“The spin is bogus,” said William Burck, a former deputy White House counsel, in pushing back against early news accounts framing Obama’s action as a slap at his predecessor. In fact, Burck insisted, the new policy is no different from Bush’s.
Even though Bush is keeping quiet in Texas before heading out on a lucrative speaking tour, an informal network of former aides is keeping his views in the political bloodstream, defending his legacy in TV appearances and backgrounding reporters about his record.
Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer calls the Bush pundits “a loose confederation of people united in our belief in what President Bush did, and we’re freer now to talk about some things than we used to be — good and bad.”
The Bush defense forces include Fleischer; former press secretary Dana Perino; Bush political czar Karl Rove, who has contracts with Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek; economics guru Tony Fratto; the prolific Peter Wehner, former director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives; and the graceful speechwriter Michael Gerson, who writes an opinion column for The Washington Post.
The former aides are armed with many of the same arguments that they tried out on reporters when they strolled the hallways of the West Wing.
When CNN’s Larry King recently asked what Fleischer considered to be a hostile question about tax cuts, the president’s first press secretary pulled out an ancient talking point and reminded viewers that the nation “had a record-breaking 55 straight months of job creation and economic job growth” on Bush’s watch.
“We’re invited to comment on the events of the day and along the way, we remind people that there was, indeed, good news under President Bush,” Fleischer said.
Participants say the effort is not coordinated or organized but, rather, a natural result of the hunger by bookers and reporters to get the views of aides who approached the status of celebrity through their service in a two-term presidency. The Bush alumni said they make their points subtly — both because the former president does not want to feed an Obama vs. Bush story line and because they know they will never win that battle.
“Communications-wise, this tidal wave is going to have to wash on over everybody,” said Perino, Bush’s last press secretary. “We do what we can, and we believe that history will get it right in the end.”
A few days before Obama announced he was abolishing Bush-era limits on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, Bush supporters who frequently appear on TV received an e-mail from an adviser saying: “I wanted to send you the following two documents on President Bush’s record on stem cell research: 1. a Bush White House fact sheet on President Bush’s record of advancing stem cell research in ethical, responsible ways and 2. a November 2007 Washington Post column by Charles Krauthammer, ‘Stem Cell Vindication.’”
Recipients said the information was helpful and that they were struck by the fact that it wasn’t talking points — just a savvy reminder of points the press was likely to overlook.
So the Bush message persists in the punditry ether. On National Review Online, Yuval Levin, who worked on health issues as an associate director of Bush’s Domestic Policy Council, defended his boss’s approach to the stem cell decision: “Unfortunately, the political debate has yet to recover the kind of balanced understanding ofthe moral quandary that President Bush offered the country eight years ago.”
Jim Connaughton, the former chairman of Bush’s White House Council on Environmental Quality, popped up on Fox the other day talking about the president’s record on energy and the environment.
And Fratto, once a top spokesman for Bush’s Treasury Department and White House, talks to reporters about economic issues just about every day.
“A lot of us still hear from you guys, looking for reaction, especially when we’re attacked, like on the budget,” Fratto said. “There’s no coordinated effort to push back on these things, but if there’s a charge, we’ll set the record straight.”
Bush-era officials walk a fine line, and they know it. The outgoing administration, in the view of even the most partisan members of the Obama team, was hugely helpful and professional during the transition — a tone that clearly started in the Oval Office. Former presidents, by tradition, try to leave the stage to their successors, and Bush — who has been largely incognito except for a visit to a Dallas hardware store, has been no different.
Former White House aides from both parties also feel a bond with the new kids in town — particularly given the economic apocalypse that they face. Fratto says he often reminds reporters to give his successors at Treasury a break, since they have so much on their plate, “some of it of their own making, a lot of it that they had to pick up as they came in.”
“That doesn’t always make the stories,” he said.
Perino said her fellow alumni have no interest in “fanning the flames of Obama vs. Bush.” But sometimes the frustration does show.
“For many years, we were accused of being too close to the Russians, right?” Perino said. “Too close to Putin — too friendly with them. And then on this recent trip, our new secretary of state wants to press the reset button and improve the relationship with Russia. And I think: Why isn’t there any critical thinking going on?”