By all accounts, the first meeting of the Bush-Cheney Alumni Association was a cheerful one. “There’s no VIP section, with Harriet Miers, Ken Mehlman, and Andy Card milling about like the rest of us!,” a source told Politico of the February 26 breakfast at a Washington hotel. George W. Bush informed the 700 alumni gathered there that he’s not doing too badly for himself these days. In addition to delivering speeches for $150,000 a pop and spending more time with Laura (and Barney), the former president has found time to write a book, due out November 8. “This is going to come as quite a shock to people up here that I can write a book, much less read one,” Bush joked. True to Bushie form, no press were allowed inside the Marriott ballroom, and some attendees were furious when even this harmless quote was leaked to Politico’s Mike Allen.
But Bush-Cheney alumni really don’t have much to complain about these days. Not only is their ex-boss being vindicated for the most consequential decision of his presidency—the Iraq war—by some unlikely friends, including Newsweek and Vice President Joseph Biden, Bush-Cheney alums are doing quite well for themselves in their post-executive branch careers.
Former administration officials have become some of the most prominent and effective critics of the current administration. Just turn on the TV or open up a newspaper. The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post each have two former Bush officials as columnists: speechwriters Michael Gerson and Marc Thiessen at the Post and speechwriter Bill McGurn and deputy chief of staff Karl Rove at the Journal. Though he endures the occasional attempt by Code Pink anti-war protesters to conduct a “citizen’s arrest” of him at his book signings, Rove is now a bestselling author. Like Bush administration officials Dana Perino and Liz Cheney, Rove is also a Fox News contributor.
Though they didn’t win the legislative fight on Capitol Hill, domestic policy wonks like Yuval Levin, Keith Hennessey, James Capretta, and Tevi Troy dissected the Democrats’ health care bill and helped turn public opinion against it. The work of many of these former officials is helpfully compiled at rooseveltroom.net, a blog founded by Tony Fratto, former deputy press secretary and now president of the alumni association.
Some erstwhile Bush officials have even met success in electoral politics. Following the election of former agriculture secretary Mike Johanns of Nebraska to the Senate in 2008, Bush trade representative and OMB director Rob Portman of Ohio hopes to become the second Bushie to hold a seat in Congress’s upper chamber. Though a Democratic opponent warns Ohioans, “We need to rein in the reckless policies of the Bush-Portman administration,” Portman is making headway. His predecessor at OMB, Mitch Daniels, cruised to reelection as Indiana governor in 2008 with an 18-point victory, even as Obama carried the state, the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so since 1964. Daniels is now many conservatives’ favorite dark horse to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.
It’s not unusual for former administration officials to have productive post-executive branch careers. Talking heads James Carville and Paul Begala emerged from the Clinton administration, as did George Stephanopoulos, the host of ABC’s “This Week.” Clinton chief of staff John Podesta created an administration-in-exile at the Center for American Progress, which did its part to tear down the Bush administration and pave the way for Obama’s election. Al Gore reenergized the “climate change” campaign.
But that road was smoother for Clinton officials, who were part of an administration that had a 66% approval rating at its conclusion. What’s remarkable about the Bushies is that they went on to successful careers after George W. Bush left office with a Nixon-like 34% approve-61% disapprove rating. A year ago, some administration critics would have thought it more likely that the Bush-Cheney alumni reunion would be held at a low-security federal prison than the J.W. Marriott.
Nowhere has this change in fortunes for Bush administration officials been more evident than among national security hawks like John Yoo. A year ago, Attorney General Eric Holder decided to press forward with an investigation of Yoo and federal judge Jay Bybee for writing legal memos at the Justice Department distinguishing which interrogation methods could be used on al Qaeda terrorists. By that point, Yoo had been vilified as a war criminal by opponents and endured a number of protests at Berkeley, where he resumed teaching law in 2004.
But in the past few months the tables have turned. Yoo was formally cleared of charges on Feb. 19. By then he had already done much to clear his name in the court of public opinion, most notably in an incredibly disarming appearance on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.” Yoo was good-natured and spoke calmly. He “skillfully deflected most of Stewart’s assaults,” as the liberal Washington Independent acknowledged. Stewart described the interview as “pretty unsatisfying.”
“I thought rather than repeat the same talking points, I would just try to treat it like a conversation and respond to what he was saying and tell my own jokes if that opportunity arose,” Yoo told me in an interview. “It wasn’t much different than teaching class. Here you’ve got this smart guy, very witty, but [he] hasn’t really prepared for class.” It’s safe to say that Professor Yoo schooled Stewart.
“How frustrating is it to talk with me?” Stewart asked Yoo at one point. The question itself was a concession that the issues Yoo dealt with were much more complicated than the black-and-white approach of many of his critics.
“First of all, let me say I don’t find talking with you frustrating, I find it many things, but not frustrating,” Yoo deadpanned.
In retrospect, how do the interrogation styles of Jon Stewart and John Conyers compare? “Well one person is clearly smarter and funnier,” Yoo says. “I’ll leave you guessing as to which one that is.”
Ironically, what enabled Yoo to resuscitate his reputation was the Obama administration’s investigation. The decision to “declassify things that were probably better kept secret,” Yoo says, gave him “a lot of freedom to speak out.” And Yoo isn’t just speaking out to defend his work at the Department of Justice. In the Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer, and other publications, Yoo has taken aim at the detention and interrogation policies of Barack Obama and Eric Holder. “I’m not surprised,” Yoo says of a recent report that Holder failed to disclose a brief he filed on behalf of terrorist Jose Padilla. “I knew he and others in the Department wanted to treat al Qaeda as criminals.”
“The thing that’s surprising,” says Yoo, “is that these guys in the department take these extreme positions on terrorism and they seem to get constantly flustered when they find out most people don’t agree with them.”
Like the decision to investigate Yoo, it certainly seems like the Obama administration’s decision to pick a fight with Dick Cheney over national security has backfired. The White House specifically scheduled President Obama’s May 21, 2009 speech on Guantánamo detainees, so that Cheney’s speech at the American Enterprise Institute would immediately follow. While the White House may have enjoyed the optics of a young, charismatic, and (then) popular president versus an old, bald, and very unpopular former vice president, Obama didn’t win the argument. Just before his inauguration, a CNN poll Americans supported closing Gitmo by a 4-point margin (51% to 47%); at the end of this March, Americans opposed closing Gitmo by a 21-point margin (60% to 39%).
Dick Cheney, along with his daughter Liz, a former State Department official, have done for national security hawks during the Obama administration what Al Gore did for environmentalists during the Bush administration, though it’s fair to say that you probably won’t see Dick or Liz Cheney star in an Academy Award-winning film any time soon.
As chair of Keep America Safe, Liz Cheney has done as much as her father to drive public opinion against the Obama administration’s controversial national security policies, such as Mirandizing al Qaeda terrorists and trying 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court in Manhattan. Keep America Safe, which Cheney founded along with the sister of a 9/11 victim Debra Burlingame and Weekly Standard editor (and my boss) Bill Kristol, has run TV and online ads hammering the Obama administration on national security issues and organized rallies to oppose civilian trials for al Qaeda terrorists.
That isn’t to say that the work of former Bush administration officials has been defined entirely by opposition to Obama’s policies. As the president deliberated how to proceed in Afghanistan, a number of former administration officials stepped forward to offer their support if Obama opted to send more troops. A number of conservatives and former administration officials—like Paul Bremer, Karl Rove, Peter Wehner, Stephen Rademaker, and David Frum—signed a letter drafted by the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) in September 2009 stating their support for Obama if he continued to pursue the strategy he had endorsed at the outset of his presidency.
“From our initial launch in March of 2009, we made clear that we supported what the administration was doing in Afghanistan,” says Jamie Fly, former Bush Defense Department and NSC staffer and now executive director of FPI. “Our first conference was on Afghanistan and planning for success” and featured Democrats like Jane Harman of California and others who supported a surge in Afghanistan. FPI’s board of directors includes foreign policy expert Bob Kagan, former spokesman for the Coalitional Provisional Authority in Iraq Dan Senor, and Bill Kristol (he’s a busy guy).
The message to the Obama administration, says Fly, is that there was and would be “broad bipartisan support if they were committed to providing these necessary resources” to win the war in Afghanistan. Fly notes that FPI has praised Obama on Iraq for extending his withdrawal timeline for 16 to 19 months. Though there’s still plenty of room for criticism. “We’ve been very critical of their apparent lack of interest in the promotion of democracy and human rights,” he says. “We’ve been critical of their Russia policy. We’ve been somewhat critical on Iran, especially their unwillingness to speak out in support of the opposition.”
Though it supports the administration on key foreign policy matters, FPI has drawn fire from the left. At its launch, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow branded FPI as the descendent of the Project for the New American Century, the defunct think tank 9/11 Truthers believe to have plotted the World Trade Center attack. Maddow’s report led to a number of nasty emails and voicemails. “Why don’t you all just go die?” is Fly’s favorite Maddow-inspired voicemail.
But despite the occasional insults of “war criminal!” hurled their way, Bush officials have been effective in influencing political debates since Obama’s inauguration. It’s pretty good to be a Bushie these days.
John McCormack is the online editor of The Weekly Standard.