Respond to this Article March 2006

Fred Barnes delivered the talking points

review of Rebel-in-Chief.

By Isaac Chotiner

Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard, is one of those figures who drifts in and out of political consciousness: genial, conservative, always on television and rarely very memorable. But Barnes plays a particular, and to some quite important, role in the Washington media and political establishment. Where Bill Kristol may show more fealty to his conservatism than his president, or where Ann Coulter is too vitriolic for the good of her own side, you can always find Barnes calmly toeing the administration's line. When even FOX News panelists seemed uncomfortable with the administration's position on torture, there was Barnes defending the policy. When the president nominated Harriet Miers--and most conservative commentators and intellectuals rebelled--there was Barnes supporting the choice. He is the perfect Bush hack. Barnes's obsequiousness, on display in his new book, Rebel-in-Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush (Crown Forum, $23.95), is so deep it leaves you wondering what motivates it.

Rebel-in-Chief's portrait of Bush is fawning and at times unintentionally amusing. It is also unlikely to change any partisan minds. What it does reflect is the startling conviction that movement Republicans--after five years of complete GOP control of every branch of government--somehow remain political underdogs in the nation's capital.

Barnes's readers are handed the dispiriting spectacle of a very experienced writer in pursuit of a very dubious thesis. The book has two ever-present goals, and they are not entirely distinct from each other. The first is to show that Bush is a brave leader, willing to trust his gut and do what he thinks is right. When Barnes meets the president in the Oval Office, we get this paragraph:"[Bush's] job, he told me, is to 'stay out of the minutiae...' To stress the point, Bush called my attention to the rug; he had been surprised, he said, to learn that the first decision a president is expected to make is what color the rug should be. 'I wasn't aware that presidents were rug designers,' he told me. So, he delegated the task, to Laura. Typical of his governing style, though, he gave a clear principle as guidance: He wanted the rug to express the view that an 'optimistic person comes here.' The rug she designed is sunrise yellow." Lest the reader miss the point, Barnes inserts some helpful exposition: "Bush is a big picture person, eager to concentrate on major issues and delegate smaller ones. That explains why he let Laura design the Oval Office rug."

Having framed Bush as a man of principle in matters of interior design, Barnes wants to argue that this characteristic also explains his domestic policies. The huge spending binge of the last five years presents a problem for conservative defenders of Bush. There are two honest ways for them to address this part of the president's record. The first is to say that the (non-defense and Homeland Security) spending increases were simply made to capture votes, and thus farm subsidies and prescription drug benefits and the like are necessary to sustain Republican Congressional majorities and control the White House. The second is to say that conservatives do not care about the deficit as long as tax cuts keep coming. What we get from Barnes is this: "[Bush's] view of government is Hamiltonian: It's a valuable tool to achieve security, prosperity, and the common good. His strategy is to use government as a means to achieve conservative ends." Later in this same paragraph Barnes notes that some of these ends are not really conservative at all. But rather than admitting that perhaps Bush has political priorities like all other politicians, he lets the clear implication of his own words go unmentioned. This is a defense of Bush you don't hear even from right-leaning magazines and talk shows, who frequently attack the president for an insufficient commitment to conservative values.

At this point in the narrative, the main question before the reader is why the book is so adulatory. It would be easy to say that Barnes has simply traded away his integrity and become a partisan because the pay is better, and it allows him to write books like this, which I imagine will sell quite well. But Rebel-in-Chief is so sincere that one is left with the unmistakable impression that Barnes really does see Bush as a serious underdog, that the establishment is truly out to get him. Which completely undercuts Barnes's ability to appraise Bush honestly.

Thus, the second, and central, argument of the book--Bush is a rebel, some metaphoric combination of Robin Hood and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: "President Bush operates in Washington like the head of a small occupying army of insurgents, an elected band of brothers (and quite a few sisters) on a mission. He's an alien in the realm of the governing class, given a green card by voters." For Barnes to present Bush as a conservative outsider, bravely fighting an uphill battle and bucking the liberal establishment, seems especially strained as the country enters another year under Republican control of Washington.

The picture of Bush as underdog appears early and often. "As an insurgent, with few ties to Washington aside from an alliance with Republicans on Capitol Hill," Barnes begins one paragraph. This is, after all, a man who was elected with almost total support from the Republican establishment. He raised more money from big donors than any presidential candidate in history and his father was president of the United States. Still, Barnes presents him entering Washington as a sort of High Noon-like hero, alone but morally courageous. I have no evidence that Bush does not prefer Crawford, Texas, to Washington D.C., and it certainly does seem that he would rather clear brush than dine at the home of Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn. But when it comes to governing, Bush did not start with any disadvantages, and the Republican Party has been united almost completely behind him, financially and ideologically.

To some extent, of course, Barnes is right about the Washington establishment. It has been duly noted time and again that if you were to poll all the bureaucrats and reporters in this town, they would likely register as more liberal than the country at large. Additionally, they are resistant to change in a way that must certainly be frustrating for a president as bent on setting a new policy course as Bush is. But to focus solely on these things, as Barnes does, is to miss the bigger, more important, picture: The old establishment no longer holds real power. The GOP, a more conservative party than it has ever been, controls all three branches of government and has a near-stranglehold over the capital's business and lobbying communities, that in turn give it a large and persistent fundraising edge. And though the right may be able to argue that the major newspapers and television networks lean left, there is no denying that there are more openly and strongly conservative voices than liberal ones in the press.

Why then is Barnes so prone to viewing Bush as an underdog? He seems to be seeing Bush through the prism of his own experience 20 years ago, when a staunchly conservative reporter may have felt snubbed by the Washington establishment. This may explain why he is more likely than, say, the young conservatives at National Review to see Bush as a victim. The latter came to Washington when the right had already captured power, and that confidence enables them to (occasionally) criticize the president, or view him as a normal politician. But even among the most recent arrivals to the capital, the victim mentality perfectly captured by Rebel-in-Chief is still the norm. This book is just one extreme example.

Much has been written about GOP troubles in these last few months, and the conventional wisdom seems to be that the Republicans have not adjusted to being a governing party. Maybe so. It is no wonder conservatives cannot see themselves as being truly in charge when they see our two-term, 43rd president, son of the 41st, as a rebel fighting against the dark force of elite opinion.

Isaac Chotiner is a writer in Washington, DC.


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