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Ron Suskind discusses the Bush administration.

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Lateline Ron Suskind discusses the Bush administration


Ron Suskind discusses the Bush administration

Broadcast: 28/11/2008

Reporter: Leigh Sales

Pulitzer prize-winning investigative reporter Ron Suskind joins Lateline from Washington to discuss US President George W Bush's eight years in the White House.


LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Americans are in the midst of their annual Thanksgiving holiday, counting their blessings and hoping for better times ahead, given the nation's economic woes and its continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In less than two months, the architect of those wars, President George W Bush, will end his eight years in the White House.

Although he leaves as one of the most reviled Presidents in history, at one time, right after 9/11, he had overwhelming support, both in America and around the world. So why did things go so wrong for George Bush? And will the passage of time offer any redemption?

Few journalists in the United States have had better access to the inner sanctum of the Bush Administration than the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and author Ron Suskind.

He joined me from his home in Washington.

Ron Suskind, George Bush leaves office with an approval rating around 20 per cent, one of the lowest on record for any President. What went so wrong for him?

RON SUSKIND, AUTHOR & JOURNALIST: You know, George Bush makes everything personal. That's sort of the guiding principle of this Presidency. It's the way George W Bush has always organised the world, by making things personal. It's the way he brings coherence and a kind of completeness to his engagement. He's not much on analytical skills, but he's got a non-verbal acuity, sizing people up. I think one of the great tragedies of the Bush Presidency is, interestingly and oddly, as the son of a President, he sort of thought it was all about him - his issues, his dilemmas, his Oedipal struggles, his heart. And in a way, Presidents usually recognise it's not about them. They are stewards in the world's most powerful office, and at some point they all embrace a kind of humility to say, "It's not about me, it's about this office that I inhabit and I will soon leave." And Bush never really did that and I think that's one reason why he never really evolved in office. He had have his moment after 9/11 - people remember that - where he could really tap his emotions in a way to bring about swift action that was widely heralded as successful, at least at the start. But then he never moved forward from that point. And in a time like this when things are changing so quickly, so frenetically, the challenges so fast and new and in a way unpredictable, you need to evolve and that's something this President, as, well - many Presidents are successful when they do evolve in office, many of the most successful ones. This President never did.

LEIGH SALES: Why do you think he didn't have the capacity to evolve?

RON SUSKIND: I think a big part of it was just his nature, his character. Bush is somebody who kind of felt that digging in, a kind of resilience, was a virtue. After time, though, when competing evidence was essentially ignored, it started to look more and more like a kind of stubbornness, a kind of a - almost a bull-headedness that the country eventually picked up as well and the rest of the world, saying, "You know, he's not doing what we expect Americans and their representative, a President, to do," which is to look at the world as it is and respond to often the vast complexities that someone leading the world will have to face. George Bush didn't do that. He said, "I'm sticking with principle. I won't negotiate with myself." Well, you know, the fact is negotiating with yourself is often the key to sound analysis and really stepping forward into something called progress. Bush wouldn't do it and his rigidness ultimately becomes his undoing.

LEIGH SALES: You and the Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward have arguably had the best access of any journalist to the inner workings of the Bush White House. In Woodward's books, he writes that Bush had almost a religious faith in his gut instinct. Is that something that you found as well?

RON SUSKIND: Yes, absolutely. You know, this sort of preternatural, almost mystical faith in my gut, my instinct. You know, he never could give often good explanations even to senior advisors as to why he would do some things. "What's behind this, Mr President?" "Well, it just feels right. I'm going with my gut on this." And actually Presidents have always done something different. They always, to at least senior advisors, and often to the American public and even the global community, have said, "Here are the good reasons that underlie action. You ought to know that." Bush never really did that and, again, if it's coming from your gut rather than let's say more easily discernible analysis of complexity where you're coming to a decision, where fragmentation is ultimately arriving at a kind of resolution, an action, a decision. If it's not that, it's often hard to explain. And Bush, very often, in my reporting, as I think in Bob's reporting, would say, "You know, I prayed over it or I thought myself alone for, you know, for some time of solitude to come to this decision, and this is what I'm going to do and I'm not

going to bend."

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You know, the other thing that defines Bush is this sort of preternatural faith in his own certainty. He was able to will certainty rather than more traditional earn certainty. And in a way, he's a kind of confidence man. I don't say that like a scam artist. He believes in an almost mystical power of confidence. If you're truly confident, the world will bend, even reality as we know it will bend to that confidence. If you believe in yourself and you've got real confidence, nothing, nothing is short of possible. This is something that might work in self-help manuals, but it doesn't really work with the leader of the free world. You can't run the world on instinct from inside a bubble, which is what the Oval Office became year by year for this President. Alternative and competing voices couldn't get to him. He would shut them out or frankly dismiss them. And more and more, he was living in a kind of isolation - just himself, his gut and his willed confidence, even as the world was really on fire.

LEIGH SALES: You wrote an article in 2004 noting that Bush's mentality spread throughout his staff and you quoted an unnamed aide to Bush who spoke about the administration's distaste for people who operated in the so-called "reality-based community". Can you tell me about that?

RON SUSKIND: Sure, sure. It was a conversation I had with an advisor to Bush and the fact is it could have been a conversation I had with six or seven, 10 people around Bush. It was a prevailing doctrine. The advisor says to me that I as a journalist - I could have been an academic or even a corporate leader - he said, "Ron, you live in what we call the reality-based community." I said, "Well, what the Devil is that?" He says, "You believe the solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I say, "Well, of course. I've got a history behind me, age of reason principles, Enlightenment ideals." He says, "Oh, yes, we know that. But that's not the way the world really works anymore. You see, we're an empire now and when we act, we create our own reality of sorts. Now you'll study that reality judiciously, as you will, and we'll act again; then you can study that one and we'll act a third time. And that's the way it will all sort out. We are history's actors because we have the courage to do what's necessary and you will be left to study what we do, all of you in the reality-based community." Now, ultimately, I said to the advisor, as any number of people might, "People who believe what you just said frankly end up in history's dustbin. Come to my office, pick any book off the shelf marked 'history', you can see that." And ultimately reality does rise up. You can see it almost year by year, starting 2003, 2004, 2005 and the awful year of 2006 for this President, where it was clear that ultimately that old horse and buggy model of reality-based analysis that is constantly shifting and changing based on new circumstances is really - well, it's still the way the world really does work.

LEIGH SALES: There are some supporters of Bush who say that history will judge him more kindly than the present day. What do you think about that?

RON SUSKIND: Well, you know, certainly I think that, you know, advisors to Presidents often feel that way. They say, "Well, you know, he'll be Truman." Truman's the one they cite because Truman left office with very low approval ratings and history did a lot to restore Truman's reputation. I personally don't think, based on my study and can my investigations over these years reporting - three books now in six years - that Bush will be Truman. I think that frankly we'll be arguing about him, a little bit like we did about Nixon, for the next 30 years, because so much of what defined America during this seminal period will be very, very difficult to swiftly unwind, to change. It will have effects in terms of, in many cases, unintended consequences for many decades to come, I think.

LEIGH SALES: Will Bush get any credit for the fact that there hasn't been another terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11?

RON SUSKIND: Well, you know, it's interesting. I've done a lot of reporting on that and the general thinking inside of the intelligence community is that we should not gain confidence from the fact there has not been another major terrorist attack on the US mainland. The Al Qaeda play book, as we understand, is one of a great deal of patience. The view - in fact it was what prompted the calling off of an attack in early 2003, a New York City subway attack - is that the next attack after 9/11 should be bigger than the 9/11 attack, it ostensibly should carry more destructive power and sort of visceral and visual force so that then it will set an upward arc of terror and anticipation of terror - terror's what they do - between that next attack and whatever follows. That's generally the way the intelligence community views it and not that the fact that there has not been an attack on the US mainland is really a sign of successful policy. Again, there's debate on this and history will really be the judge, but I think in general, people do not derive a kind of a sense of security from the fact that Al Qaeda has not struck with a next significant attack, especially now that they're reconstituted in the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Pakistani tribal areas and have capabilities restored.

LEIGH SALES: Do you think that Bush is aware of how reviled he is, both at home and abroad? And how does that affect him?

RON SUSKIND: Well, you know, he can't obviously ignore this. You know, he knows the way the world and people in America see him. You know - I mean, it's interesting, you know. Bush, as the son of a President, has experience with things like approval ratings and poll numbers. He also has always felt that, you know, he's going to do what he decides is right ever since he's a young man, frankly. And, you know, if people don't like it, well, you know, my way or the highway. That's kind of the Bush ethos. It's going to be difficult though going forward, I think when he feels that cold splash of water on his face leaving the Oval Office to get a sense of how people in America and the world see him once he becomes a private citizen. He won't be embraced, I don't think, as some other Presidents have been after they've left office.

LEIGH SALES: In your latest book, "The Way of the World", you write that the United States has lost much of the moral authority it needs

to meet modern challenges. But I'm wondering if the very positive reaction around the world to the election of Barack Obama shows that that might be wrong because it shows that people still do respect America and do look to the United States for leadership and indicates that perhaps the attitude towards the United States during the Bush years was an aberration?

RON SUSKIND: Well, it's interesting, you know. "The Way of the World", though many of the disclosures have driven the global news cycles including some things that folks have called impeachable offences for Bush, you know, in a way the book is not about that, it's about using them as a starting point for America's restoration of moral authority, which is a source of true power in the world. And I think the hope, certainly in terms of many of the supporters of Barack Obama and those who've reacted around the world so favourably is that Obama will manage this extremely difficult thing: to restore America's moral energy. You know, that's what transforms the world. And that's the source, of course, of true power. It's not tanks or

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troops or bombers, it's a kind of moral clarity that people respond to and say, "I want to be part of that." That's something that in its basic core is true and if America's true to that oath, I think there will be a kind of a reappraisal, which I think is already happening, that will really change the way people view the country. Now, having said that, I think it's also an enormous challenge of leadership that Barack Obama is already facing and will face, starting January 20.

LEIGH SALES: You recently wrote an article in which you reported about a rally at which Obama had spoken just before the election, and a woman there remarked to you, "I never felt this way. I just feel that he can save us." With attitudes like that, with expectations so high, is there any way that Obama can fail to disappoint?

RON SUSKIND: Oh, you know, I think we're really breathing some ether right now. I mean, you know, folks even Republicans and of course Democrats are just - you know, they're looking at Obama with a kind of sense of possibility that is a little bit dizzying, frankly. You know, he cannot walk on water as far as my reporting shows. I think that it's going to be difficult to manage those expectations. I recently wrote in the New York Times an article about eras changing and the last line of it is, "Let's see how well Obama can manage hope." Managing hope is very tricky. You know, hope, like fear, is a kind of elemental force. It needs to be managed with great care. Obama I think is already thinking about that and I think he's done some sound things already to say, "Look, I'm human. I'm doing my best. I'm coming up with a plan." And I think people are generally responding to try to bring expectations down a bit. But of course it's going to get pretty giddy on Inauguration Day, considering the symbolic power of an African-American stepping up into the highest office in the world. You know, this is really part of a very long American journey - really a human journey that America's simply been a part of. Of the stranger, you know, arriving in a home. It's really a vast human narrative that America has really risen because of. You know, the idea that in this nation people can come of whatever race or creed or inclination and they will be judged on their merits. They will be at home in their skin and they will find a home. And they will be able to tap their truest and best self. This is of course the story of Obama and it's a global story which is why there's been such sort of global frisson and excitement as people tap into it around the world. Obama will carry that to the highest office in January of this year and it will be an extraordinary American moment. Then the question is: what do we do now? And once he rolls up his sleeves, from that moment, to try to move this enormous, complicated ship of state called the United States, then we'll see really the nature of the challenge of leadership that he faces.

LEIGH SALES: Well, we'll all be watching with great interest. Ron Suskind, it was a pleasure to have you on our program. Thanks so much for being with us.

RON SUSKIND: Oh, my pleasure.

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