Although President George W. Bush is part of an Oval Office father-son dynasty, he doesn’t draw much ideological inspiration from his namesake. The best way to contextualize his presidency is to compare it to the eight-year tenure of Ronald Reagan. Both men both came to office advocating smaller government, a strong defense and a devotion to judicial and social conservatism. But their paths sometimes diverged.
In office, both presided over tax cuts, a military buildup and a rightward tilt of the federal judiciary. But while Reagan avoided major growth of domestic programs, Bush presided over a record expansion of Medicare and of federal oversight on education. On foreign policy, Reagan signed arms control treaties with former enemies; Bush has been adamant about not wanting to meet with the heads of enemy nations—three of whom he famously said constitute an axis of evil.
Who better to sort out this subject than the father-and-son team of Lou and Carl Cannon? Lou Cannon covered Reagan for The Washington Post and other papers and has written five books about him. Carl Cannon covered the current president for the National Journal and has written a biography of Bush’s political guru Karl Rove. Their first joint literary effort, Reagan’s Disciple draws on both their Rolodexes and on some of the best historical scholarship out there.
The Cannons conclude that while Bush indeed owes much to Reagan, including a strong conservative worldview, he lacks some of Reagan’s political and communication skills. They predict that history will be kinder to the Gipper.
“Bush was Reagan’s disciple, to be sure, but he did not face the seminal crises of his administration—especially the Iraq war—with the blend of principle and pragmatism that was the hallmark of Reagan’s dealings with the Soviet Union. We do not fault Bush’s intentions, but noble intentions do not excuse his performance in Iraq or the domestic failures of his second term,” they write.
The Cannons corroborate their conclusions by analyzing scholarly literature on presidential war-making. They debunk the argument offered by some Bush supporters that the Iraq war was an example of Bush borrowing from the Woodrow Wilson playbook. They quote renowned Stanford University historian David Kennedy’s characterization of Bush’s desire to spread democracy in the Middle East as “Wilsonism on steroids,” but point out that Wilson favored having the United States help create conditions in which democracy could flourish—not necessarily create democracies itself. Claude R. Marx is the author of a chapter on media and politics in The Sixth-Year Itch, edited by Larry Sabato.
Quick Picks In the Ring: The Trials of a Washington Lawyer
Robert S. Bennett
400 pages, Random House, $27.50
In his new memoir, Robert S. Bennett says that law is the magic carpet that has led him to the powerful people he’s worked with. He claims his attitude as a “street fighter” made him take on clients ranging from bookies to former President Bill Clinton. Bennett shares behind-the-scenes color about his high-profile cases, from Iran-Contra to Plamegate to the Keating Five scandal. The chapter on Abraham Zapruder’s film of the Kennedy assassination, for example, details how Zapruder’s last-minute decision to view the presidential motorcade affected his family.
Safire’s Political Dictionary
880 pages, Oxford University Press, $22.95
William Safire’s Language and Politics has long been used as a source of definitions for insider words and phrases commonly used in politics. Updated and expanded for the first time since 1993, Safire renames the book and adds items like “war on terror,” “chad” and “axis of evil” to the collection. Containing not only words’ definitions, but also their history, Safire explains each entry in an informative, witty and easy-to-read way.
The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country
Random House, 351 pages, $27
Laton McCartney writes a novel-like history of the scandal that forever linked Warren G. Harding with the fraudulent schemes of Big Oil. The Teapot Dome Scandal describes how oilmen received oil reserves in Wyoming set aside for the U.S. Navy in exchange for a series of illegal dealings within the Harding administration. Laton follows all the oilmen and politicians caught up in the scandal, including Harding, who was never directly implicated.