By Lloyd Grove
The movement to rehabilitate the former president’s image is misguided, former Texas GOP Chair Tom Pauken tells Lloyd Grove. Instead, party faithful should be searching for true conservatives to turn the country around.
George W. Bush’s legacy-burnishing machine is up and running, scrubbing and polishing the 43rd president’s rusted image. The Bush Presidential Center is busily raising money for his library, museum, and think tank, to be built on the campus of Southern Methodist University, not far from George and Laura’s new home in Dallas.
What’s more, the former president’s diehard loyalists—including his chief strategist, Karl Rove, his favorite spinmeister, Karen Hughes, and an army of assorted camp followers—are preparing a last hurrah, for old time’s sake, in advance of the publication of his White House memoirs (and, coincidentally or not, the 2010 midterm elections).
So why is fellow Texan Tom Pauken, who was chairman of the Lone Star State’s Republican Party when Bush was its two-term governor, standing athwart revisionist history, yelling stop?
“The Bush administration really squandered a lot of the political capital that a lot of Reagan conservatives had built up over three decades,” says Pauken, who these days is Gov. Rick Perry’s appointed chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission, which administers unemployment benefits. “There’s an openness to, if you will, asking and seeking answers to the question, What happened? How did we mess it up? How did we set the scene for the Obama administration to come to power?”
Pauken says the Bushes, father and son, have done so much damage to modern Republicanism that not even Dubya’s younger brother Jeb, the highly regarded former governor of Florida, is a leader he could follow. “My view,” Pauken says, “with all due respect, is no more Bushes!”
The 66-year-old Pauken—who toiled in Barry Goldwater’s quixotic 1964 presidential campaign, ran the national College Republicans six years before Rove got the job, and in the late 1960s served as an Army intelligence officer in Vietnam—doesn’t mind being the skunk at the garden party.
“The Bush years were a huge failure, both economically and internationally,” he tells me. “On the economy, we’re not doing anything to create private-sector jobs, and we’re losing our manufacturing base, but it didn’t happen overnight. It’s accelerating during the Obama administration, but from 1999 to 2009, we lost one-third of our U.S. manufacturing jobs. Five million good American jobs have gone away. Internationally, the Bush administration didn’t deal effectively with the threat of radicalism.”
Pauken, who volunteered for Vietnam at the height of the bloodshed in 1967, is particularly scornful of advocates of the Iraq invasion who avoided combat themselves—and he doesn’t necessarily exempt the former president. He sees the adventure as ruinous, both in terms of fiscal and foreign policy.
“The people driving the policy, particularly the pre-emptive war in Iraq—Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, the president himself, Douglas Feith, John Bolton, and others—none of them served,” Pauken says. “The only people in the Bush administration who served in Vietnam were Colin Powell, Larry Wilkerson, Richard Armitage—all of whom were skeptical of the war. But they were essentially shunted aside in terms of their advice, as were Generals [Anthony] Zinni and [Norman] Schwarzkopf, both of whom opposed the war in Iraq.”
Pauken adds although he knew Bush the elder “pretty well in the mid-’60s,” he didn’t really know George the son. “I met him when he was a college student at Yale,” Pauken recalls. “He wasn’t really interested in politics or issues such as the Vietnam issue, which dominated our generation.”
Pauken’s searing critique—outlined in his book Bringing America Home: How American Lost Her Way and How We Can Find Our Way Back—also extends to the post-Bush Republican establishment, notably the two Texans who are leading his party’s House and Senate campaign committees, Rep. Pete Sessions and Sen. John Cornyn.
“I don’t think they get it. I don’t think they understand, and that’s part of the problem,” Pauken tells me, adding that he was decidedly unimpressed by the duo’s recent joint appearance on Meet the Press, in which neither could provide details of a positive GOP agenda. “If we replace the current administration with a group of Republican retreads who led us into the wilderness in the first place, it’s not going to get things fixed. We have got to have solutions for the very serious problems that face America. And just saying we’re against Obama, saying, ‘Hey, we did better during the Bush years,’ won’t cut it. In point of fact, the Bush years played into the problems facing America today.”
Pauken says Sessions is simply not up to running the House campaign, noting that in last year’s special election in upstate New York’s 23rd Congressional District, Sessions forsook a conservative Tea Party-backed candidate to throw his support, and a million dollars, behind a liberal Republican who ended up dropping out of the race and endorsing the victorious Democrat.
When Pauken publicly complained at the time, Sessions “called me up and essentially said, ‘It’s not your business,’” Pauken recounts. “My response was, ‘I’ve been involved in this a lot longer than you, Pete. It is my business what happens to the future of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.”
As for Cornyn, Pauken says he was especially troubled by the senator’s claim, on C-SPAN last week, that Bush 43’s “stock has gone up a lot since he left office.” The good news is that Sessions and Cornyn “are really minor figures,” Pauken says. “The key is going to be the mood of the moment, which is throw a lot of the incumbents out—more Democrats than Republicans—and to try to prevent the Obama administration from passing massive changes in our laws that may last for generations.”
Pauken, whose anti-Bush crusade is receiving increasingly favorable attention on conservative talk radio and at right-wing redoubts like the Heritage Foundation, has had a long, fractious history with the Bush dynasty and its family retainers. When he chaired the Texas party, Pauken says, Rove would frequently phone Republican headquarters to blister Pauken’s staff for one act of perceived disloyalty or another. Pauken took pride when The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes called him in 1996, after spending time on the campaign trail with Bush and Rove, and laughingly informed Chairman Pauken that he was “their least favorite Republican.”
“Karl Rove liked to brag that he read The Prince by Machiavelli. That is really Karl’s political bible: Do what’s necessary to win. Ultimately pragmatism doesn’t work, because you’ve got to have a core set of principles, and Karl Rove doesn’t have a core set of philosophical principles. To his credit, he’s the one most responsible for George W. Bush being president of the United States. Of course, having the name Bush and a father who was a former president does help.”
Pauken goes on: “Unfortunately, the Republican Party in the post-Reagan period got hijacked by a group of people who claimed they were conservative but were really Machiavellian pragmatists like Rove. Or they were former liberal Democrats—Hubert Humphrey and Scoop Jackson Democrats-turned-Republicans, who never were philosophical or ideological conservatives in the first place—like Charles Krauthammer, who was a speechwriter for Mondale. They did a lot of damage in the name of conservatism.”
Not surprisingly, among the Republican contenders for 2012, Pauken is no fan of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (who shares Cornyn’s bullish view of the Bush legacy), and is deeply skeptical of the putative front-runner Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.
“I wouldn’t say he’s a Bush clone, but he’s not a conservative, just like the Bush crowd weren’t conservatives,” Pauken says. “He made his fortune as a leveraged buyout artist, which, with all due respect, were the guys who created part of the problem with the loss of good American jobs and taking advantage of distorted business practice which rewards leverage and debt and penalizes savings and investment. That’s not the guy to lead us back…I don’t know what Romney’s philosophy is. He just wants to be president.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.