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Excerpt from War In A Time Of Peace by David Halberstam, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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War In A Time Of Peace by David Halberstam

War In A Time Of Peace

Bush, Clinton & The Generals

by David Halberstam
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  • First Published:
  • Sep 1, 2001
  • Paperback:
  • Jul 2002
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The different pollsters tracking George Bush in the period after the Gulf War, from March until well into the fall of 1991, found a steady decline in the president's approval ratings, a decline, depending on the pollster, of some twenty or twenty-five percent. That was bad enough, but it was relatively easy to justify -- after all, his ratings at the moment of victory in the desert had been almost unconscionably high. What went up that high certainly had to come down. Much more alarming was that people were again becoming mutinous over the economy, even as the aura of good feeling about the Gulf War was beginning to vanish.

The White House, for a variety of reasons, tended to cut itself off from that ominous trend. Steeper's polls and those of other pollsters showed that much of the country, perhaps as many as 80 percent of those polled, thought the country was in a recession. But the president's economic advisers -- Michael Boskin, who was the head of the Council of Economic Advisers, effectively Bush's own personal economist, Dick Darman, his budget director, and Nick Brady, his secretary of the treasury -- all told him that the recession was over. Some of his political people were furious with that stance; they thought the economists were dead wrong and were underestimating a potentially destructive political issue in order to justify their past advice. Nonetheless, Bush, in the fall of 1991, went public and declared that the recession was over. That was a critical mistake; it put him in direct conflict with the way a vast majority of Americans felt on an issue that was growing ever more serious in the public mind.

This was the predicament of the Bush White House at the end of 1991. It had been Bush's best year in office, yet a powerful political current was beginning to work against him. Furthermore, he was being given little credit for his considerate skill in negotiating the end of the Cold War. In fact, the end of the Cold War was now possibly also working against him, as the release from Cold War tensions accelerated the change in the primacy of issues, from foreign affairs, where the Republicans in general and Bush in particular had been the beneficiaries, to domestic affairs, at a time when the economy was soft and the chief beneficiaries on economic issues were the Democrats.

Among the first to spot this change was Fred Steeper. In December 1991, at exactly the time when the Soviet Union was breaking up and a once-feared adversary was losing its strength, he was holding a series of focus groups with ordinary citizens, trying to figure out how they felt about the issues that would face the Republican Party in the upcoming election year. The results were deadly. Not only was the primary issue the economy, not only did most ordinary people feel the country was mired deep in a recession, in contrast to what the president and his economic advisers were saying, but they were furious with Bush, who, they believed, was not that interested in them and their problems. Even more devastating, there were signs that it was already too late for him to right himself on this issue.

Because of these findings Steeper wrote a memo for his boss, Bob Teeter, suggesting the possibility of what he termed the Churchill Factor or the Churchill Parallel. At the end of July 1945, just after Germany had surrendered, a tired England had not even waited for the war to end in the Pacific before voting out Winston Churchill, its gallant and beloved wartime leader, whose bulldog determination had symbolized England's strength and faith during Europe's darkest hour, and replacing him with the obviously less charismatic Labor Party leader, Clement Attlee. (He is a modest man and has much to be modest about, Churchill once said of Attlee.) The British had believed that Churchill's primary passion was defense and foreign policy, not domestic affairs, and they wanted someone who they thought would pay more attention to their postwar needs.

Copyright © 2001 by The Amateurs, Inc.

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