle.” Cheney was typically blunt, explaining: “You know… Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter. We won the midterm elections, this is our due.”

Nine days after O’Neill argued against more tax cuts, he got a call—not from Bush, but from Cheney—asking him to resign.

Stories like that offer a fair measure of insight into why Bush would want Americans to remember him, as opposed to Rove and Cheney. Or at the least, to remember him in a better light than his political czar and his vice president. So it is understandable that the focus of The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum would err in that direction.

The problem, of course, is that it was Bush who gave Rove and Cheney the extraordinary power they enjoyed through his first term. And as O’Neill reminds us, that power defined the Bush presidency. Rove and Cheney may indeed have formed a “a praetorian guard that encircled the president.” But it was from Bush, not anyone else, that they gained the authority to form the circle.

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In the middle of Bush’s tenure, Paul O’Neill said: “The president started from scratch and relied on advice of ideologues without any honest brokers in sight.”

There is case to be made that, as Bush’s presidency progressed, he came to recognize that Cheney, in particular, was not the honest broker he needed. Indeed, the story of Bush’s claiming of his own presidency during his second term is the stuff of interesting history. But it is a history that requires a clear recognition of the role that Rove and Cheney played—not a history where the “praetorian guard” remains “essentially invisible.”

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