First Chapter: ‘Dead Certain’
Wed Sep 5, 2007 19:32

September 4, 2007
First Chapter: ‘Dead Certain’
From DEAD CERTAIN by Robert Draper. Copyright 2007 by Robert Draper. Reprinted by permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


New Hampshire

The motorcade lurched to life just after seven on the morning of Monday, June 14, 1999. Like an ungainly serpent, it negotiated its bulk through the studied quaintness of Kennebunkport, Maine, clogging the narrow artery of Route 9. The inhabitants of Kenne-

bunkport, where the Bush family have long kept their summer home, had grown more or less accustomed to such spectacles. For that matter, the sight of a caravan departing town for Interstate 95, southbound to New Hampshire, was unsurprising to those who followed presidential politics. George Herbert Walker Bush had literally been down this road before—once as a virtual unknown, then as a frontrunner, and a third time as a president seeking reelection.

But this was another era, another Bush. This was an altogether different beast.

Not counting state police escorts, the motorcade consisted of eight vehicles. Five of them—two vans and three buses—conveyed nearly two hundred reporters from around the world, supervised by an assortment of fresh-faced young Texans and veterans from the first Bush administration. Two other vans ferried an armada of political aides: gurus, money counters, truth spinners, image makers, stagecrafters, and a young man and young woman each assigned to the personal care of the candidate and his wife. The eighth vehicle—driven by a member of Texas's elite law-enforcement corps, the Rangers—contained four passengers: fifty-two-year-old Governor George W. Bush; his wife, Laura; Bush's cousin by marriage, Craig Stapleton of Greenwich, Connecticut; and the governor's alter ego, muse, and message disciplinarian, Karen Hughes.

The oceanside town awaiting the motorcade, New Castle, normally counted its populace as eight hundred. Fully two hours in advance of the fleet's arrival, another six hundred New Hampshirites had begun to congregate along the Commons—some holding miniature flags, others carrying postcard invitations from the Bush campaign orga-

nization. A makeshift cityscape of camera crews and satellite dishes lined the beach. The town's four cops were joined outside by five ringers from the state police—the nine of them no doubt a fitting squadron for a lilac-festival parade or a snowmobile pileup. Today, they might as well have been scarecrows.

A heavy fog presided that morning. When the caravan at last arrived on Wentworth Road, thirty minutes behind schedule, it did so amid an uproar of disembodied hysteria. The sedan doors swung open—a peeling back of the curtains as Act One of the 2000 primary season began and its lead actor took the stage.

George W. Bush stepped out into the tidal wave of hands and screams. For perhaps a second, it might have appeared that he didn't warrant such a gathering. Though Bush cut a nimble figure in his fine summer suit, he lacked the toothy ebullience of a Reagan or a Kennedy, the eager charm of a Clinton. This candidate—and New Hampshirites had met scores of candidates—seemed unexceptional in dimension and bearing. Normal, really, in every way.

How to explain, then, the sonic force of his presence as he waded among them? How his strong hand grabbed yours and pulled you into his airspace so that the tanned and slightly bemused (kinda weird, isn't this?) face was right in yours. Unaffected, big-brotherly, oddly confidential as his keen blue eyes locked in on yours. This guy liked—no, loved (but didn't quite crave) the crush of flesh. The New Hampshirites had seen them all. They'd seen another Bush, too. Decent fellow. This one was different. A Bush, but not simply that. In New Hampshire, like nowhere else in America, they got close, and they could tell.

A few strides behind Bush, left in his wake, was his wife. Her eyes betrayed a flicker of frailty as the crowd closed in on her. But then Laura Bush composed herself. And she, like her husband, had something. Not rambunctious at all in the way of George W., but in her oppositeness the two seemed of an intimate piece. "We're very excited to be here"—over and over she said it, unable to find other words and unwilling to fumble through them as her husband might. Still, you could see why he loved her, and why he depended on her, and why she would be, if not a force, then in her own way an asset.

The Bushes mounted a stage. Standing beside them, the preppy scion / Senator Judd Gregg bellowed, "So we are ready to ROLL!"—and then unscrolled a parchment, eight feet of it, lapping across the stage: some 250 names, effectively the New Hampshire political universe, all pledged to the cause of George W. Bush.

Under a white tent, the candidate took questions from the media. Someone asked about immigration. He answered in Spanish. Someone asked him about a litmus test for judicial appointees. There would be none, said the governor. Someone asked him about his famously ambiguous youthful indiscretions. Bush confidently demurred: "There is a game in Washington. It's called 'gotcha.' It's the game where they float a rumor and make the candidate prove a negative. And I'm not playing the game, Jack."

Later that morning, at the New Castle public library, Bush sat next to a little boy and asked him how he was doing. "Awesome," the boy replied.

"I'm awesome, too," said George W. Bush.

That week, a New Hampshire poll indicated that Bush's popularity surpassed that of all nine of his Republican opponents combined.

You could not be faulted for believing that this was, as the press often put it, a juggernaut—a bloodless, ever-calculating, unerring victory machine. By the end of the 1999–2000 election cycle, the Bush campaign would raise more money ($193 million) and spend more ($186 million) than any other in American history, by a long shot. Its elaborate campaign organization—a corporate/populist hybrid devised by Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman, replete with "metrics" and "viral marketing," a lexicon never before uttered in a presidential race—drove a stake into the flabby old model of hierarchies and smoke-filled rooms. And, as sheer merchandise, no political commodity could trump George W. Bush: son of a president, governor of a big state, ferociously disciplined yet engaging, a self-styled "different kind of Republican" but nonetheless with the full backing of his party, and with Rove and Karen Hughes—geniuses in their craft—to guide him at every turn.

You could track the juggernaut's progress from that first day in New Castle and find little during that summer of 1999 to challenge your belief in its invulnerability. The Bush monstrosity returned to New Hampshire a month later, on the Fourth of July. Other Republican presidential candidates attended the local parades. But among the aspirants, only George W. Bush walked astride a gauntlet of local heavyweights, all but carried on their shoulders.

And then in a third, almost mythical moment, on July 31, the Bush couple arrived by an antique wooden boat across the silky waters of Lake Winnipesaukee to the shores of Wolfeboro, passing under a bridge crammed with sign-waving fanatics. No fog besmirched the postcard this time. The advance men had slotted a half hour for mingling, but the candidate was feeling Wolfeboro's love—he was sweating and gabbing—and nobody wanted this to end. And so the entourage was late that afternoon arriving at a block party in the well-heeled town of Dover, where mounted police galloped forth to block off Quail Drive and the Bush Winnebago nearly mowed down a swarm of goggle-eyed children on bicycles. While the governor joshed and flipped burgers in a large backyard tent, two Texas Rangers wearing supersize belt buckles stood inside the house, transfixed by the spectacle of a stuffed and mounted indigenous moose's head . . . the absolute biggest goddamned thing they'd ever seen.

But as you took in the sight of these two tough legends gaping like choirboys at a dead animal on a wall, you realized what you were seeing—namely, that this Bush machine was not a machine at all. It was, at best, an army: prone to mortal wounds, fallible in judgment, flailing its way through an ungovernable war. And looking closer, beneath all that polished machinery, you could plainly see that this army's general, George W. Bush, sported no battle scars . . . and that for all his fine leadership portfolio, he did not really know what political combat was.

A competitor—he was that. He loved to smoke a jogging mate right before the finish line. He sulked after the Texas legislature denied him his property tax reform initiative. But Bush was neither by temperament nor by upbringing a warrior. Indeed, he disdained the bullying image of conservatism—"It's mean," was his view—and publicly sparred with the troglodytes in both the state and national Republican Party. By marketing himself as a Compassionate Conservative, George W. Bush was all but encouraging Americans to view him as a softie.

Oh, he promoted something called the Responsibility Era as his big idea: a tough-love tonic to the Boomers' Era of (as he never tired of saying on the stump) "If it feels good, do it, and if you've got a problem, blame somebody else." Every presidential aspirant, after George Herbert Walker Bush made the flip comment in 1992 about his lack of a "Vision Thing," needed one, and this was his. But Bush didn't communicate through ideas. (That was Rove's way.) He tended to act by impulse, without apology, calling himself a "doer," "decider," "provoker," "charger," and "not a very good psychoanalyst guy." Trusting one's gut was a good thing; gazing in the same anatomical area, at one's navel, struck him as an indulgence of the weak willed. And yet, in George W. Bush's masculine world, there was no shame in exhibiting sensitivity. He was, in addition to the above, a self-confessed "cryer." For all his gut checking, he spoke far more often of what was "in my heart."

Presence? Bush had it in abundance. At the same time, there was a thorough absence of grandiosity to the man—unless you counted his claim to be "a uniter, not a divider" . . . which, given his record of bipartisan accomplishment in Texas, not only had the force of truth behind it but bespoke an appealing modesty: I'm here to bring us all together, not to hog the spotlight. Whether or not he really was "a different kind of Republican," Bush was a different kind of candidate, one who had not coveted from birth the most powerful position in the known universe. Where one expected to find ego, one instead encountered a brotherly . . . was it sweetness? Whatever it was, to a nation fatigued by the bruising Clinton psychodramas, the affable compassion of George W. Bush was surely a welcome antidote.

This, at least, was the calculation of Karen, Rove, and Bush himself. Of course, they would play to win. But for all his competitive instincts, Bush harbored no lifelong yearning for this particular competition. And wasn't that—along with his terrierlike hair, his untutored posture, his goofy faces, and his daily disfiguring of the English language—proof that he was anything but a political animal? Wouldn't they see, and love, that he was real?

A compassionate general, evincing not so much as an ember of the warrior's fire in the belly—this was an advantage, wasn't it?

The bigness was the first problem.

After the triumphant swing through Wolfeboro and Dover that same July 31, the Bush caravan figured to round off the day with a visit to North Conway. This small town with a charming drugstore on Main Street was a veritable slice of Americana, eye candy for the evening news. The governor climbed out of the Winnebago and was immediately engulfed. Barricades, the media hordes, cops, and advance men hollering and shoving . . . Bush got as far as across the street from the pharmacy, couldn't penetrate any farther. He could only wave sheepishly at the drugstore employees, shake a few hundred outstretched hands, and then retreat to the Winnebago.

New Hampshire was about smallness. Being the last bastion of that quaint idyll, retail politics, New Hampshire cherished—demanded—being won over, as they loved to say, "one voter at a time." Elsewhere in America, the motorcade itself was the show, the roaring sirens and the gleaming limos and the chiseled broadcasters no less crucial to the experience than the candidate himself. New Hampshirites didn't give a damn about all that. They wanted face time. They wanted to be wooed.

Therein lay the tension. Because the Bush campaign wasn't about charming the folks of the Granite State, strictly speaking. It was about George W. Bush becoming president of the United States. And this meant several things.

It meant, for a fellow with only four years' worth of statewide governing experience, looking presidential—vaguely imperial, heavily endorsed, above the fray of the also-rans. And indeed, that was Rove's directive to advance chief Brian Montgomery when the latter was staging events: "Make it look presidential." Sweeping backdrops, all TV cameras poised to capture the candidate at iconic angles . . . and for God's sake, tell the damn Ranger security force not to wear their goddamn cowboy hats!

It meant playing things safe. Like a hockey season, wrote the campaign's pollster, Matthew Dowd, in an early 1999 memo, referring to these early primaries. The regular season's sole practical function is to prepare the team for the playoffs—without sustaining injuries or exposing weaknesses. So, no showing the whole playbook. No improvising. And no freaking out the voters with radical notions following the Clinton era of Peace & Prosperity. As Rove would proclaim with cherubic meta-irony, "We're the candidate of reasonable, cautious, prudent reform." (Or as Stuart Stevens, the bon vivant ad guy, would more smirkily put it: "Things have never been better. Vote for change.")

And it meant winning 270 electoral votes. "We're running a fifty-state campaign"—even Karen couldn't maintain the gusto every time she chanted Team Bush's mantra. But yes, a candidate with an obscene war chest could afford to spread the field and look down the road to November 7, 2000. For the cash-poor opposition in the summer of 1999, America was a nation of five states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan, and Arizona. And so they courted the early-primary voters with a hard-luck boy's fevered desperation . . . while the prince and presumptive nominee, anything but desperate, did not.


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