Meet the gifted reporter and longtime Bush observer, Robert Draper, who had unprecedented access to the White House. He will discuss Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush a revealing and balanced look at this most secretive of administrations- Books Inc.
Robert Draper has been a national correspondent for GQ magazine for the past decade, and prior to that was senior editor at Texas Monthly. He lives in Washington, D.C. He is author of a novel, Hadrian's Walls (Knopf), and the biography Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History.
Okay, now Robert Draper, who is with us this evening with his new book Dead Certain,has been the National Correspondent for GQ magazine for the past decade, prior to thathe was the Senior Editor at Texas Monthly. He is also the author of the novel Hadrian'sWalls and the biography Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History. Would youplease welcome to Books Inc, Robert Draper.Thanks for coming out you all. Well, let's see. In the interest of time I'll try not to do thelong winded version of this, but I've as was mentioned that the title of my book is DeadCertain and what the book attempts to be is this sort of literary narrative of a sittingPresident which to me at the time seemed like the most unoriginal idea imaginable. Andand I was really it was a question that I that has been asked over and over in everyinterview that I have done, but I understand it as a question that's bagged and so I willanticipate it by answering it tonight, the question is "Why you?" And it's been asked ofme with varying stage varying degrees of bafflement, bordering at times on hostilityfrom members of the Bellevue Media who had tried for so long to penetrate the BushAdministration and and therefore received my book with some degree of skepticism. Ithink imagining that there had been some kind of Texas Cobol that had allowed this totake place and that I was toady of the administration and but they got over it ratherquickly I think and I have been gratified by the books by the book's reception. But it's afair question nonetheless.I am from Texas and had covered, then Governor Bush, when I worked for a magazineTexas Monthly and I then worked for a magazine well I still work in GQ and in 1998,did a very lengthy profile of Bush as he was considering running for President. And I sortof seized upon this belief straight away that there had been this caricature about Bush thatthat it served Bush well and that Bush had really done nothing to disavow, to disabuseone of and that was this notion of him as kind of a simpleton who view the black andwhite and was accountable sort of roiling the world by day and then sleeping like a babyat night and didn't read the newspapers and didn't care about what his critics and and aman who was very comfortable in his own skin and I didn't trust it, and believed that ifit had served him and I believed that had, I think that he has been as he would put it,mis-understimated by his critics, that he literally made a career out if being viewed thatway by people, they did necessarily sort of history. And I glean this largely from theseinterviews that I have done with him in 1998 for GQ and that profile I think was deemedby him and his people as being largely fair and to the extent that he looked battling, youknow, it wasn't my follow, I just quoted him accurately and and so I went aboutbusiness then and I didn't didn't attempt to make a cottage industry out of Bush.But by the summer of 2004 I sort of looked up and noticed that there had been literallywell over 100 books written about this man. But they were all sort of polemic. So theyfell into one of two categories. Either they were slices of the pie that going to Iraq or9/11, or Bush and Faith, The Florida Recount, things of this nature, but not attempting tocover the totality of his presidency, or they were arguments for him or more likely,against him. And I have and so that's why I say I thought at the time that the notion ofdoing a sort of straightforward narrative of a sitting president was anything but novel, butno one else was up to this gambit. And so I decided sort of appoint myself, Bush'sbiographer, informed the administration of this and Karen Hughes, who had been Bush'scounselor had left the White House and then came back in 2004 to run to help runBush's campaign, had a respected my work and said I think, you do an excellent job, but Icertainly can't guarantee any cooperation, I don't even work for the White House anymore.And so in January 2005 I went to the White House to have a meeting with, Dan Bartlett,Bush's counselor and you will have to remember that at this point, I had gotten thecontract to do the book in October in October 2004 we weren't even certain if my bookwas going to be about a one term or two term President. A month later we did know. Butyou have to remember that in January of 2005 where Bush was he finally the mandatethat had eluded him 2000 now he had in 2004. In a lot of ways the contentious nature ofthe election 2000 magnified, I think in Bush Administration's view, the nature of theirvictory, the extent of their victory in 2004. Bush now felt like he had this heaping ofpolitical capital and he could not wait to spend it. He gave this very audacious inauguraladdress you will recall, in which he uncorked the freedom agenda and then a couple ofweeks later had the State of the Union address, decided to touch the dreaded Third Railand announced that he was going to reform social security with personal account or lesscharitably reviewed viewed as privatization of social security.This is where the Bush Administration was and at the time that I approached them andfull of if you will forgive the phrase, "full of piss and vinegar" and believing I think thathistory would take care of itself and pretty much even write itself. And so what DanBartlett told me that day in essence was you know; fat chance. And you can interviewa couple of people in West Wing, but the chief speech writer, a couple of other folks,but and we will keep an eye on you and will see how it goes, but this is not really a kindof thing the president likes to do cooperating with the media on books and he is goingto write his own book and so you know, lots of luck.I wasn't really dissuaded by this and I think that that's one of two things that happenedbetween January of 2005 and August of 2006 when I did finally get summoned to theOval Office to have an off the record discussion with President Bush. This first factor wasthat I have sort of went about my business and there is nothing particularly bedazzlingor remarkable about how he went about it. It was just journalism 301, of interviewing oneperson in the West Wing and then the next and and I was astonished, if delighted, tolearn as I I say that I wasn't tripping over any other reporters who were doing this verysame thing. Bob Woodward was doing State of Denial, but it was an Iraq book and andfor whatever reason I supposed it was that I supposed that other reporters or biographerswere cowed by this notion of this very secretive administration and thus they didn't try.But what I learned actually in doing this along the way was that there was an upside tosort of confronting the secretive administration and that's that these people have nevertalked before. And they actually I don't want to suggest that they all gave away the storeright away but but a lot of them have never been approached, I remember in aninterview I did kind of early with a guy he was the Director of the Office ofManagement and Budget, his name was Joshua Bolten and Bolten 30 minutes into theinterview said you know I just want you to know I am really enjoying this, I have nevertalked to an author before and you are welcome to come back whenever you want. I cameback seven times to see Joshua Bolten, the last four where in he was Chief of Staff of theWhite House and Bolten do a lot and became really one of my best sources. But thiswas hardly unique that I heard this over and over again and it did cause me to wondernow and again why isn't anyone else trying this, but in any way I was grateful that they didn't.So that was one thing. I was going about my business and and I think word waspercolating up, that the food chain of the West Wing, that this guy seemed to know whathe was doing, he was being fairly thorough and didn't seem to have any axe to grind. Butthere was another thing that was transpiring during this period and that scenario Idescribed to you in January of 2005 had changed a bit by August of 2006. I would neverhave guessed you know, and you have to understand, and I have been asked this a lot,you know, how could I suspend whatever my political beliefs are and do this book. Ihave been a magazine writer for a very long time and have written about pedophiles andmass murderers and serial rapists and you know, tried write about them on their ownterms and so that the notion of writing about a sitting President who happened be reviledin certain quarters didn't seem to me to be that difficult, in terms of crossing a psychic bridge.But in anyway I did not I would not have guessed that in January of 2005 this thisadministration which was so full of swagger, you know bordering on hubris, would by theend of 2005 be reeling the way it was and by August of 2006 Bush was a decidedlyunpopular president and reckoning with the reality that he would leave office unpopular.And something was happening with Bush that hadn't happened with him in 1998. In 98'when I was doing all these talks with Bush for this GQ profile I am not beinguncharitable when I say that he just did not have much of a grasp of history. I rememberasking him, what leaders do you most admire and he just said Reagan. And I said, whatjurists you know what judges do you most admire and he said, Scalia and Thomas. Andso it was clear to me that his breath of history, that his grasp of it really didn't go muchfurther than those administrations in which his father had served, first as VP and then aspresident and by 2006 that had changed and Bush was now appreciating history, inparticular because he was in a way living for history. He was reading books about strongleaders who had made tough decisions and had left office reviled, Churchill and Truman,but had later been acquitted by history and think the president was taking comfort in thatnotion and believing that this is what leadership is about. You make tough decisions,tough decisions make you unpopular, you leave office unpopular and you are acquitted later.And so as he was reading about history I think as well, he was developing an appreciationfor historians and for the notion of cooperating with someone he might not havecooperated with before who was proposing to write sort of a first draft of his history.And I think that set the table, laid the predicate for the conversation that I had with himoff the record in the Oval Office in August of 2006, you know, that the since its off therecord, I can only just talk with the substance, I would but in essence he wanted toknow, you know why me, why my book will be different and I in essence told him thatthat I wasn't intending to write a book that's for the moment but a book that would havelasting value and a book that did didn't propose to judge the man, that I would leavethat up to some guy in a Tweed Suit 50 years from now 50 years from now, no onewould care what Ron Suskind or Fred Barnes or Bob Woodward of Robert Draperthought of George W. Bush, what they care about is though who who the hell is thisundistinguished Midland Texas oilman and how did he how did he of all peoplebecome the person for good or for evil, changed the world.That's the question I wanted to answer, that's the man I wanted to get and I wanted toand so doing provide all this raw material that historians could draw from later. Now heseemed impressed with that, but belying this notion that that's out there of Bush as sortof this guy who acts always on impulse, he said, let me reflect on it and reflect on it hedid for quite a long time, several months until December, with the beginning ofDecember when I got a email Dan Bartlett that said, he will do one interview and see howit goes. And that interview was on December the 12th; that was a tough day for Bush. Acouple of weeks prior the Iraq Study Group had issued its report labeling the situation inIraq grave and deteriorating and the President had to do something about this. Obviouslyhis plan the security plan there was failing and failing miserably.But they frankly didn't know what to do and they and so Bush was persuaded by hisChief of Staff Joshua Bolten, who believed that Bush didn't have sufficient ownership ofIraq, that Bush had been very deferential, harmfully so to Rumsfeld and needed so tospeak, to get his hands on the steering wheel of Iraq, to take sometime to think aboutexactly what he wanted to do, to take ownership of his own policy. But to deliberate, overthe holidays would invite the criticism that while Baghdad burned Bush was sort of youknow, having a vacation. So he knew he would take a hit in the press and so he was in avery, very prickly mood that day and and his pungency as a word I think on fulldisplay and the prologue of my book, which is virtually a transcript of that interview. Itwas a real emotional tour de force and I didn't quite know you know, how I was goingto fare by the end of it. But in fact by the end of it Bush just simply stood up and said,"Okay, we will do another." And walked away and back into the Oval Office.And that was parlayed then into an interview a second interview a week later andultimately into six interviews over lasting about a total of six hours. The President hadnever spoken to a journalist at such length before, which he took pains to remind me atseveral points. And the interviews are very interesting and I think the revelatory, he wasI can assure you that I display no tactical brilliance as a journalist, but however I haddone it, I think I had managed to sort of furnish this president with a comfort zone andone in which he felt okay about talking about things and said some things that I thinkwere very revealing. Some that were perhaps a little reckless so that one sort of almostpassing comment that got a lot of play and relating to his retirement plans and how heintended to hit the lecture circuit as he put it, replenish the old coffers and which ledmany to to wonder aloud whether it was a maybe unseemly for this man who wassending people off to die in Iraq to be talking about how much money he would bemaking from that experience as a wartime president. And but the one thing I had to say,that I didn't see from him in terms of this kind of full emotional range was any kind ofregret, any kind of ruefulness, any kind of equivocation.I think that and this goes sort of the title to the title of my book, Dead Certain, it's Ithink the president's certitude is you know, can be seen at times as steadfast and soonafter 9/11 it was a comfort to the nation. At other times it can be seen as nativestubbornness that drives people nuts. I think thought that there is an aspect to his certitudethat that's not all together real. That sort of the more dubious things are the more hepresses on with this certitude, and so its aspect of protesting too much. And I saw a lot ofthat in my interviews with him the book, it's rife with examples both from his own voiceand from the voice of others of that. Its not its not Bush's nature to confess to thedegree that he would confess at all to the media of all people. And so he didn't appointme the person to whom he would say, boy I am really screwed up here and there. But Ifound that interesting about this man that he said to me that, he didn't even hewouldn't even admit equivocate or show any doubt to the senior most members of hisstaff. He felt that it was his role in fact and this was kind of at odds with a man whowho seems to act like he doesn't care what other people think, that he is acutely selfconscious and was aware that everything he says and does in interpreted by others and sohe wants to send messages and the messages are not just to to the public, but to Iraqis,to the enemy, to the troops, to grieving widows of those who have died overseas, but alsoto his senior most members, he told me, he didn't share them any doubt for fear that theywould doubt the mission.And so of course you know this there is a certain amount of virtue and thoughtfulnessto that that also you know, creates conditions for credibility gap when you are you aresaying things in the face of realities that seem to challenge what it is that you are saying.And so that's why called the book Dead Certain, that and I would like to reflect ofcourse the gravity of being a war president, but also that there is this aspect of protestingtoo much. I was going to read a little bit of the book but I am actually concerned abouttime and one of if you guys have any questions that you like to ask, I am willing to answer them.