Remembering 43: ‘Bush tended to… follow strong people’

Published 1:43 PM EDT, Thu April 25, 2013

Story highlights

Former George W. Bush advisers and critics recall the former president's two terms in office

Karen Hughes, longtime Bush communications adviser, said she had a hard time reaching the president on Air Force one the morning of 9/11

Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson said "George Bush was a terrific boss"

(CNN) —  

Karen Hughes remembers trying to reach President George W. Bush on the chaotic morning of September 11, and her anxiety when told by the White House operator: “Ma’am, we can’t reach Air Force One.”

Hank Paulson recalls a decisive, steady hand during the 2008 financial crisis: “George Bush was a terrific boss.”

But former Democratic congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts sees that Bush presidency – and his leadership style – very differently even as he compliments the financial crisis response.

“What Bush tended to do was to follow strong people,” Frank told CNN. “In Iraq, the strong man was (Vice President Dick) Cheney and that led to one of the worst disasters I think in American history. In the financial crisis– the strong guy was Paulson … and the response is a much better one.”

History improves former presidents’ image

In conjunction with Thursday’s dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, CNN circled back with several key players in the big debates and moments of the 43rd president’s two terms.

Here are some of their reflections and recollections:

KAREN HUGHES, longtime Bush communications adviser dating back to his days as Texas governor, who served in the Bush White House and later the State Department:

On the morning of September 11, 2001:

“But I turned on the television, was talking with my deputy, who was with the president in Florida. Saw the second plane hit the second tower. And I remember hearing the sound of a yardman blowing leaves outside. There was a leaf-blower, somebody working in the garden. And thinking, ‘How could something sound so normal, because nothing’s ever going to be normal again?’ And so, I remember at that moment having it hit me. The other moment was the first time I saw the president that day. And I was, by then, at the White House in the emergency bunker. And the president convened a meeting of the National Security Council via teleconference. And the moment I saw him, he practically came through the screen and he said, ‘We are at war against terror. And from this day forward, this is the priority of our administration.’”

On being uncertain for a stretch about whether there had been an attack on Air Force One as the president headed back to Washington from Florida and she wanted permission to brief the news media:

“Because no one knew exactly what was happening. And so, I was trying to find the president because I knew he would want me to go out and brief, if I could talk to him. And when the operator said, ‘You know, Ma’am, we– we can’t reach Air Force One–’ you know, my immediate thought was– “Oh, you know, surely something hasn’t happened to them?” Because I’d never had that happen before where they literally couldn’t reach him. So that was an awful moment.”

On Iraq and the failure to match pre-war predictions:

“I think there’s a feeling that things were a lot worse, that the country was in a lot worse situation than we were probably prepared for or understood. And I, you know, I think in talking with, again, the people who were on the national security team who were closest to it, they will admit that, you know, there were mistakes made and things didn’t go as well as we had hoped or planned for.”

On the government’s response to Katrina, and its impact on the second Bush term:

“I was just at the beginning of my tenure as under secretary for public diplomacy. And people around the world, they didn’t believe the United States of America, our powerful country, couldn’t do anything. Therefore, they felt we were choosing not to do anything. And I think that’s the most unfortunate perception; that somehow the government was choosing not to help its own people. And of course, that’s not true. I think they felt their hands were tied. But that’s the unfortunate perception that developed.”

“I think it was a huge shadow over the rest of his presidency, unfortunately. …Clearly that first year (of the second term) is really critically important. And the failure of social security reform, immigration reform, that situation with Katrina, I think it really did cast a big shadow over the rest of the presidency.”

5 presidents on hand for Bush Center dedication

HANK PAULSON, former treasury secretary:

On the 2008 financial crisis:

“I would tell you probably the darkest moment I had was after we had done everything. And at least I thought had done everything. It turns out we weren’t done yet, after we’d put the capital in the banks, with the TARP program, and after the election, when Citi started to come unglued. And we put in place a rescue package. We weren’t sure whether it was gonna work. I was feeling quite down, stressed, and the president came over and spent some time. He asked me what I was worried about. And I said, obviously I was worried that there would be a collapse. And he said, you know, ‘I’ve got great confidence in the steps we’re taking. … Just be glad this isn’t happening at the beginning of a new administration when a president is focused to a much greater extent on the polls and is trying to figure out how to work with a new treasury secretary.’”

On Bush brushing aside objections from fellow Republicans he was interfering too much in the economy:

“We did some things that must have been – they were unpleasant for me. Very, very necessary, but unpleasant. And for him, believing as he does in free markets– and knowing how unpopular they were gonna be with his base. But he knew and he and I talked about the fact if we didn’t do it, there wouldn’t be any, much left of the free market. And so he kept saying, ‘Don’t worry. We’re gonna do what it takes to save the economy.’”

FRAN TOWNSEND, former homeland security adviser:

On initial troop levels in Iraq:

“I think the surge, suggest that was a mistake. … I was not there as those decisions were getting made in the run-up. But I think the surge itself and the success that the surge had is the critical indicator that the decision to go in lean was not the most effective, was not the best. And frankly, as a result, we dealt – we were dealing with the civil strife.”

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, former homeland security secretary:

On the decision to fire FEMA Director Michael Brown during the Katrina response:

“I actually came to that conclusion a couple of days into the event and it was precipitated by the fact that when I was asking him, ‘Do we have a plan to get the buses, and do we have a better plan for evacuating people?’ I either had difficulty getting an answer or I had difficulty getting in touch with him. And it became clear to me that whatever he had done previously, on the ground, operational management of this event was not his strong suit, and I wanted to get somebody who was an operator, and that turned out to be Thad Allen, in place. And the president told me, you know from the outset, ‘This is up to you. You make the decision and I will support you.’ And he did support me in relieving Brown.”

On the constant crises of the Bush presidency:

“You know the president used to say sometimes, even in the midst of a lot of stress and anxiety that, ‘we’re privileged to be able to serve at a time when we’re really called upon to face amazing challenges.’ … If you look at 9/11, which was an unprecedented event, Katrina, which while not quite as unprecedented, created some novel challenges and then the financial crisis, which again, although not the first time we had one, certainly was the first in a really long time. It was a very tough eight years. I don’t think the president would’ve traded that for an uneventful eight years.”

BARNEY FRANK, former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts:

On refusing to raise taxes or consider any new revenues to pay for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq:

“It could be five years, 25 years, 125 years. He will be guilty of absolute financial irresponsibility. The notion of financing two wars with five tax cuts is just crazy. And that’s what he did. And if you go back in history we almost always raise taxes to fight a war.”

DOUG WEAD, a former aide and adviser to Presidents George H.W. Bush and later George W. Bush, who fell out of favor with the Bush family because of his take on the second Bush presidency:

“He loves his dad. He admires his dad. He’s challenged by his dad. His dad’s his point of reference. He measures himself by his dad. ‘My vice president compared to dad’s vice president. My war compared to dad’s war.’ There’s airplanes, airplanes. There’s baseball, baseball. There’s Andover, Andover. There’s Yale, Yale.”

On his belief George W. Bush took office determined to remove Saddam Hussein from power:

“Because of the attempt of the assassination of his father. He loves his dad. And he attempted to kill his father and it was commissioned by the government and Saddam Hussein, and they had 12 people assigned to it and it was quite an elaborate plan to assassinate his father and they felt hopeless – and I think angry that the Clinton administration didn’t do more. They fired off some tomahawk cruise missiles in retaliation but the Iraqis knew they were coming. I think they resented that.”

CNN Poll: Bush’s standing improves four years later

MARY MATALIN, senior adviser to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney:

On assertions by Wead and others that the administration was hell-bent on war with Iraq:

“To those idiots, I say ‘Get a life.’ Cause you have to be an idiot to think that any commander-in-chief, any public servant with the record of either of those accomplished men who come from the families that they did would use our nation’s security as an opportunity.”

On the Bush-Cheney relationship and critics the vice president had too much power:

“The president wanted Dick Cheney to be powerful. And that Dick Cheney’s operating principle, in turn, was, ‘The president makes the decisions. It’s my job to give him the best information, my best advice. He makes the decisions, and I salute smartly and move on.’ So there was never any puppet master business there. And I don’t – and from what I do know of them both. We, they, more joked about it than anything else. It just wasn’t a factor for them. These are two mature, accomplished competent men who were in a crisis environment.”

On second-term strains in the Bush-Cheney relationship:

“When they say tension, they don’t mean like a girl cat fight or mean girls. There was a big disagreement and there was a lot of emotion in the Scooter Libby lack of pardon. Because from the Scooter Libby camp perspective, he was promoting the president’s policies, protecting the president’s policies.”

Bush 43: ‘History will ultimately judge’

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, former deputy director and later director of the CIA

On how fast the CIA went from speculating al Qaeda was responsible to knowing al Qaeda was responsible for 9/11:

“I would say an hour or two after the attacks an analyst ran into our little emergency headquarters there and said, ‘Okay, I know this is al Qaeda for sure’ because this analyst had obtained, somehow, one of the manifests from the planes, from one of the airlines, and recognized at least two names among the passenger crew as al Qaeda people that we were searching for, and that we believed to be in the United States.”

On how quickly some in the administration turned to Iraq after the 9/11 attacks:

“Iraq entered the conversation very early– as early as September 15 at Camp David. Some participants in the discussion — principally, Deputy Secretary (of Defense) Paul Wolfowitz – raised the issue of whether we ought to look at Iraq as a possible source of terrorism, like what we had seen on 9/11. Now it enters the conversation, but it doesn’t become a dominant feature of the conversation, at that point. I would say it’s not until, you know, mid to late 2002 that Iraq starts to come up on the screen more frequently.

“… My recall of the meetings in September of 2001 is that President Bush listened but quickly took Iraq off the table. In other words, he did not show to me any sign at that point that he was interested in pursuing Iraq as something associated with 9/11.”

On Cheney as a consumer of intelligence:

“The vice president was very aggressive in asking questions – particularly of intelligence officers. And we respected that. I mean, he’s often portrayed as this dark presence who would come to CIA and, you know, lean hard on you. Well, we didn’t see it that way. I mean, he would ask you tough questions. And he would ask them over and over again. That’s for sure. And he had strong views and probably was looking for a particular answer. But he never pressed you to give that answer. He would be very respectful and polite in his questioning, in my personal experience and in my observation of him with analysts and others that he interacted with. … Vice President Cheney was probably among vice presidents, the most avid consumer of intelligence that I’ve seen – in terms of his interest in it – the level of detail that he waded into. He read a lot of raw intelligence reports. The fact that he visited personally most of the intelligence agencies and spent a lot of time trying to understand what they did. I am not aware of any previous vice president taking that level of interest in intelligence.”