EDITOR’S NOTE: Tonight’s Guest Post is from Gabe Caggiano.
Over the past ten years I’ve been at dozens of news conferences held by George W. Bush, but none have been more awkward than the one at the White House the day after the midterm elections.
Minutes before it began, the story broke Don Rumsfeld was out and some guy at Texas A&M was in. As Anne Compton of ABC Radio spoke frantically into her mic to announce the news, President Bush began his stride down the main hallway of the White House to the East Room, the blinding lights and a dozen camera ready to illuminate and record every word and gesture. Then came the booming and familiar introduction over the house PA: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States”.
Once at the podium, Bush looked immediately down at his notes, his lips pursed tightly together, the corners pointing downward. Underneath the makeup, I could see his eyes were slightly sunken and his body language was stiff and impatient. The man was exhausted but had a job to do and pressed forward.
Bush congratulated the Democrats for their takeover of the House of Representatives and joked how he gave Nancy Pelosi the name of someone who could help pick out the drapes in the winning party’s new offices. It was a forced attempt at humor and the nervous laughter didn’t help ease the tension in the room. Bush also explained the replacement of Don Rumsfeld at DOD with Bob Gates was a “mutual agreement” after a “series of talks”. To me, it sounded like President Bush took a page out of the Lyndon Johnson playbook on how to dump a Secretary of Defense without making it actually appear the guy is getting canned. When LBJ wanted Robert McNamara out, he made sure Bob got the top job at the World Bank. With Don Rumsfeld, Bush said there was a consensus “new eyes” were needed to deal with the “challenges in Iraq.”
There was no talk of failure by Rummy, no talk that keeping him on would have provided a political piñata for the Democrats to beat on for as long they liked. There was no talk Rumsfeld was removed because well respected members of all four branches of the military had been calling for his head on a stick for more than two years. No, this was a “fresh eyes” change, nothing more.
I wasn’t buying it, neither were the well-coiffed and well paid network reporters in the front row, but protocol prevents one from saying to Bush , “ Oh come on! Rumsfeld’s arrogance, inability to admit he made mistakes and his refusal to send more troops to Iraq have cost Americans their lives and the Republicans their jobs on the Hill!”.
I felt sorry for George Bush at this news conference because he may be the leader of a nation of 300 million, but it was he and he alone who had to answer to the world why his party had failed. Why he had failed. Bush said more than once “It was a thumpin’!” and tried to smile a bit as if his team had just lost a touch football game.
But losing the House and then the Senate is no game. Sure, everyone loves a winner, but it is painful to watch the loser maintain his focus, dignity and graciousness in defeat. After the 2004 election, Bush was full of bravado and his horizons appeared limitless. He bragged at a news conference I was at that he had “political capital to spend and I’m gonna spend it!” And why should Bush have felt any other way? 2004 was his fourth straight campaign victory , going back to his two terms as Texas governor. If someone had a crystal ball when Bush beat Kerry and told him it would all fall apart in 24 months, you can be sure Bush would have cackled in disbelief. It simply wasn’t possible.
But it was possible and it did happen. The stone faces of Tony Snow and Dan Bartlett and the ashen face of Karl Rove conveyed to all at the East Room presser this was no bad dream. This was a real nightmare come true.
I give credit to Bush for saying ‘This isn’t my first rodeo”, meaning, “ I’ve been kicked around and will get back up”, but Bush won’t be running for anything again and has had his political legs knocked out from under him. They won’t grow back during Bush’s remaining days in the Oval Office. At the end of the news conference on Wednesday Bush thanked everyone for coming and walked back down the hallway. Alone and probably holding back tears, believing he had let the entire Republican party and the country down. Or perhaps he was dreading the reality that the worse was yet to come: lunch with Nancy Pelosi.
— Gabe Caggiano