Beyond the Politics of Personal Destruction

What the Bush tapes reveal about policy disputes


If Ronald Reagan was the Teflon president, and Bill Clinton was the Kevlar president (and Jimmy Carter the irrevocably stained Polyester president), what 21st-century wonder material describes George W. Bush, who is surely the most underrated—and seemingly invulnerable—politician in recent memory?

In a strange spasm of self-identification that doubtless speaks to some sort of childhood trauma every bit as terrifying and forgettable as the Fatima revelations, Bill Clinton used to liken himself to the diaper-wearing cartoon character Baby Huey because, he said, he kept getting back up every time he was knocked down. George W. Bush has the "Comeback Kid" one better: He never even gets knocked down in the first place. One needn't be a Bush loyalist to appreciate his unparalleled political sense of balance.

At every step of his career, Bush has been written off as a lightweight and a loser, a dim bulb whose grasp exceeds his reach and whose I.Q. is stuck somewhere in the high double digits. Recall that he wasn't supposed to beat Ann Richards for the governorship of Texas, and he wasn't supposed to beat Al Gore for the presidency of the United States. The non-U.N.-sanctioned invasion of Iraq was going to do Dubya in, then the poorly prosecuted war itself would deliver the death blow, and finally the botched occupation would boot him from the White House.

On the policy front, Bush's early, "irresponsible" tax cuts—or his wild domestic, discretionary and defense spending—were supposed to be the death of him. (If the past is prologue, then pundits predicting that his push for Social Security privatization will be his version of Bill Clinton's health care reform debacle are almost certainly wrong). The initial indications last Election Day were that John Kerry was going to reduce him to laughable one-termer status, just like dear old dad, whose legacy has been subordinated to impressionist Dana Carvey's sagging career fortunes. But Bush keeps on winning.

The recent revelation of years-old secretly taped private conversations whetted the whistles of Bush haters everywhere. Certainly here was the moment where Dubya would be revealed simultaneously as a mentally challenged buffoon and a Machiavellian agent of some secret, cynical agenda. The tapes, made by former Bush operative and Central Casting political bizarro Doug Wead in the late '90s, uncover something very different.

Indeed, what has emerged from the tapes—so far, at any rate—is a genuinely disarming congruence between Bush's public and private personas. Yes, as my colleague Tim Cavanaugh has pointed out, Bush is a big fat hypocrite when it comes to the issue of drug use. But most Americans, alas, will give the chief executive a pass on that issue. Beyond that, though, as The New York Times puts it, "The private Mr. Bush sounds remarkably similar in many ways to the public President Bush." That is, he admits he is a Christian in a non-aggressive way; that he's a sinner; challenges attempts to demonize gays; speaks sharply but not meanly of his political rivals; and more. Here's a typical exchange, as recounted by the Times:

Early on, though, Mr. Bush appeared most worried that Christian conservatives would object to his determination not to criticize gay people. "I think he wants me to attack homosexuals," Mr. Bush said after meeting James Robison, a prominent evangelical minister in Texas. But Mr. Bush said he did not intend to change his position. He said he told Mr. Robison: "Look, James, I got to tell you two things right off the bat. One, I'm not going to kick gays, because I'm a sinner. How can I differentiate sin?"

In the long run, the revelation of the tapes may not be one of Bush's major coups, but it is one more improbable—and all the more stunning for its improbability— political victory. After all, U.S. presidents traditionally have a pretty tortured relationship to audio tapes. Even with strategic secretarial erasures, they helped destroy Richard Nixon's presidency; later revelations of Tricky Dick's bizarre and sometimes drunken obsessions with Jews continue to complicate attempts to rehabilitate his rightly disgraced reputation. Tapes of Lyndon Johnson similarly, if not as spectacularly, call into question LBJ's real character, especially regarding his willingness to fudge major historical moments such as the Gulf of Tonkin incident. (To be sure, LBJ's well-documented odious character and willingness to collect and use dirt on political rivals hardly needs a soundtrack). And of course, Bill Clinton's taped sessions with Gennifer Flowers undermined his public image years before Monica Lewinsky came to light (and not simply in a sexual way; he ultimately apologized to Mario Cuomo for derogatory comments about the New York pol).

But this latest episode is not simply a win for Bush politically. It may actually have a salutary effect on political discourse more generally. Over at least the past decade or so, American politics have often been fought in a strange No Man's Land between the personal and the public. One of the ways that Republicans attacked Bill Clinton's policy proposals was by rifling through his mostly tawdry personal life. Democrats did something similar—including going after Newt Gingrich and short-lived Speaker of the House (and phone-sex freak) Bob Livingston in similar fashion.

There was—and perhaps still is—a strange non sequitur at the heart of many political battles: If Politician A has an unseemly personal life, then his or her policies simply must be bad. This wasn't new to the 1990s—it's a tried-and-true political strategy, but it seemed to dominate an era where the last years of the Clinton administration revolved around Monicagate.

What the Bush tapes suggest is that, at least with regard to the White House's current occupant, there's simply no political advantage to be had by trying to dig up personal dirt. Which means that the president's opponents will have to argue against Bush's policies solely on policy grounds, not personal ones.

That may make the news less sexy, but in an age of ubiquitous smut, we hardly need to turn to politics for titillation, do we? We might even benefit from focusing on something approaching pure political disagreements.