This is the first of three reports based on the new book “Misunderestimated: The President Battles Terrorism, John Kerry and the Bush Haters” (Regan Books) by Bill Sammon, senior White House correspondent for The Washington Times.
President Bush is resolved not to repeat what he thinks were the two fundamental blunders of his father’s one-term presidency: abandoning Iraq and failing to vanquish the Democrats.
In one of several exclusive interviews with The Washington Times, Mr. Bush said his father had “cut and run early” from Iraq in 1991.
Mr. Bush also said Sen. John Kerry would “regret” disparaging the U.S.-led coalition that liberated Iraq, promising to use the Massachusetts Democrat’s words against him in the election campaign.
The president, while acknowledging that “the rebuilding of Iraq is a difficult period,” is optimistic about nurturing a democratic government there.
“Freedom will prevail, so long as the United States and allies don’t give the people of Iraq mixed signals, so long as we don’t cower in the face of suiciders, or do what many Iraqis still suspect might happen, and that is cut and run early, like what happened in ‘91,” Mr. Bush said.
It was a blunt reference to the first President Bush’s decision to stop short of toppling Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein at the end of the Persian Gulf war, even when Saddam crushed postwar rebellions encouraged by the president.
White House political strategist Karl Rove, in one of the lengthy interviews with The Times granted by senior administration officials, also detailed how the Bush campaign intends to paint Mr. Kerry as a condescending elitist, who is pro-tax, weak on defense and on the wrong side in the culture wars.
White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. described Mr. Kerry as a John F. Kennedy “wannabe,” who lacks the mettle to be president. Mr. Card, who also worked for the first President Bush, said when it comes to running for re-election, the son is much more engaged and far less complacent than the father.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell predicted disaster for anyone who “misunderestimates” the president.
Miss Rice said she and other senior advisers still laugh over that quintessential “Bushism,” which their boss famously coined on the eve of the election that made him president.
“They misunderestimated me,” Mr. Bush remarked Nov. 6, 2000, the final day of his first presidential campaign.
The malapropism crystallized the mistakes of his detractors, who long have misunderstood George W. Bush’s appeal to the American public and underestimated his considerable political skills. The president hopes those mistakes will be repeated by Mr. Kerry and the “Bush haters.”
“I’d like to keep expectations low,” Mr. Bush said during one of several interviews in the Oval Office. “It’s better for people to be surprised rather than disappointed.”
‘Handling tough times’
Mr. Bush bristled when reminded that Mr. Kerry called the nations that toppled Saddam — including Great Britain, Australia and Poland — “some trumped-up, so-called coalition of the bribed, the coerced, the bought and the extorted.”
“Yes, well, sometimes people say some things they regret,” the president said. “In the course of a campaign, there will be great scrutiny of people’s words.”
He added: “I’m sure that is the kind of quote that will eventually be in the public arena. We’ll let the American people decide whether or not it has any merit.”
The president was comfortable explaining why he thinks voters should reject the Massachusetts liberal and re-elect the self-proclaimed “compassionate conservative.”
“I deserve a second term because, first, I’ve showed the American people I’m capable of handling tough times,” Mr. Bush said. “The thing about the presidency is you never know what’s going to be around the corner, and you’d better have a president who is capable of making decisions when times do get tough.
“And secondly, we’re changing the world,” he added. “Let me rephrase that: The world is changing, and we’re helping to change it. And there’s still a lot of unresolved issues regarding the security of the United States and peace of the world: North Korea, Iran.”
A “big difference of opinion” separates him and Mr. Kerry on domestic issues, Mr. Bush said.
For example, Mr. Kerry “will raise taxes in order to feed the appetite of the federal government,” the president said. “I think we need to make the tax cuts I passed permanent.”
Mr. Bush also said Mr. Kerry thinks “that the federal government will solve the medical issues facing small businesses and large businesses and the unemployed.”
“I don’t,” he said. “I think that the federal government needs to pass policies that will enable private-sector solutions to emerge, such as medical-liability reform, associated health care plans, expansion of health-savings accounts.”
The strategy to beat Mr. Kerry is relatively straightforward, Mr. Rove said.
“You make it about big issues,” he said. “The president is right on the war on terror; Kerry is fundamentally wrong. The president is right on what’s necessary to keep the economy gaining strength and creating jobs; Kerry’s wrong. The president’s right on where the country is with regard to values; Kerry’s fundamentally wrong.”
Mr. Rove said he expects to portray the candidates as “two men who have a fundamentally different attitude.” This entails framing Mr. Bush as a rugged individualist and Mr. Kerry as a condescending elitist.
“One guy who comes from Midland, Texas. You know: ‘The sky’s the limit. I trust you, not the government. I respect the individual,’ “Mr. Rove said. “And another guy who says: ‘Hey, I’m better than you. I know better than you. The government knows better than you.’ ”
Perhaps no one in the Bush White House knows Mr. Kerry better than Mr. Card, a native of Massachusetts who served in the state legislature.
“Senator Kerry is someone who has aspired to be in politics and to run for president, I believe, ever since he was at St. Paul’s in Concord, New Hampshire,” Mr. Card said, referring to the elite prep school.
The word among Mr. Kerry’s contemporaries, even in those days, was that “he wants to be JFK,” Mr. Card said. “So I guess I’m not surprised that he is kind of in the wannabe mode.”
Nor was Mr. Card impressed by Mr. Kerry’s political accomplishments.
“He’s not as successful as some of the other politicians that I know from Massachusetts. He didn’t always have as much stick-to-itiveness in some of his missions as others did.
“He took advantage of political opportunities; I don’t fault anyone for doing that,” Mr. Card said. “He was lieutenant governor and abandoned that to be able to run for the Senate.
“He’s got a record that reflects very liberal-leaning Massachusetts tendencies. And I don’t think that is what most people across the country want as the direction the country should be headed in.”
Mr. Bush’s vow not to “cut and run early” from Iraq sums up an important difference in approaches between him and his father.
After the Gulf war ended in 1991, the first President Bush urged Iraq’s Kurds and Shi’ites to, in his words, “take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.” The elder Bush then stayed on the sidelines when Saddam crushed their uprisings, fearful that further meddling might lead to a takeover by Islamic radicals.
“I happen to think they were the right presidents for their times,” Mr. Card observed of father and son. “They came to office with the same moral character, but with different perspectives of America’s problems.
“Forty-one was an extremely important president for the time, managing without bravado or braggadocio — even though there was great temptation. He was trained as a diplomat,” Mr. Card said, referring to the father, whom he served as deputy chief of staff, by the number of his presidency.
“He was there to help manage the extremely challenging change in the world, when the [Berlin] Wall came down and diplomacy had to be practiced in a different way than it has to be practiced today.
“But this president came from West Texas,” Mr. Card said of the younger Bush, contrasting the two resumes. “And West Texas was his home for a lot longer than it was for the former president.
“He was the governor of Texas. He wasn’t the first envoy to China or the U.N. ambassador or the CIA director. His training was dealing with problems on the streets of Laredo or Dallas or Houston or Midland or Austin. This president came with a kind of street smarts and recognition of the importance of the resolve of America.”
That resolve has been crucial to the president’s success, Miss Rice said.
“I think that anybody who misunderestimates this president is going to have egg on their face in a few years,” she said. “People ought to go back and look at Harry Truman, because that’s another president who was misunderestimated.”
‘I know I can’
Mr. Bush’s detractors make a costly mistake by dismissing him as a lightweight, Mr. Powell said.
“I’d advise them to get smart,” the secretary of state said. “They keep grinding their teeth over his syntax or his not spending enough time on this or that. But he prevails. And they ought to look at his track record, as opposed to these secondary features and characteristics, which don’t reflect the man.”
The president’s penchant for encouraging low expectations “shows how wise he is,” Mr. Powell said. “Because if you have something that people consider a weakness, you can use that weakness to your advantage — if it isn’t really a weakness.”
Mr. Bush acknowledges that he encourages such misjudgments by detractors.
“People tend to discount my ability to get things done, and that’s exactly what I want,” the president said in an interview. “I want people to underestimate.
“I don’t know why people do that. Maybe it’s because of the philosophy I believe in, and maybe it’s where I’m from. It doesn’t bother me in this world that people would say that ‘He can’t get things done,’ because I know I can.”
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