A man alone: The twilight of the Bush presidency

They were known as the 'Texas Mafia', and they shaped the most controversial presidency in US history. But one by one, George Bush's most trusted aides have left his side. Rupert Cornwell reports on the White House exodus that turned the world's most powerful man into a lame duck
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Indy Politics

As the world yesterday observed the latest of the premature death throes of this ill-starred presidency, one image spoke loudest of all. George W Bush was standing in front of a microphone on the asphalt at Waco airport, Texas, angrily – some would say petulantly – defending his old friend Alberto Gonzales, who had just announced in Washington that he was resigning from the post of Attorney General.

The President was en route to neighbouring New Mexico for a fundraising drive, but a comment on the stunning news was obviously required. Bush duly obliged, praising Gonzales for virtues that had escaped most of the rest of us, and accusing his political opponents of baselessly hounding a noble man from office. But the setting said more about the true circumstances of this latest eviction from the President's inner circle than any words from Bush's lips.

No reverentially smiling aides were at his shoulder. In the background, perhaps 30 or 40 yards away, was the familiar olive-green and white Presidential helicopter, the words "United States of America" painted on its side. At the foot of the steps stood two marines in dress uniform, rigidly at attention, their faces betraying not the slightest expression. In the distance was the tiny figure of another military officer as he monitored proceedings. But that was it. For the rest there was just flat grey Tarmac beaten by the sun, and a vast sky stretching away to the endlessly flat horizon of central Texas. Mr Bush, truly, was a man alone.

Lame-duck presidencies are part and parcel of the American political cycle. Unlike Britain, where prime ministers can go to the country at any moment of their choosing, the US electoral calendar is set in stone. No president can serve more than eight years in the Oval Office, and inevitably the final two of them are something of an afterthought. Even with a friendly Congress, his ability to pass legislation is limited. A politician whose days are numbered has little leverage, as eyes increasingly turn to the struggle to succeed him. In varying degrees, all recent two-term presidents have been similarly afflicted.

Nor is the phenomenon limited to America. Tony Blair's announcement that he would step down in 12 months instantly consigned him to lame duck-hood. And as the final weary phase of the Chirac presidency shows, canards boîteux exist in France as well. But never has the condition been as acute as now, as an unloved and isolated Bush fils limps through the 17 months that remain to him, in a country that basically would like to see the back of him tomorrow.

In a sense, the unravelling of this administration is nothing new. At the best of times, a US president is less powerful in the domestic arena than a British prime minister with his built-in majority in Parliament, and three-line whip to wield if needed. By this stage in a presidency, key White House aides and cabinet secretaries are either burnt out by the pressures of the job, or searching for lucrative private-sector jobs to pay for the education of their children. This, too, is the moment when ancient scandals come home to roost, when Congressional subpoenas descend in clouds – who wants to be around for that? So the best and most loyal retainers leave, key posts remain unfilled, and the cycle becomes self-reinforcing, as effective government becomes ever more difficult.

But there are ways around the dilemma, most often in foreign policy, where constitutional checks and balances apply less, and where an outgoing president can still leave his mark on history. Thus it was with Ronald Reagan. By early 1987, his administration was falling apart amid the Iran-Contra scandal, and the largely correct impression it left that a president in his late seventies could have little control over what his aides were up to.

Instead, admittedly aided by the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan's final 18 months in office were exceptionally productive, yielding two superpower summits and a landmark arms-control treaty that signalled the approaching end of the Cold War.

Much the same applied to Bill Clinton a decade later. In 1998 Clinton faced seemingly terminal disgrace over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. His squalid extracurricular sex life had been laid bare in excruciating detail, and he had committed not only adultery but what by any definition amounted to perjury.

In early 1999 he became the first president in more than a century to face impeachment proceedings in the Senate. But Clinton was not only acquitted – by the time he left office his approval rating was around 60 per cent, bolstered by a foreign policy activism that embraced what was considered a "just war" with Yugoslavia over Kosovo, new openings to Vietnam and North Korea, and a massive, if ultimately unsuccessful, exercise in personal diplomacy to achieve a Middle East peace settlement.

This President Bush, however, has the worst of every world. Unlike Reagan and Clinton he has been more unpopular, and for a greater length of time, than any president since Harry Truman. A large majority of Americans have simply tuned him out. In the 17 months he has left, it is hard to imagine any foreign policy success that could rescue his "legacy".

By Bush's own admission, the Iraq war will last well into the term of his successor, while the Arab-Israeli dispute is more intractable than ever. He could, of course, go for broke by attacking Iran. But barring an absurd overreaching by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it is doubtful either Congress or the American public would consent to that particular piece of history-making.

And there is one final, often overlooked, difference from the Reagan and Clinton eras. This time an incumbent vice-president is not running for the top job himself. The White House bids of George Bush senior in 1988 and Al Gore in 2000 guaranteed that their own parties at least would stay loyal to the administrations led by their respective bosses. In 2008 no such consideration applies. When this Bush departs the scene, Dick Cheney will depart with him. Republicans facing re-election know they have nothing more to gain – and that in some cases they risk defeat – from association with this unloved duo.

Thus, if the Iraq mess shows no sign of improvement, and if his poll ratings continue to hover just above 30 per cent, Bush could lose the support of Republicans on Capitol Hill as the 2008 vote approaches. Were enough to join forces with Democrats to form the two-thirds majority needed to override a White House veto, Congress and not the 43rd President would become "the decider" on crucial policy issues. At such times a man needs true friends around him. But Bush's best friends, most lately Alberto Gonzales, are running for the exits, and the vacuum is almost painfully visible.

Not since Jimmy Carter arrived in Washington from Atlanta in 1977 with a coterie of statehouse aides known as the "Georgia Mafia" – who thought they knew it all only to end up with collective egg on their faces – has a president so depended on a close circle of long-time advisers from back home. Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University in Washington, DC, hit the nail on the head yesterday. Bush, he told The Washington Post, "is not an intellectually grounded president, but a personally grounded president. Personal relationships are everything to him, and loyalty and trust are paramount. There's no secure anchor for him any more."

Seen in this light, his long refusal to accept the resignation of Gonzales, and those angry words on the asphalt at Waco, make perfect sense. Cynics will see the delay in getting rid of the Attorney General (a step long urged even by Congressional Republicans as well as Democrats) as a last effort to maintain a firewall between the White House and the various investigations into the warrantless post 9/11 domestic wire-tapping programme, the politically motivated sackings last year of eight federal prosecutors that threaten to consume the final chapter of his presidency.

Up to a point, that may be true. But Bush was above all reluctant to lose an old friend, on whose absolute and unquestioning backing he could rely. Gonzales had been with him since Texas statehouse times, first as lawyer to Bush the Governor, then as Texas Secretary of State, and finally as a Justice on the state's supreme court. In 1996 it was Gonzales who got the future president out of jury duty for a drunk-driving case, that would have surely brought to light Bush's DUI conviction from two decades before. In the event it did become public knowledge on the very eve of the 2000 election, and almost cost Bush victory.

But even before Gonzales' departure, the "Texas Mafia" had broken up. The first to leave, back in July 2002, was Karen Hughes, Bush's director of communications during his days as Governor, who was entrusted the vital task of combing the records of Bush's spell in the Texas Air National Guard for any embarrassing detail that could have wrecked his presidential candidacy.

At the White House she was one of his two closest counsellors, equalled in influence only by Karl Rove. Admittedly Hughes returned to the colours to work on the 2004 re-election campaign, and currently holds the thankless post of Under-Secretary of Public Diplomacy at the State Department, in charge of getting America's message out to a disbelieving Arab world. She still talks to Bush regularly – but that is not the same as a daily physical presence in the Oval Office.

Next to go in mid-2006 was Bush's faithful, robotically dull White House press secretary Scott McClellan, another retainer dating back to Texas days. This year, after the Democrats recaptured Congress, the trickle became a flood. In January Harriet Miers, personal lawyer to then Governor Bush in the 1990s, stepped down as White House counsel, bruised and disillusioned after her humiliating treatment as short-lived nominee to the US Supreme Court in autumn 2005.

Next to go, last month, was Dan Bartlett, another loyalist who worked on Bush's 1994 Texas campaign and in 2002 replaced Hughes as counsellor to the President. And finally of course, Rove himself, variously known as "Bush's Brain" and "The Architect", (or less flatteringly "Turd Blossom" or "Boy Genius") stunned Washington by announcing his own departure just over a fortnight ago.

Rove's was a perfect case of a lame-duck career move. Perhaps out of exhaustion, the man credited with superhuman gifts of electoral strategy (and skullduggery) was showing signs of losing his touch. More importantly, what reason was there to continue serving a master who had fought his last election, when Republican candidates up and down the country were screaming for his services?

Bush's cupboard of friends is not entirely bare. A handful of old Yale pals – among them Clay Johnson, currently deputy budget director – are still around, as are some Texan true believers like Margaret Spellings, the Education Secretary. But of the big cabinet beasts, only Condoleezza Rice, treated by the Bushes as virtual family, remains – as well, of course, as the Vice-President himself, whose empty expressionless gaze befits his other role as undertaker to a dying administration. But Donald Rumsfeld is gone, after being kept on – as was Gonzales – far longer than political sense dictated. So too is Andy Card, who finally stepped down as White House Chief of Staff in 2006 after five years in arguably the most gruelling job in all of government. "Are you married to me or George Bush?" his wife once asked in exasperation.

Now Bush is being forced to draw on the network he once deliberately avoided – the one that belonged to his father and whose members included luminaries like James Baker, Secretary of State to Bush senior, and the former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft. They were long shut out, partly because their presence might have implied that George Junior was ultimately daddy's boy, and partly because of their opposition to the Iraq war. Finally, however, he could resist the pressure no longer. The replacement of the swaggering Rumsfeld at the Pentagon by pragmatic Robert Gates, CIA director under the first Bush, was one sign. Another was the adoption of a more energetic diplomacy in Iraq and the Middle East, as long advocated by Baker and others.

But opportunities for action are shrinking, both in the US and beyond. At home, Bush can do next to nothing. "I have some political capital and I intend to spend it," he bragged, the day after his 2004 re-election victory over John Kerry. But that capital evaporated with astonishing speed, devoured by a debacle in Iraq that no spin could conceal, and by the inept response to Hurricane Katrina nine months later. The touted "legacy" initiatives of his second term – privatisation of social security, an overhaul of the tax system and immigration reform – are all effectively dead. Conceivably, Congress may pass an important farm bill, but that's about it.

Abroad, perhaps, there is more scope. For one thing, a chief executive's hands are less fettered over foreign policy, especially now with the Cheney-inspired resurrection of the "imperial presidency". And while Bush may be losing ideological soulmates at home, if anything he is gaining them overseas.

Tony Blair of course is gone, and the chemistry between the gregarious Texan and the dour and brainy Scot who now occupies No 10 is unpredictable. But the cantankerous governments of "Old Europe" that Rumsfeld used to demonise during the transatlantic split over Iraq are no more. In Berlin, Gerhard Schröder has been replaced by Angela Merkel, who has excellent personal relations with Bush, while Nicolas Sarkozy is the most instinctively pro-American French leader in generations.

Even so, it is probably too late. Like Brown, Merkel and Sarkozy are constrained by the intense unpopularity of Bush with their domestic electorates. And they know, as Republicans and Democrats alike in the US know, that this is the twilight of a presidency. If they have any doubts on this score, a glance at that solitary man on the asphalt in Waco will suffice to dispel them.

Alberto Gonzales: Resigned, August 2007

The loss of Gonzales, the Attorney General since 2005 and one of Bush's closest friends, is one of the biggest blows to the President. Reflecting on Gonzales's resignation, effective next month, Bush said that his friend's "good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons". A controversial figure in Washington, Gonzales had become embroiled in a bitter row over the sacking of eight US prosecutors.

Karl Rove: Resigned, August 2007

As a student, the committed Republican Rove invited Chicago vagrants to drink free beer at a plush Democrat reception. Often dubbed "the brains behind Bush", the Deputy Chief of Staff has continued to be dogged by controversy, most recently being implicated in the Valerie Plame CIA "outing" affair. He leaves at the end of the week, after 14 years, citing family reasons for his departure.

Dan Bartlett: Resigned, June 2007

One of Bush's longest-serving and most loyal aides, Bartlett has been described as being like a son to the President, whose gubernatorial campaign he worked on in 1994. After rising through the ranks to become President Bush's communications director, Bartlett, 36, resigned to spend more time with his young family.

Paul Wolfowitz: Resigned, June 2007

A key architect of the neoconservatism that has defined Bush's presidency, Wolfowitz was one of the key supporters of the invasion of Iraq, making his 2005 appointment as President of the World Bank deeply unpopular with those who had opposed it. He was forced to step down in June over the part he played in awarding a huge pay-rise to his partner, a former World Bank employee.

Harriet Miers: Resigned, January 2007

Bush's most senior lawyer had been a loyal adviser since the 1980s, and the President put her forward for the position of Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court in 2005. But, under pressure from Democrats and conservative law-makers unhappy at her credentials, he later withdrew her nomination, saying she had asked him to do so. Miers resigned her post as White House counsel earlier this year.

John Bolton: Resigned, December 2006

Only President Bush would choose a man like Bolton to be the US envoy to the UN. The hardline lawyer, whose 2005 appointment raised eyebrows among both Republicans and Democrats, once said there was "no such thing" as the UN and called the US the world's "only real power". Accused of bullying his subordinates and abusing access to intelligence, he stepped down in December.

Donald Rumsfeld: Retired, December 2006

As the mastermind behind the "shock and awe" strategy in the Iraq war, and Bush's most prominent ally in his war on terror, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's position became untenable when his reputation was tarnished by the state of affairs in Iraq. He is writing his memoirs.

Andrew Card: Resigned, March 2006

Card had served Bush for 15 years at the time of his resignation. Once said to have been asked by his wife: "Are you married to me or George Bush?", he was the aide seen informing a dumbstruck President about the 9/11 attacks during a visit to a Florida elementary school. Card apparently resigned his position as White House Chief of Staff after becoming disillusioned with the Iraq war, fearing it would be seen as another Vietnam.

Lewis 'Scooter' Libby: Resigned, October 2005

The Chief of Staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney, and former Bush aide, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years last June for perjury and obstruction of justice. Libby had lied about his attempt in 2003 to leak information to a New York Times journalist, leading to the identification of the CIA agent Valerie Plame, whose husband was a critic of the Iraq war.

John Ashcroft: Resigned, 2004

Bush's Attorney General after the 2000 election, Ashcroft became the first high-profile departure after the President won a second term in 2004. Staunchly religious and anti-abortion, his appointment was a reward for the religious right's support. He was a key supporter of the controversial post-September 11 Patriot Act.

Colin Powell: Resigned, 2004

Since his resignation, the former Secretary of State has become increasingly critical of the Bush administration and the conduct of troops and treatment of detainees in Iraq. The former military leader was appointed to the State Department in 2001, where he frequently clashed with Cheney and Rumsfeld, who favoured a more belligerent approach in the run-up to the Iraq War.

Ari Fleischer: Resigned, 2003

Inducted into Bush's camp a year before the 2000 election, Fleischer became a household name thanks to his daily press briefings after the September 11 attacks. The White House Press Secretary reportedly had an uneasy relationship with both his press corps and Bush's cabinet, but claimed a desire to spend more time with his family, which he did in July 2003.