Hell of a Ride: Backstage at the White House Follies, 1989-1993
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993
Hell of a Ride is a witty, funny, insider view of a White House whose chief occupant was confused about “the vision thing.” Whose speeches and actions were contradictory and tepid. A Yale graduate who far too many times sounded inarticulate, once saying, in a moment predating Bidenesque boo-boos, “Message: I care” — speaking not from the heart, but from his teleprompter.
John Podhoretz was present at this creation, a Reagan speechwriter who stayed over into the Bush years. He records the gradual melting of the Reagan agenda from sturdy conservatism into a kinder, gentler America. Podhoretz’s book, subtitled Backstage at the White House Follies, 1989-1993, was rightly praised by George F. Will as a voice halfway between Holden Caulfield and H. L. Mencken. It’s easy to see why Podhoretz became a consultant on NBC’s The West Wing.
The book starts in glory with a military parade in June 1991, a day that was hot, sunny, and triumphant. Success in the Gulf War was open and prolonged. How could the Republicans and conservatism not win a fourth term and keep dismantling the liberal fortress?
Ah, it seemed so easy then, but the fortress morphed into a sand castle. Podhoretz explains how George H. W. Bush, supposedly a conservative, was also a true establishment man, much more concerned with placating a Democratic Congress and not alienating the system. If a bill came up that was sponsored by the liberals for, say, extending abortion or cranking up the welfare state, Bush would never see Congress as the enemy nor present it to the faithful as that. He saw Congress as Danny Rostenkowski, the Democratic leader, and he was clubby with Danny. Being harsh and calling names: “Danny wouldn’t like that,” Bush would say, so there was a nudge, not push-back, and everyone got along. Rodney King would have been happy.
Podhoretz also notes the war of ideas between what he calls the Gnomish Gnostics and Skull and Bones. Like the ancient Gnostics who believed there were hidden meanings behind Jesus’ life and thought that were mystical and undecipherable except to an intellectual elite, the Gnomish Gnostics — who Podhoretz observes all tended to be short like gnomes — did their work behind public statements and appeals to the voter base, ignoring conservative goals to sculpt an agenda. When public policy like the 1990 budget deal reached Congress and stunned many conservatives, the Gnostics argued that they knew what was best.
Bush, as Podhoretz explains, got it all backwards. He wanted to work with Congress, not lead it. Bush openly distrusted mandates and wanted the establishment to reach a consensus and go from there. But the establishment in Washington was anti-conservative, anti-public, and had no intention of compromise. In DC, “consensus” means going along with entrenched liberal programs and goals. As Podhoretz says, conservatives were expected to come to DC and then “grow” — or “do a Koop,” referring to C. Everett Koop, the Reagan Surgeon General who was openly pro-family but then adapted to liberal demands for inclusion of their policies. So, he “grew,” which was a kinder, gentler term for selling out.
But it can be argued the entire Bush presidency was a sell-out.
The Gnostics were kept in check by the Skull and Bones group, the Bush insiders like Robert Gates, Jim Baker, Dick Cheney, and Jim Scowcroft, who ruled the National Security Council and controlled foreign policy. Bush was secretive and inclined to go along with this system — a perfect reflection of his membership in Skull and Bones at Yale, which made good training for a future CIA Director, but terrible training for a President. Bush was a clubman, and reflected the virtues of the club: affability, self-confidence, deference to people above, and magnanimity to the people below.
As Podhoretz puts it, given his years at CIA, in foreign service, and in Texas oil, Bush was, in contrast to Groucho Marx, someone who never knew a club that he didn’t want to be a member of.
The Gnostics, Podhoretz notes, scored successes in Washington society: They got to go to fashionable parties and fool around with the uglier women, but quietly wrecked the Reagan coalition.
Bush, of course, was the primary wrecker. He immediately got rid of the Reagan people and brought in his own crowd, and that eye-rolling call for a “kinder, gentler, America” implied that the America of his predecessor was a bit hard and rough, and needed some Yale gentility. Gosh darn it, everyone needed to chill, do a Koop, and go along.
The avant-garde playwright Robert Wilson often peppered his plays with interconnecting vignettes he called his knee plays, and that connected the work as a whole. Podhoretz does the same in a series of interludes he calls Freeze Frames, where a certain mood of the DC hive is depicted. The first shows the triumphant parade of returning troops from the first Gulf War, the mood one of champagne and caviar: Bush is triumphant. How can he not fail?
Ah, but he does, and the Freeze Frames show the place and people of the DC bureaucracy coping with Bush’s indecision, bad choices, and policy decisions born to fail, but all the while the reader catches the devotion of the Bush follower — the staffer who desperately wants the boss to win one — if not for the Gipper, at least for the forces of conservatism. If Dan Quayle, Bush’s Vice President, seemed to have trouble spelling potato, Bush had a much larger problem spelling and enacting conservatism.
Podhoretz catches the world of the worker bee flying in the hive, White House pass dangling around his neck. There is the constant battle over place and position, trying to show you are one of the Inner Circle, living for the beep from the pager on your belt summoning you to him . . . often as not Sununu, Scowcroft, and not the real him, but you take what place in the circle you can find. As Podhoretz says, to a White House staffer, your own job is your aphrodisiac.
He elaborates on this to the reader:
You’re in a cult of personality. The president gets your attention, devotion, your support, the occasional anger and frustration any god invokes in his devotees, but what do the wife and kids get? Screwed, basically.
Podhoretz paints the world of the staffer, caught up in jockeying for position and dealing with daily, hourly crises. Unlike the TV series The West Wing, where a crisis dominates the action, Podhoretz explains that the White House staff is in a state of crisis every hour, that stress and heart-pounding action is the daily grind that you live for. He also catches the urgency of young conservatives loose in DC, having been inspired by Reagan and wanting to keep the faith, but seeing everything watered down from either a final lack of belief in a true conservative program or Bush’s determination to make his own policy. They felt obliged to party hard and show that conservatives were party animals, tough and here to stay: somewhat like P. J. O’Rourke’s definition of the new, young conservatives as pants-down Republicans.
But what, Podhoretz asks, was a Bush conservative? It was a puzzle. Nor could there be a Bush Democrat, as there were Reagan Democrats. When Bush ceased to offer any kind of consistent conservative agenda that openly defied the liberal policies, he lost the democrats. His clubby, get-along-with-the-system lost them, as it did the hardline conservatives. Bush was the establishment, and who supported them? Certainly not Reagan, who always ran against the system.
But there could never be a “Bush Democrat.” There wasn’t even a clear definition of a “Bush Republican” once you left Fairfield County, Connecticut. Maybe a few people in Connecticut could answer it, but no one else could.
Who was right? There’s no way of proving, but think of this: When people abandon a proven formula in favor of an untested one, as the Bushies did in 1988, they are either visionaries or fools: they do so either because they see something other people can’t see or because they want to see something that isn’t there. The visionary looks at sand on a beach and sees a computer chip. The fool looks at the world’s most successful product and sees . . . New Coke.
Podhoretz captures the slowly gathering disaster that was the fall 1992 presidential campaign, mapping out how Bush’s decisions inevitably drew him further away from victory, as well as Ross Perot’s flatulent campaign, which dithered between a mad-as-hell populist movement to a simple grudge match to take out Bush — the latter probably truer. Certainly, Perot’s withdrawing from the campaign and then, when Bush’s numbers began to trickle up, promptly reentering to drive them down again showed less of true devotion to go to Washington, “open the hood, and fix it” than simply to finish off Bush.
The slump was helped by Bush himself, who disdained active campaigning. Deep down in his heart, he didn’t like politics or ideology. He wanted not an election, but a coronation.
Podhoretz chronicles the staff’s hope and despair, rising when a speech or decision is given, and then, after a slight uptick in the polls, another decision counteracted any progress. Everyone is in a bummer, but then, another slight rise came when Bush was given an excellent speech outlining his strength and a new program appealing to the voters, which he presented at a rally where hecklers kept shouting at him. The media ignored the speech to focus on the protestors. The polls dip again.
One can see why a campaign slogan was Annoy the Media: Re-elect Bush.
The debates are another comic agony where Podhoretz shows his fellow staffer’s dismay when the second debate takes place. The first debate and the vice-presidential ones had staffers in a huge room, crowded around the TV and eating snacks, popping open beers, and dipping chips while roistering and shouting at Clinton and Gore or cheering the boss like it was the Super Bowl . . . which it is, for, as Podhoretz reminds us, political people have no interest in sports. Politics is their sports.
At the second debate, groans came when questions were asked by 209 “real people” in the audience. One staffer griped about the “complete and total Oprah-ization of American politics.” Candidates would be free to wander from their lecterns; Clinton’s dream format.
Bush came out looking tired and got lost in thought defending his record. Perot, as always, snapped out one-liners, and Clinton became the Terminator:
“His robotic brain whirring for a second as it searches for the database for the answer that has been preprogrammed there.”
The staff cry out answers to the onscreen Bush to hammer Clinton, catch him up on that question, this comment . . . but nothing happens. Bush simply ploughs on and everyone realizes there was no strategy, no grand plan or last-minute breakthrough — that all their hopes and nail-biting over a point rise in the latest Gallup was for naught. People walk away. Some absently thumb through the library. A woman staffer says that, surely Bush has a final, silver bullet that will turn the tide; a senior staffer sighs and tells her to start sending out her resume.
Podhoretz describes the pain and despair very well, and one of his gifts is letting us see things from the foot soldier’s point of view – that of the staffers who came to be good, solid foot soldiers in the conservative war and then saw all their hopes dribble away in Bush’s failings:
You haven’t really considered what a loss might mean until now. You have just turned thirty, and your entire life has been lived under Republican rule . . . you knew the minute you began that this was what you really wanted, what you liked-being part of the process of governing, helping to manage things, getting to watch the mechanics of government up close and keep the machine greased and well oiled. You are really good at it, too, and took to the work with the comfort of a man who has found his proper place.
A life lived not for money, but for ideas: conservative ideas, forsaking Wall Street and academia. Bush’s loss left these hundreds, if not thousands, of dedicated conservatives out in the cold. There were no institutions that would harbor them. The media and academia, then as now, were hostile to any conservative, and for all of conservatism’s lauded strength and growth, the movement failed to build institutions that would shelter and nurture growth. Instead, these young lions hitched their wagon to Bush, and he abandoned them.
The obvious impatience and sadness that a strong conservative working in the trenches for the Bush administration is brilliantly recorded, but wiser heads offer a more rounded view.
As Samuel Francis observed, Bush may have done a mean Clint Eastwood when dealing with Saddam Hussein, but when it came to domestic affairs, he was Alan Alda. This shadows Podhoretz’s recounting of Skull and Bones, the foreign policy/deep state crew that ran the inner circle.
Again, Francis stated that Reagan never developed an alternative base of cultural power where they could legitimize their efforts. The Reagan people, true-blue as they were, never understood what they represented: not a mop-up squad or a class who would bring a “better use” of the system, but something that would completely change it. Reagan always said the most ominous words one could hear was “I’m the government and I’m here to help.” But Bush saw government as a necessary part of making life better, just with better plans to save the family, end welfare, and cut the deficit. It was the old game best seen on the endless panel talk shows on TV, where the liberals define the terms of the debate, and so a real understanding of the conservative idea is always negated.
Reagan was the beacon, but even Podhoretz admits that, splendid as he was, there were times when it seemed he was more talk than action. Podhoretz should know about this, since he’s a neocon, and a big reason the Reagan revolution stalled was the insertion of establishment cultural managers who did the talk but little of the walk. Certainly a paleoconservative like Francis had little chance to impact Reagan, as he and his kind were mostly locked out of those circles. In 1980, it was the neocons who were chosen. They struggled and in many cases did fight the good fight, but didn’t have the deep-seated gumption to take on the establishment, which was represented by Bush.
Surely, 1988 should have been Pat Buchanan’s moment, but he was carefully filtered out so that Bush could take over the mantle of power and trim it down to “moderation.” This failed because, as Podhoretz notes, Bush kept saying that government was the solution, at which the Reagan base would shake their heads and the liberal establishment would simply dump on Bush, blaming him for an economic crisis and social turmoil which the media demanded needed new solutions. Government solutions.
Bush went along with it because it’s the system, and you don’t buck the system.
Podhoretz catches this ultimate disappointment in the man. Bush, as he said, was an establishment figure who took care of his friends and those who had helped him out. He had no interest in ideology and disliked it getting in the way of governing. The problem with that was, again, that the establishment could define how well or badly Bush — and by implication, conservatives — was governing, and by 1990, they convinced people that the country was in terrible straits after 12 years of conservatism. Hence, enter Clinton.
I supported Bush until the Rodney King incident happened. After the jury found the officers not guilty, Bush immediately sought federal civil rights charges. “I saw the video with Bar,” he said, referring to his wife, “and we both were horrified. Something has to be done.”
So he threw four policemen overboard — but dumping people is part of the Bush legacy. Podhoretz recounts the changeover in DC, where some frisky members in the Old Executive Office Building hung a banner from a balcony proclaiming We Will Be Back.
It got a much-needed laugh from the staff as they got into a computer golf tournament to kill time before the end. Forty minutes later, a woman from the General Services Administration, a Democratic fiefdom, stormed into the office, demanding the banner be taken down. “Who authorized this?” the angry bureaucrat sputtered in that browbeating way that would later come to be known as a Karen.
The matter was referred to Tim McBride, one of Bush’s closest aides, and he told everyone to take the banner down. Not a big deal, really, just a case of high-spiritedness, but also an example of how there was a sense that the natural order had been restored with the Democrats back in power – and Bush, as always, was good at flushing people away, from these staffers to the LA cops, and finally the conservative movement as a whole that had been so carefully built up from 1964, after the Goldwater debacle.
Podhoretz marked how
Bush seem[ed] most concerned about salvaging his reputation as a decent guy, a gracious guy. He got to go back to Houston with a big pension, while you and the hundreds of hundreds of younger Republicans whose jobs he threw away because he didn’t have a clue how to be president now have to stay on in a Washington in which you will be as popular as the economists of Kirghizia’s finance ministry.
Bush worked on a fair, prudent (one of his favorite words), and dignified farewell address. Bush wanted to talk about family. Yes, the family is very important. His own family was warm and loving, full and caring. Yes, family. But none of that Right-wing agenda stuff. Don’t want any of that Right-wing agenda.
He delivered the speech on family as he flushed people away — much like how his son, George W. Bush, flushed away much of the conservative establishment in eight years of war in the Middle East, and then the GOP itself as he walked off with a genteel grin, leaving America to Obama.
When Bush left in a jet after Clinton’s inauguration, he said his presidency had been “A hell of a ride.” Yes, he of the CIA and the oil business, of Skull and Bones would say something folksy and brash as he left the ruins of Reaganism to a kinder and gentler America.
There’s something warped about the Bushes. If they can’t figure out the vision thing, they have the family thing down. Theirs. Not the American families ruined by war, taxation, a plague of social programs, a continual flood of lousy morals and dogma dirtying the arts, education, and an insane immigration policy . . . One imagines a Dorian Gray-style family picture in which the Bushes and their wonderful family stay intact and remain a gorgeous photo-op while their supporters and the country become a canvas of decayed, dimming values and nationhood so that the New World Order Bush happily extolled could come into being.
This is a very gloomy summary of the background to Podhoretz’s witty, biting, and swift memoir. Although a caveat should be given to Podhoretz, since he’s a neocon — one of the lights of The Weekly Standard, whose neocon world finally folded up in 2018. He also was one of George W. Bush’s big backers, notably in his 2004 book Bush Country: How George W. Bush Became the First Great Leader of the Twenty-first Century While Driving Liberals Insane. This is a sentiment that many at Counter-Currents will certainly take umbrage with, but his sketchbook of the White House Follies is fun to read and doesn’t seem dated. Podhoretz remains a Saint Simon of the West Wing.
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