The Non-Clinton

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As W strutted across the carrier deck in the Mayday twilight, it occurred to me that he had broken more campaign promises more profoundly than any American president since FDR in 1932.

No one cares.

The reason why should not be forgotten. W was not elected for his promises. He was elected as the non-Clinton.

Cast your memory back, if you can stand it, to 1998, and the painful, endless saga of Monica, of impeachment, of Hillary pretty in pink. In my favorite phrase coined by Pat Buchanan, it made you want to throw up your hands — or just throw up.

In the midst of all this national indigestion, heavyweight Republicans resolved to find an antidote.

Already in 1998, major money was looking for a winner. By 1999 it had decided on W. Unity was absolutely indispensable to victory. Alan Keyes and Orrin Hatch and Gary whatshisname were just window-dressing, there to help W rehearse. The fact that W didn’t emerge head and shoulders above the rest in their frequent and dispiriting encounters did bring some pause, even cringes, but the die was cast. There was no turning back.

All during 1999, planeloads of potential potentates flew to Austin. W met with foreign policy experts, economic experts, profamily experts, lobbyists for every possible cause, and, of course, donors, donors, and more donors.

The key role of donors cannot be ignored. Huge money was looking for a winning alternative to our long national nightmare. The money men had their own purposes, as revealed in W’s subsequent explosion of the federal budget with so many of his supporters and their favorite causes receiving millions, even billions. But W’s flacks knew they could win only if their man could find resonance with the national mood.

So the idea men and the issue men and the money men descended on Austin. W held endless meetings, where everyone got his turn, W asked questions. Karl and Karen kept score.

Several of those graced with such an audience came back to Washington and called everybody they knew. I assume this because several of them even called me. “Chris, I think W’s going to be the guy, and, if you decide to support him, I’d appreciate your giving your donation through me.” Such “bundling” the nation had never seen before. Like the voice of Gatsby’s Daisy, W’s campaign was full of money.

Real conservatives stood on the sidelines, trembling at the prospects. W had no anchor, no lodestar, no sure grasp of principle. He sat in Austin like a thimble inundated by waterfalls — special interests, ideas and policies pouring in and spilling out. No one knew, when the “real” W emerged, whose agendas those few drops he managed to retain would reflect. Big money watched and cringed at “fuzzy math” and “Christ.” Silently they wondered, would their issues survive? They didn’t know. But the die was cast.

Why? W was the non-Clinton. Clinton was pompous. W was humble. Gauleiter Gore was a policy geek who couldn’t shut up; W would stumble into silence between glib blurted phrases. A cavalier Clinton had sent troops and rockets worldwide. W. pledged a “humble,” not an “arrogant,” America.

W, the non-Clinton, could win.

Not all of this pleased the money men. They knew their agendas required a forceful, even arrogant president when it came to their private agendas. They feared that W, like the last Texan president, had a huge inferiority complex. As LBJ’s fellow Democrat Senator, Eugene McCarthy, told me, “Lyndon was afraid Jack’s brain trust would desert him after Dallas. He begged me, and everybody else in the Senate, to persuade them to stay on.”

Cheney, officially the staff man in charge of VP candidates, perceived W’s inferiority problem, and eventually came to realize he had to rescue him. He quietly played to W’s fears, at the same time oozing assurance and affability. By that fateful weekend in July 2000, the deadline for picking a veep, Cheney suddenly became the only candidate. W could relax.

By the way, this weakness wrought plenty of “collateral damage.” The Cheney do-se-do explains the Waco whitewash issued by the “independent” commission the same weekend. Jack Danforth, all along insisting he did not want to be veep, nonetheless hastily issued his Waco whitewash on Friday afternoon so he could use the weekend to finish putting together the exhaustive financial reports that Cheney required from all the potentials. Danforth knew that a tough report would put him out of the running. So Cheney, who had no stomach for the Waco wackos, had deftly killed two birds with one stone (i.e., Danforth and the rest of us).

Until that point in the campaign, W was an empty suit. There is a reason, after all, why Bill Kristol supported McCain, and not W, in the primaries. Like virtually everyone else, he had no idea where W would finally come on the key issues (in Kristol’s case, Israel). W was a big, cash-laden question mark.

Cheney quickly began running things — as he has ever since. Now W is riding high. Liberals like David Broder praise him for leadership and neocons like Krauthammer applaud his “deep understanding” — but only because he has systematically expanded government power to pursue their favorite goals, and has broken his campaign promises big-time — something else liberals always like in a Republican.

So W smirked at the world, with the setting sun and the sea-weary sailors behind him on the carrier deck. He had beaten Clinton as a humble man who knew his limitations and who distrusted the way things work in Washington. Now he has cast aside his humility, forgotten his limitations (even as we have come to know them all too well), and succumbed to the way things work in Washington. He sent the message of endless war to the world, flexing his fighter-bomber muscles on prime-time TV. The American government’s power has no peer, and no limits. “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings.”

If W’s luck holds up, he’ll be running against Hillary in 2004. If he does, the “non-Clinton” will win again. If the Democrats do not serve up that gift horse (so to speak), the country might be faced with a race between W and a “non-Bush.” At that point, if W stumbles, he might see all those fawning supporters suddenly disappear, as they flit off to settle on a fresh horse. Karl Rove will have to take a quiet moment and explain that W’s “supporters of convenience ” were only summer soldiers and sunshine patriots, who do not believe in permanent alliances, political or otherwise. They have their own agendas, after all.

In other words, one misstep, and they will turn on him at the drop of a dime.

I’m told that W is a prayerful man. Perhaps he believes in miracles.

Christopher Manion [send him mail] writes from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.

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