Reagan's Disciple

George W. Bush's Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy


By Lou Cannon

By Carl M. Cannon

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George W. Bush ran for office promising to continue what conservative icon Ronald Reagan started, and two years into his first term, Bush was still being described as “Reagan’s son.” Today, with the Iraq War spinning out of control and the Democrats in charge of Congress, Republicans and the conservative movement have all but abandoned George W. Bush. What happened? Did Bush change, or did his party’s perceptions? Has the war and Bush’s performance on other issues derailed the larger goals of the Reagan Revolution — and even undermined its foundations? Or does the nation remain on a conservative path despite Bush’s low standing with his fellow Americans?

In Reagan’s Disciple, two widely respected reporter/ historians provide an authoritative and concise investigation into these issues. They describe the essence of the 40th and the 43rd presidencies, and compare them to shed new light on the history of the past three decades. They show both how extraordinary a leader Reagan was, and how preposterous the expectations for Bush were from the beginning. As Americans look toward choosing a new leader in 2008, Reagan’s Disciple will serve as an instructive tale for Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike.



Ronnie and Jesse: A Political Odyssey (1969)

The McCloskey Challenge (1972)

Reporting: An Inside View (1977)

Reagan (1982)

Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots

Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD (1998)

President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (1991, 2000)

Ronald Reagan: The Presidential Portfolio (2001)

Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power (2003)


The Pursuit of Happiness in Times of War (2003)

Boy Genius: Karl Rove, The Architect of George W. Bush’s

Remarkable Political Triumphs, co-author (2003, 2005)


The idea for this book grew out of a joint presentation, “A Tale of Two Presidents,” that the two of us gave March 27, 2006, at Stanford University where we were Hoover Media Fellows. The presidents were Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The two of us are Lou Cannon and Carl M. Cannon, father and son, who have occasionally worked together as reporters but are collaborating on a book for the first time. We were and remain fascinated by the degree to which George W. Bush, the son of President George H. W. Bush, modeled—or tried to model—his presidency not after his father’s but after Ronald Reagan’s. On matters of style and substance alike, the younger Bush and several of his aides and consultants evoked the Reagan model at every opportunity. Members of the Reagan team, at least when Bush was riding high in public approval, had welcomed the comparisons as ratification that their hero was the gold standard for presidents—and even more so for Republican presidential candidates.

In 1980 Reagan won the White House by easily besting the senior Bush and five other candidates for the Republican Party nomination and then defeating incumbent President Jimmy Carter. Four years later, under the gauzy slogan of “Morning Again in America,” Reagan won reelection in an impressive forty-nine-state landslide. Reagan’s vice president, George H. W. Bush, ascended to the Oval Office in 1988 in an election that was largely a referendum on Reagan and his policies. On his own in 1992, Bush lost to Bill Clinton in a three-way race. So it was not surprising that Team Bush relished Reagan comparisons in the 2000 presidential campaign. Ken Khachigian, a premier speechwriter for Reagan, described Bush as lacking “artifice or contrivance,” in supposed contrast to Democratic nominee Al Gore. “If nothing else, George W. Bush appears genuine,” Khachigian said. “That’s Ronald Reagan all over the place.” Scott McClellan, campaign spokesman and later White House press secretary, would parry virtually any criticism by invoking Reagan’s name. (“Like Ronald Reagan, Governor Bush understands that the role of a leader is to set a clear agenda,” he would say. “Like Ronald Reagan, Governor Bush is setting up a positive, uplifting tone for the country.”)

Even when the younger Bush was compared to his father, Reagan was part of the equation. When the voting ended on November 7, 2000, a key Bush adviser in Austin was asked by a British journalist what kind of president the Texas governor would make. “Truly, I think he will be a cross between his dad and Ronald Reagan,” the aide replied. “He has the innate decency of his father and the ability of Reagan to set a broad course.”1 The “cross” Team Bush had in mind was the melding of Forty-One’s “kinder and gentler” impulses with Reagan’s conservatism on taxes, social policy, and America’s place in the world. In this construct, taxes would be cut not only because government was insatiable and its programs counter-productive, but also because it was better for poor people. This was an echo of supply-side economics, which held that tax reductions spurred productivity and helped everyone.

Jack Kemp, a Republican House member representing a working-class district in Buffalo, had popularized supply-side in the late 1970s to attract Democrats who distrusted traditional Republican polices of balanced budgets and high interest rates. Kemp often quoted President John F. Kennedy, who had proposed tax cuts and famously said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Reagan, also given to quoting JFK and attentive to measures that appealed to independent and Democratic voters, had embraced supply-side economics during the 1980 presidential campaign. George H. W. Bush, in contrast, had dismissed the theory as “voodoo economics,” a view he necessarily recanted when he became Reagan’s running mate. But tax policy proved a continuing stumbling block for the elder Bush. As the 1988 presidential nominee, he promised never to raise taxes. Breaking this promise contributed to his defeat four years later and made an indelible impression on his son. George W. Bush would not repeat his father’s political mistake, and his tax cuts stamped him as the Gipper’s heir. This phenomenon was examined in “Reagan’s Son,” an incisive cover story by Bill Keller in The New York Times Magazine on January 26, 2003, seven weeks before the invasion of Iraq. Keller, soon to become the executive editor of his newspaper, described a president with Reagan-like priorities in judicial appointments and deployment of American power as well as tax-cutting. Furthermore, wrote Keller, “Reagan DNA” was imprinted in the staffing and training of the George W. Bush administration. Several longtime Reagan aides agreed. One of them, Hoover Institution scholar Martin C. Anderson, who had served as Reagan’s domestic policy adviser, said that when he gave tutorials to Bush it felt as if he were briefing a younger version of Reagan. Michael K. Deaver, who had been closer to the Reagans than any other White House aide, also saw Bush’s behavior as Reaganesque. “I mean, his father was supposed to be the third term of the Reagan presidency—but then he wasn’t,” Deaver said. “This guy is.”

Why did Reagan have such a magical hold on his followers—and for that matter, on the American people? These questions have been examined in Lou Cannon’s books and will, in shorter compass, be reexamined in this one. There are three key points. The first is that conservatives saw Reagan as their champion because he led them out of the political wilderness to national power and, many of them believe, to greatness. This adoration was expressed at a December 1, 1988, Republican dinner by Kemp, who described himself as a “foot-soldier... in the Reagan army” and noted that over the years he had introduced Reagan as George Gipp, as a modern-day Sir Thomas More, and as Alexander the Great. Then, with President-elect George H. W. Bush in attendance, Kemp gazed at Reagan and gushed, “with all due respect to Winston Churchill and with all due respect to William Manchester, who wrote The Last Lion, Churchill was not the ‘last lion’ of the twentieth century. He’s with us tonight: Ronald Wilson Reagan.”2

The second reason for Reagan’s iconic status is that a significant majority of Americans, including many Democrats and independents, viewed him as a reassuring figure who had steadied the nation in troubled times and, by dealing successfully with the Soviet Union, made the world a safer place. Even though President Reagan’s popularity had been nicked by the Iran-contra affair, he finished his two terms with approval ratings ranging from 63 percent (Gallup) to 68 percent (The New York Times–CBS), the highest for any president who has left office alive. In a Gallup Poll in 2001, Americans ranked Reagan as the greatest president of all time, slightly ahead of John F. Kennedy, with Abraham Lincoln third. (Even among more skeptical academic historians, Reagan’s ratings have slowly advanced. These historians placed Reagan twenty-second when he left office; in four more recent surveys he has ranked anywhere from third to eleventh.)

The third reason Reagan remains popular is that in the eyes of many he benefits in comparison to his successors. The first Bush lost the public’s confidence by barely responding to recession—and lost his reelection bid. Clinton’s reputation was damaged while he was president by fund-raising and sex scandals, and after he left office by retrospective criticism that he had failed to prepare America for terrorist attacks. Americans across the political spectrum are disillusioned with George W. Bush for a host of reasons, most of all the Iraq War. In their eagerness to discredit him, political liberals who couldn’t stand Reagan when he was alive have discovered hitherto unrecognized qualities of greatness in the fortieth president. Disappointed conservatives, meanwhile, have recast Bush as the Anti-Reagan. “Bush is not a conservative,” wrote Jeffrey Hart, the conservative academic and author of The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times. “He is a right-wing ideologue.”3 In this same essay Hart quoted conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. as defining true conservatism as “the politics of reality,” adding that Bush did not meet this standard. For his part, Bill Buckley cooled first on the Iraq War, and then on the Bush presidency itself. Conservative economist Bruce Bartlett, in Imposter: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, denounces Bush on the book’s first page as a “pretend conservative” who, despite cutting taxes, never made any meaningful attempts to rein in federal spending. “He has more in common with liberals, who see no limits to state power as long as it is used to advance what they think is right,” Bartlett said of GWB. The phrase coined by Bush defender Fred Barnes—“big-government conservatism”—has been used derisively in National Review and other conservative publications.

There are two principal reasons why conservatives have soured on George W. Bush. One is uneasiness about the war. The other is Bush’s blithe embrace of deficit spending, necessitated, in part, to finance that war. As the U.S. occupation of Iraq turned into a stalemate, a spirited debate broke out in liberal circles over whether Al Gore would have launched an invasion to oust Saddam Hussein. Gore, who said in the 2000 campaign that his guiding principle as president would be “WWJD” (what would Jesus do?), answered, as many Democrats have, that he would have invaded Afghanistan, but not Iraq. Conservatives began debating a similar question, but their concerns came under the heading of what can be termed “WWRRD?”

“Would Ronald Reagan have invaded Iraq?” Patrick J. Buchanan, Reagan’s onetime White House director of communications, asked in a 2004 column days after Reagan’s death. “Would he have declared a doctrine of preventive war to keep any rival nation from rising to where it might challenge us? Would he have crusaded for ‘world democratic revolution’? Was Reagan the first neoconservative?” Buchanan, who never favored the Iraq War—even when it appeared to be going well and was politically popular with a majority of Americans—argued no. And while it’s true that Buchanan is an idiosyncratic conservative and longtime critic of the entire Bush family, he was not alone. Conservative scholars Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, coauthors of America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and Global Order, maintained that it is a “travesty” to even assert, as several prominent Iraq hawks have done, that Reagan would have invaded Iraq.

The purpose of this book is to examine that proposition and the broader questions surrounding it: Did it ever make sense to anoint George W. Bush the rightful inheritor of Reaganism? Once in the Oval Office, did he govern as Reagan governed and lead the nation in the direction Reagan would have led it? Finally, did the forty-third president of the United States ratify the Reagan Revolution—or derail it?

We trust that readers of this book who have followed the authors’ works over the years will expect an evenhanded and thorough examination of our subject matter from—in the old sense of the phrase—a fair and balanced point of view. Neither of us is partisan, an outlook made easier by the fact that we are not ideological. We come to our judgments with shoeleather reporting and analysis based on facts and historical context. Between the two of us, we have covered six of the last seven presidents and interviewed all seven. While reporting this book we drew on Carl’s access to Bush aides and former aides, such as Michael Gerson, Karl Rove, Peter Wehner, and Bush media maven Mark McKinnon, formerly a Texas Democrat; and on Lou’s longtime relationship with such GOP luminaries as Colin Powell, Michael Deaver, James Baker, Kenneth Duberstein, Edwin Meese, and George Shultz, among others. Carl has twice dined with George W. Bush; Lou had numerous interviews and exchanges with Ronald Reagan. Both of us, particularly Lou, have long known Dick Cheney. We respect these people without identifying with them, or with their Democratic critics. We believe reporters should be beyond politics. We see our role—as contemporary historians and biographers as well as journalists—as one of bearing witness to events and trying to understand them. In the pages that follow, we have tried to describe the essence of these two presidencies, the fortieth and the forty-third, and to compare them in a way that sheds light on what has happened at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the past three decades. We hope that this analysis will be particularly useful at a time when Americans are in the process of choosing their next president.

We realize we are joining a conversation in progress and have no illusion that what we say will be the last word on either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. This book is neither an anti-Bush polemic nor an apologia, and it makes no pretense of being a definitive account of how the United States became involved in the war in Iraq, a subject on which there are a wealth of excellent books. Being non-ideological, however, does not mean we are conflict averse. Reporters make judgments every day, and we have tried to confront the difficult questions raised by the George W. Bush presidency. The war in Iraq has revived the traditional American distrust of foreign entanglements, once labeled “isolationism,” that persist even in an age of globalism. It has encouraged some conservatives to say aloud what they muttered in the Reagan years: That deficits are a real problem and that many tax cuts are illusory. But the debate over the national direction is taking place during the Bush presidency in a different political context than the one faced by Reagan. Republicans were a minority in the House throughout Reagan’s presidency and in the Senate during his last two years in office. Until 2006, Republicans were mostly in control of Congress during the George W. Bush presidency; even now, they are more numerous in the House than at any time in the Reagan years. That fact proved a mixed blessing for Bush during his first six years in office. John Kerry was correct when he asserted that Bush hadn’t vetoed any spending bills, but Reagan didn’t veto many of them either, and he also, after his ballyhooed tax cuts of 1981, raised taxes several times without suffering much in conservative esteem. Given the Democratic majority in the House, many conservatives excused Reagan as doing the best he could.

Yet for all his second-term travails and the accompanying plunge in his popularity, Bush has unquestionably advanced the Reagan Revolution in significant ways. The Democrats, even while denouncing Bush’s tax cuts, have failed to make a serious effort to reverse them. The judiciary, most notably the Supreme Court, has become more conservative. Thus, the assertion made by Bill Keller that “Bush is in a sense the fruition of Reagan” is worth a close examination today, as it was in 2003. So, too, are the implications of Keller’s prescient conclusion: “If [Bush] fails, my guess is that it will be a failure not of caution but of overreaching, which means it will be failure on a grand scale.”





In the midst of the presidential campaign of 2004, Boston genealogist Gary Boyd Roberts established that George W. Bush and John Kerry were distant kinsmen. This revelation was unsurprising to Roberts, who in 1995 had documented that the Bush family was related to fifteen previous presidents. But it did raise ancient concerns about birth and privilege. “These people are definitely in the American hereditary upper class,” Roberts noted.1He might have added that Bush’s aristocratic background set him apart from every other modern Republican presidential nominee—except Bush’s own father. Kerry was not atypical: Two of the Democratic Party’s most beloved twentieth-century presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, and several other Democratic nominees were to the manor born. But among modern Republican presidents, the two Bushes are the only ones with aristocratic lineages. Both arguably owed their presidencies to the success of Ronald Reagan.

George W. Bush, mindful of his debt, put Reagan first on his list of political heroes, ahead of Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt. Reagan and George W. Bush shared many traits, including (as columnist George F. Will put it) “a talent for happiness,” a supreme (even excessive) self-confidence, and a preference for physical activity. But in his modest upbringing and the near penury of his father, Reagan had more in common with other Republican presidents of the past century. Herbert Hoover was orphaned as a child and knew poverty and hard work in his teenage years; Dwight D. Eisenhower’s father opened a clothing store that failed, and then retreated, “financially ruined,” to the family farm in Kansas. (The future president was born in Texas at a time when his father was trying to get back on his feet as a railroad hand.) Richard M. Nixon’s father struggled to survive as a lemon farmer and made dubious business decisions that often put him on the financial brink. Reagan’s father was even less successful; he moved from town to town in Illinois as a dreamy itinerant shoe salesman who tried to make a living for his family between drinking bouts. As a child, Reagan lived in so many Illinois towns and cities that he had no opportunity to develop boyhood friendships except with his only sibling, his older brother Neil. Many years later Nancy Reagan said that the combination of this nomadic existence and his father’s alcoholism had created a barrier within Ronald Reagan that not even she could fully penetrate. But Reagan was not crushed by his childhood. He adored and identified with his mother, Nelle, a religious woman with an interest in dramatics that she imparted to Ronald. Like Eisenhower and Nixon before him, Reagan was close to his mother and did the best he could with his father. When Reagan, newly minted as a California governor in 1967, was asked about his parents, he talked for fifteen minutes about his mother and didn’t mention his father at all.

Memories of hard times in childhood clung to these future presidents for the rest of their lives. Ronald Reagan, born in Tampico, Illinois, on February 6, 1911, came to politics by way of sports broadcasting in Iowa and a movie career in Hollywood, but he talked more in later life about his experiences in Dixon, Illinois, where he and his brother had attended junior high and high school. “We didn’t live on the wrong side of the tracks, but we lived so close to them we could hear the whistle real loud,”2 Reagan often said. Never prosperous, the Reagans were almost crushed by the Depression, which caused the cement shop where his older brother was working to be shut down, forced his father to close a shoe store he had opened with borrowed money, and sent his mother to work in a dress shop for $14 a week. On the campaign trail Ronald Reagan often told a story about how his father, working for a company as a shoe salesman af- ter his store had closed, opened a special delivery letter on Christmas Eve that he thought might be a bonus. Instead, he found a pink slip informing him that he was fired.

The Bush family couldn’t be more of a contrast. George W. Bush, despite his well-documented contempt for elites, is a scion of the select. He was born July 6, 1946, in New Haven, Connecticut, into the bosom of comfort, wealth, privilege, and expectation. “The United States was the most powerful nation in the world, and his own extended family was in a wonderfully favorable position in it” is the way New Yorker writer Nicholas Lemann put it. “His father was a war-hero student at Yale, which his father, great-grandfather, great-great grandfather, and several uncles and cousins had attended before him.”3When George H. W. Bush was tapped for membership in the exclusive Yale secret club Skull and Bones, he was the fifth member of the clan to be so honored. (George W. Bush would be the sixth.) And that was only Bush’s father’s side. Barbara Bush—née Pierce—the wife of one president and mother of another, came from a moneyed and accomplished family of her own. The Bushes were connected by friendship and business to other dynastic American lineages, including the Harrimans and the Rockefellers. “There was,” noted Lemann, “almost no place that mattered in business or politics, in the United States or Europe, that was out of the Bush family’s range.”

If the family’s reputation is firmly established in the twenty-first century as one of the most accomplished political dynasties in American history, this was not preordained. It almost didn’t happen, and might not have happened except for Ronald Reagan. Three decades ago, an objective chronicling of the Bush fortune could have easily made the case for downward mobility.

The patriarch of the modern Bush clan was Prescott Bush, George W. Bush’s grandfather. The family was never hard-pressed, but it was Prescott Bush’s success as a Wall Street banker with Brown Brothers Harriman in the 1930s and 1940s that ensured his children and grandchildren would begin their own careers in business and politics on solid financial footing. He was known as “Pres” Bush, but the minimalist makeup of that nickname in a family of monikers such as “Pressy,” “Poppy,” and “Bucky” was an apt elucidation for this tall, imposing, and somewhat detached man. Prescott Bush wore neckties to the family dinner table and encouraged his sons to do the same. “He didn’t get down and play with you on the floor,” William Bush (Bucky), his youngest son, once explained.4Jonathan J. Bush, another of Prescott’s son’s, put it in more earthy terms in a 1986 interview with The Washington Post: “I never heard him fart,” he said of his father. Prescott Bush’s most famous son, the forty-first president of the United States, liked to tell his own children of the time another man tried to tell their grandfather an off-color joke in the locker room of their club. “Dad walked out on him,” George H. W. Bush recalled.5

If Prescott Bush was exacting, he was also game and active. An accomplished amateur golfer in his native Ohio, he later became president of the U.S. Golf Association. (His wife, Dorothy, was a fiercely competitive and gifted tennis player.) At Yale, he played varsity golf and football, in addition to baseball, the sport in which his athletic abilities were most celebrated. Prescott Bush was a power-hitting first baseman, and he captained the team. After college, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was shipped to France, where he saw action as an artillery captain with the American Expeditionary Force serving on the Western Front under Gen. John J. Pershing. After the end of World War I, Prescott Bush went to work in St. Louis before putting down roots on the East Coast. In Connecticut, he became a wealthy banker, and later, as a U.S. senator from that state, he came to be known for his formal manner and his golf swing, which was so picture-perfect that he was regularly invited to accompany presidents on the links.*

George Herbert Walker Bush was Prescott Bush’s second son, and in many ways, the one most like his father. He had the height, the natural leadership ability, and the nickname (“Poppy”) to prove it. He followed his father into military service, too, enlisting in the Navy on June 12, 1942—his eighteenth birthday—only days after graduating from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. One of the youngest American combat pilots in the U.S. Navy, Bush flew fifty-eight combat missions in 1944 in a squadron with horrific casualty rates, and he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and other medals for his contributions. He almost didn’t live to see the end of the war. On September 2, in action over

Chichi Jima, his plane was hit by Japanese gunners. He bailed out, as did one of his two remaining crewmen—but that man’s parachute never opened, and the other perished in the plane. Bush was rescued at sea by a U.S. submarine. After World War II, Bush enrolled at Yale, where he played first base—Prescott’s position—and led his team to the finals of the College World Series in 1947 and 1948. Although he wasn’t the hitter Prescott Bush had been, he was an elegant fielder who was also chosen team captain. After college, he left New England for Texas, where he realized some early success in the oil business before forsaking it, as his father had banking, for politics. He served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from a district in Houston, but lost two elections in which he attempted to follow his father’s career path into the U.S. Senate. Among family friends, it seemed, the only surprising aspect of his life’s trajectory was his failure to win a Senate seat. From a young age, Poppy Bush had followed Dorothy and Prescott Bush’s wishes so reliably that it seemed to some as if he’d never really been a kid at all.


On Sale
Dec 7, 2007
Page Count
336 pages

Lou Cannon

About the Author

Lou Cannon covered Reagan for thirty-six years, first as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, later as the Washington Post White House correspondent. He is the author of four other books on Reagan including Ronnie and Jesse: A Political Odyssey, Reagan, and President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, widely regarded as the definitive biography and as “the best study of that enigmatic presidency ” (New York Times Book Review). He lives in Summerland, California, near Santa Barbara.

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Carl M. Cannon

About the Author

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief of RealClearPolitics and a past recipient of the Gerald R. Ford Journalism Prize for Distinguished Reporting and the Aldo Beckman Award, the two most prestigious awards for White House coverage. Previous positions include Executive Editor of Politics Daily, Washington Bureau Chief for Reader’s Digest, White House correspondent for both the Baltimore Sun and National Journal, a fellow-in-residence at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, and a past president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. He is the author of The Pursuit of Happiness in Times of War, co-author of Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy with Lou Cannon, and Circle of Greed with Patrick Dillon. Carl was also a member of the San Jose Mercury-News staff awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the paper’s coverage of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

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