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

Bush, Clinton & The Generals

by David Halberstam

War In A Time Of Peace
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2001, 543 pages
    Jul 2002, 560 pages

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Nineteen ninety-one had been an excellent year for George Bush. It had ended with the ultimate Christmas present for an American president when Gorbachev had called to wish him well personally, and to inform him that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR, was resigning and turning over power to Boris Yeltsin, the new leader of Russia. Earlier in the day, Gorbachev had told Ted Koppel of Nightline that he was a something of a modern-day Russian pioneer because he was participating in the peaceful transfer of power, acting in accordance with a formula that was democratic, something relatively new in Moscow. Then, in a warm, rather affectionate conversation with Bush he said was turning over what he called the little suitcase, the bag that contained the authorization codes to activate the Soviet nuclear arsenal, to the president of the Russian Republic. Even so, he could not bear to mention Yeltsin, his sworn enemy, by name. The deed was done and Gorbachev was gone. (As Raisa Gorbachev had shrewdly observed after returning from an immensely successful trip to the United States in June 1990, "The thing about innovations is that sooner or later they turn around and destroy the innovators.")

Some of that special call announcing the end of the Soviet Union was even watched on television. Gorbachev, the product of the most secretive society in the world, was now a media-savvy man who had learned to play to international as well as domestic opinion. Bush would later discover that Gorbachev had allowed Koppel and Nightline to televise his end of their two-person phone call. It was the climax of a year that most American presidents only dream of. It seemed like the rarest of times when almost all the news was good and Bush was the primary beneficiary. His presidency was an immense success and his reelection appeared to be a sure thing.

But there were already signs that a powerful new undertow was at work in American politics, and Bush and the people around him were for a variety of reasons, most of them generational, slow to recognize it. But the signs of significant political and social change were there nonetheless. They reflected a certain lack of gratitude on the part of all kinds of ordinary people for the successes of the last three years, and a growing anger -- indeed perhaps rage -- about the state of the American economy. There was also a concurrent belief that George Bush was certainly capable of being an effective world leader, but domestic problems and issues, in this case, principally, the economy, did not matter as much to him as foreign affairs. A number of different pollsters were picking up this undertow of discontent, among them Stan Greenberg, a former Yale professor who was polling for the young would-be Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, and Fred Steeper, who had impeccable Republican connections and was polling for the Republican National Committee. Steeper was working out of the office of Bob Teeter, a leading Republican public opinion expert, who was one of George Bush's closest friends and political allies and would be among the men directing his campaign for reelection. Normally Steeper would have been polling for Bush directly, but due to a temporary breakdown in polling in 1991 because of factional differences in the White House, he had ended up working for the RNC.

By the early nineties, polling had become an ever more exact and important instrument of American politics, though some old-timers from an earlier political era were made uneasy by it. They especially distrusted those politicians who used it on all occasions for all purposes and appeared to have no inner value system or beliefs that could withstand the alleged truths produced by polling. But used properly, polls could reveal some things. Used properly, they could serve as a good DEW-line alert system for forces that might soon represent important shifts of public opinion. At the very least they could reveal the primacy of issues, and this would turn out to be one of those occasions. Fred Steeper thought he had been detecting signs of a growing economic malaise for quite a while and a resulting public disenchantment with Bush's attempts to deal with the economy. The huge budget deficits produced by Reagan's tax policies had led to a bitterly debated decision in 1990 on the part of George Bush to go for a tax increase. Campaigning for election in 1988, he had vowed not to raise taxes -- "Read my lips. No new taxes," he had said during the campaign. By breaking that promise he had angered many in his own party. The bright and angry young Republican conservatives in the House, led by Newt Gingrich, had broken with him on that issue, and he had got the tax increase through Congress largely with support from the Democrats. But it would become a not-insignificant wound.

Copyright © 2001 by The Amateurs, Inc.

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