My close encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Regan, and Clinton — and how they did not prepare me for George W. Bush
by Bob Scheer
“Politics is not a bad profession,” quipped Ronald Regan. “If you succeed, there are many rewards; if you fail, you can always write a book.”
Veteran journalist Bob Scheer tried his hand at politics in a 1966 Democratic primary bid against incumbent Congressman Jeffrey Cohelan, the Berkeley/Oakland Representative for the state of California. It was not one of American politics’ underdog success stories (he was, as one article put it, “the Ned Lamont of the 1960’s”); but instead of retreating to his study to pen his memoirs of the experience — that was left up to his campaign treasurer, Serge Lang, who assembled the story of the failed run in the out-of-print The Scheer Campaign — and call it a day, he returned to journalism and continued to cover politics from a left-wing vantage. His vocal, antagonistic stance toward American foreign policy has resulted in six books over the more than four decades of his career, but Scheer is better known and more respected for his cumulative journalistic output, beginning with Ramparts magazine during the Vietnam era and later extending to Playboy, The Nation, a twelve-year syndicated column for the Los Angeles Times (axed in 2005 on questionable grounds and quickly scooped up by the San Francisco Chronicle), and now Truthdig.com, where he is editor-in-chief.
Playing President: My close encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Regan, and Clinton — and how they did not prepare me for George W. Bush takes the bulk of its material from that journalistic output, drawing on Scheer’s well-earned and, in the case of Jimmy Carter, unbelievably lucky access to all the men who comprise the elected U.S. Presidents of the past thirty years. This access is a reminder that, even if these presidents or presidents-to-be didn’t always agree with Scheer’s resolutely left-wing views, he was at least worthy of their esteem; and though his often pugnacious, truth-to-power op-ed pieces (as well as his regular diatribes on KCRW’s Left, Right, and Center radio show) tend to polarize readers and politicians alike, his interviews are rigorously fair, his questions unfalteringly probing and the insight of his appraisals keen. Scheer, in other words, is much more than a pundit. As Gore Vidal puts it in his breathlessly flattering foreword, “Scheer joins a small group of journalist-historians that includes Richard Rovere, Murray Kempton, and Walter Lippman.”
This collection has more than enough in it to entertain the general reader while satisfying the political buff. The general reader will appreciate the headline-making interviews such as the one in which Jimmy Carter, then only a Democratic candidate for president, admitted to the readers of Playboy in a moment of candor, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times,” and the Los Angeles Times Q&A in which George H. W. Bush stated his conviction that nuclear war was winnable, or rather his disbelief in the idea that “there is no such thing as a winner in a nuclear exchange.” These comments came back to haunt Carter and Bush I, but it was nothing from which they couldn’t ultimately recover, and with the benefit of hindsight, these cracks in their increasingly media-savvy presidential images perhaps made them seem more real and human to the American electorate. Today Carter might be rewarded with a standing ovation on Oprah for his then-gaffe (Scheer himself notes that Carter’s words “hold up splendidly today as a relatively sane expression of the Baptist religion”), and Bush I’s would be hailed on the The O’Reilly Factor as a viable foreign policy.
The political buff will relish the context Scheer provides for each of these pieces, explaining why, for example, Carter agreed to sit down for Playboy in the first place, and the handful of presidential retrospectives and evaluations, which earned Scheer compliments for his firm-but-fair approach from the former presidents themselves and those close to them. These introductions and evaluations invariably hold a few surprises. While the legacy of Watergate continued to dog Nixon even in Republicans’ eyes a decade after he resigned, left-leaning Scheer made his case for “Nixon revisionism” public in a 1984 retrospective, asking for a reassessment of Nixon’s foreign policy, particularly his role in China and the Middle East. And as Scheer looks back on his infamous Carter interview, he is no longer amazed by the “lust” comments and the resulting furor but rather the “interview’s significance … as a harbinger of the fundamentalist Christian rhetoric that was beginning to inflame the political climate.”
More than anything else, though, Playing President is noteworthy for the man/president duality that emerges from these pieces and lends this collection its title. There is Nixon and his “frozen smile,” the “complicated mass of cells,” in the words of his former aide John D. Erlichmann, who could broker reconciliation with China but was never comfortable with the baby-kissing public relations side of the presidency. There is Carter, always manipulating the facts of his biography to make them fit with his all-things-to-all-people image du jour. There’s Regan, the consummate actor and the antithesis of Nixon: a genial crowd-pleaser with an arsenal of amusing anecdotes and quips like the one that opened this review, yet a man who didn’t care to deal with the subtleties of policy or the personal hypocrisy he had to embrace to support his conservative platform. Then Bush I, a fortunate son of the American elite who felt entitled to the presidency and resented the challenges he faced from the media; and penultimately, Bill Clinton: “the smartest and best informed of all the politicians I have interviewed, but there was a fateful rascal component in his makeup that left him at key moments oddly disconnected from the role of President.” In encapsulating each of these very different men and the presidents they played, Scheer continually returns to the same pool of words to describe them: complicated, complex, obscure.
All, that is, except for one man. Which brings us to the long, post-hyphen part of the book’s subtitle.
Scheer has never been granted the same intimate access to George W. Bush as he had enjoyed with five earlier presidents, and this could very well explain why he fails to spot any complexities in the current president’s character. Whether or not his inability to get a private audience with W. comes down to some Rovian protective strategy is cause for discussion (and it’s all the more suspicious that Scheer’s conservative counterpart on Left, Right, and Center, Tony Blankley, has recently had a cozy chat session with Bush II), but the fact remains that Scheer has observed his tenure from a distance, making it harder for him to get a fix on Bush. Yet distance might not be the only reason. As Scheer explains, the “one-on-one time … would have been helpful. But the basic problem for anyone attempting to understand Bush’s motivations is that they may not be driven by a recognizable engine.”
He describes, without the advantage of years’ worth of hindsight that has enabled him to distill the conflicted personalities of the other presidents in this book, the “befuddled wonderment” of Bush’s first nine months in office, and its wholesale transformation into an unshakable sense of purpose and righteousness after 9/11. Disaster — disaster Bush feasibly could have avoided — rescued his drifting, rudderless presidency in its first term, and it was his campaign mastermind’s clever exploitation of that disaster that brought him, just barely, into a second one. “The war against evil provides the saving rationale for the Bush presidency,” Scheer summarizes, “overriding any troubling matters of fact and logic.” I think it would be hard to find an honest person, regardless of party affiliation, who wouldn’t agree with at least the first half of that sentence, and in time history will likely grant us the second. What would W. be without his War on Terror? An innocuous one-termer whiling away the rest of his privileged days in Texas, just like his father.
Perhaps because of the immediacy and urgency of the present, and also perhaps because relevance to current events helps book sales, George W. Bush is a recurring figure in Playing President. He pops up in most of the other presidents’ introductions as a means of contrasting the foreign policy disasters of yesteryear with those of today, and he gets seventy pages devoted to him — an amount second only to Jimmy Carter, with whom Scheer spent countless hours on the campaign trail. He’s therefore something of a fixation for Scheer; his presence is lurking on nearly every page. It’s clear that Scheer has devoted a great deal of time analyzing W. as a president and W. as a man, but there seems to be a frustration that stems from his inability to get a hold on this drumlin woodchuck. He wants to understand his psychology. It’s as if he can’t bring himself to believe his own conclusion that there is no “recognizable engine” to Bush’s motivations, and that he’s been analyzing gut reactions and will to power and cronyistic lever-pulling as though they were intellectual decisions arrived at through a discernible process of reason and debate. Is the dilemma not how to get into this man’s mind, but how to get into the mind of a man who has no mind to get into? Or is that a deliberate and strategic “misunderestimation” that W. has been cultivating?
Playing President is a great read now and it will be a great companion volume when it comes time for Scheer to look back on a lifetime of journalistic, not political, success and write fuller, more detailed analyses and impressions of the U.S. Presidents he has encountered. By that time he might have had the opportunity to sit face-to-face with George W. Bush and been able to appraise his Presidential legacy with the same acumen as he has done with so many others before him.