Despite a financial crisis for the ages, the catastrophic collapse of a Republican Party crippled by his political legacy, and the highest presidential disapproval rating in the history of American polling, outgoing commander in chief George W. Bush has not completely lost his sense of fun. When Rolling Stone caught up with him at the White House shortly after the holidays for what would turn out to be his final extended sit-down interview as president, the graying but still quite fit Texan had just finished his morning exercycle session in an eagle-emblazoned sweatsuit and was fiddling with a new toy.
“They call it a Wii, or a Mee, or something,” Bush tells me, smiling as he waves a wand-like plastic device in front of a 54-inch plasma TV in the Treaty Room, a large, brightly lit chamber on the second floor of the Executive Residence that traditionally functions as the president’s private study. The president is playing a friendly game of Major League Baseball — the Boston Red Sox against his cherished Texas Rangers — and a computer-rendered Daisuke Matsuzaka drills a hard slider right past him, down and in.
“Huh,” says the president. “Might have to choke up a little.”
Although now used as a game room, the Treaty Room still has a classic feel, with a century-old painting by Theobald Chartran depicting the signing of the peace treaty after the Spanish-American War, and a magnificent mahogany “treaty table” first used by Ulysses S. Grant. A bookshelf on the north wall displays standard-issue Americana such as Poor Richard’s Almanack, but it also contains former swimsuit model Kathy Ireland’s Powerful Inspirations: Eight Lessons That Will Change Your Life (“There’s a lot of good life stuff in there, a lot of stuff about patience,” the president says) and a well-worn copy of 101 Dumb Dog Deaths (“Makes me laugh every time, especially the one about cow-tipping”).
Matsuzaka delivers again, but the president looks fastball when the pitch is a change. “Damn it!” he shouts, bouncing the Wii wand off an antique globe in the corner. “Goddamn motherfucking shit!” After collecting himself, he takes a seat at his desk and leans back in his grand leather easy chair, stirring the ice cubes in a glass of Diet Coke with a finger.
So are we meeting up here because Michelle Obama is measuring the Oval Office windows for drapes?
[Laughs] No. I just like it up here. Plus, people tend to get nervous in the Oval Office. Figured I’d make it a little easier on you by doing this here.
While I was waiting, one of your staffers told me a crazy story about a certain member of your Cabinet breaking wind in the Oval Office. Can you confirm that story?
Well, like I said, people get nervous down there. It’s — [laughs] — I can’t believe someone told you about that. But you’re leaving office in a couple of weeks.
Come on. Throw us a bone. Just think, you finally get to talk about all of these things.
Look, I can’t. Besides, it wasn’t that big of a — OK, fine. It was Condi.
Condoleezza Rice farted in the Oval Office! When she was the national security adviser?
No, this was when she was State. Just after I appointed her. And it wasn’t no little whistler, either. She’s a little lady, but she let that baby rip. Nearly blew [White House chief of staff] Andy Card’s ears off.
Was this in the middle of something important?
It was January 2005. We were meeting about the first State of the Union speech of my second term. I’m telling everyone about how I wanted to make a major statement about ending tyranny around the world and spreading liberty and freedom, and the so-called pragmatists in the office, especially Cheney, are flinching, telling me I should confine myself to achievable goals. It’s a serious moment, and things were getting pretty heated. At one point I turn to Condi and I say, “So, Condi, what do you think?” And she’s like, “Mr. President, I think you should — “
And that’s when it happened. Ppp-plllljft! It sounded like someone had started up a chain saw in there. We have this painting of the Rio Grande by an artist named Tom Lea in the Oval Office, and I swear to you that thing swung three inches sideways. She started looking around all innocent-like, like, “Gosh, who did that?” It was hilarious.
Doesn’t she know that cover-ups never work?
That’s what Cheney said: “Condi, that’s what got Nixon in trouble. You try to hide that shit, it looks 20 times worse.” I tell you, it was almost a year before she so much as smiled about that incident.
Let’s talk about August 6th, 2001. That’s the day you got a memo warning about plans for possible attacks by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. What were you doing that day?
I’ll be honest with you. I was at the ranch, on vacation. I was watching the Hall of Fame game on TV. First NFL preseason game of the year, hate to miss it, you know?
I’m the same way. It doesn’t matter what teams are playing, I watch it.
Exactly. It’s a long off-season, and you start to miss the game. So I’m watching it — I remember it was Miami and St. Louis. First time I ever saw Marc Bulger. He was just a backup to Warner then. I think he threw a touchdown in the fourth quarter. I thought to myself, “This guy looks pretty solid in the pocket. He might have a future in this league.”
That’s good foresight right there.
Anyway, it was right around then that they brought me my PDB [Presidential Daily Briefing], and it said something about bin Laden. I mean, we get these warnings about foreign terrorists all the time. How was I supposed to know he was going to attack in the United States?
Well, the memo was titled “Bin Laden Determined to Attack in U.S.”
Well, nobody told me that.
But they wrote it to you.
But nobody told me that they wrote it to me.
I don’t know. Whoever is in the room. Vice President Cheney. Don Rumsfeld. Rove. Sometimes there’s some other guys. It kind of rotates. Do you decide who “they” is? No, they usually decide who they is. Or at least one of they does. Usually Cheney.
What did they tell you they wrote to you about why America needed to invade Iraq?
Sometime in the fall of 2001, pretty-soon after 9/11, Rumsfeld and Cheney handed me a piece of paper. I asked them what was in it. Rumsfeld says, “Mr. President, we’ve just written you a memo explaining that we need to invade Iraq.” And I said, “OK. Why?” And Dick says to me, “Because of 9/11, Mr. President.” [Silence]
Is that the whole story?
I don’t know. It kind of feels like there should be more there.
Well, later on, they explained that we had to attack Iraq before Saddam had a chance to give his weapons of mass destruction to other terrorists. George Tenet told me we had a solid case — a “slam-dunk,” he called it. But it wasn’t. That’s not what they told me at the time.
Again with the “they.”
OK, fine, fuck it — it was a stretch, all right? But we were trying all kinds of stuff back then. Just kind of winging it. It was an exciting time. You felt like you could say anything and people would just believe it. In those days I could have said the moon was made of string beans and CNN would have rushed it on the air [sighs]. Not like now.
The point is, it seems like you only talked to people who told you what you wanted to hear. If you didn’t ever talk to anyone who would give you bad news, how was bad news supposed to get in?
That’s unfair. If there was bad news, I certainly wanted to be part of it.
Really? What about the time you fired economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey after he predicted the war would cost $200 billion? Or had General Shinseki forced out after he predicted you would need several hundred thousand troops to occupy Iraq? Or demoted Richard Clarke when he insisted there was no connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda? You fired pretty much everybody who disagreed with you.
Well, that’s stretching things. I didn’t fire everyone who disagreed with me.
Can you name one person in your administration who disagreed with you in public and didn’t get fired for it?
Sure, I can. Anthony Zinni, for instance.
The former Middle East Centcom commander? The guy who said the occupation of Iraq would require several hundred thousand troops, back when Rumsfeld was touting that whole “lean and mean fighting force” business?
He was fired.
Really? They told me he was sick.
For five years?
Was there any dissension in the ranks after the war started? Did anyone at any time voice any disagreements?
Well, sure. Obviously you had the Powell-Rummy thing, which was just ongoing, never-ending. It got to be kind of a serious problem. Colin, you think he’s this buttoned-up guy, but something about Rummy just made him nuts. Every time Don opened his mouth about anything in the Oval Office, I swear to God, Colin would be sitting there moving his lips and screwing up his eyes, pretending he was Rumsfeld talking. Like right in front of Rumsfeld. Don would suddenly stop talking in midsentence, just to catch Colin at it — but Colin would immediately stop moving his mouth. Then as soon as Rumsfeld started talking again, Colin would start back up. It drove Rummy crazy. One time Don got so pissed off that he jumps out of his seat and screams at Colin, like, “Fuck you, Colin! You’re always fucking doing that!” And I swear to God, just at that moment, the top row of Rummy’s dentures flies out of his mouth and lands on the carpet, right in the middle of the Oval Office. Like with a thud. None of us even knew he hail dentures, and there they are, pink and covered in spit, just sitting there.
And immediately, and I mean immediately, Barney — I’ve never been prouder of that animal — he jumps up from the corner, runs over, picks up the dentures like he’s been waiting years for this moment and runs out the door. Everything’s quiet, except you can hear the dog’s tags clinking as he runs down the hall. Rummy is just staring at us in a rage with that leathery face of his and no teeth. He looked like one of those ghosts in Jacob’s Ladder. I can guarantee you that was the best day of Colin’s life. From that point on, every time he came into the Oval Office, he brought Barney a bag of beef snacks.
Still, you turned out to be totally unprepared for the insurgency in Iraq. Did you really tell Pat Robertson before the war, “We’re not going to have any casualties”?
I may have. But if I did, I certainly meant it in the sense of “We’re not going to have soldiers getting killed.” Not in the sense that you’re implying.
[Confused] What sense am I implying?
I don’t know, but I think you’re trying to make something negative about it.
Was everybody on board about rendition — your policy of kidnapping terrorist suspects and flying them to places like Egypt, where they could be tortured?
You bet. The only problem there was John [Ashcroft, former attorney general]. He was always trying to get religious at the wrong times. You remember when that story came out about that Canadian fella we snatched up?
Maher Arar? The guy you kidnapped at JFK Airport and took to Syria?
Exactly. Well, the press got on us pretty good about that. I mean, it doesn’t look good when you take some Canadian guy, throw a bag over his head, kidnap him and spend a year beating his ass in some basement in Syria. We call a meeting to figure out how to deal with it. We’re going over the options, and when it comes John’s turn to suggest what we should do, he asks us to start praying for the guy! “Let’s all bring it in,” he’s saying. And he takes Andy’s and Condi’s hands and starts asking the Lord to help ease the pain suffered by the guy’s family, blah blah blah. Well, you should have seen the look on Rummy’s face. He about shat. You have to remember, this is John’s people who fucked this up in the first place — the FBI shouldn’t have flagged the guy, given how little they had on him. So technically this is John’s fault that we’re all eating this mess. So Rummy says, “Hey, John — how come when we fuck up, you find all kinds of answers here on the planet Earth, but when Justice fucks up, it’s God’s will?”
Colin Powell says you guys had a little accident while you were working out the whole waterboarding protocol.
Yeah. We were actually right here in this room when that happened. Dick is going over what we can and cannot do legally to prisoners. Rummy is asking if we can stick hot pokers in their ears. That works,” he says, “I’ve done it to my kids.” Dick’s like, “No, I don’t think so, I think they’ll get us for that. But we’ve got this thing the Army-uses in training, they call it waterboarding, which will hold up in court.” Dick explains that it was invented by the Spanish Inquisition, but it was also used a lot by the Khmer Rouge. Rummy’s eyes light up: “Oh, the Khmer Rouge.” He likes the Khmer Rouge, is always talking about their management model. I’ve never heard of it, so I say, “I want to see it. Can we see it?”
Dick shrugs. Just at that moment, one of our houseboys comes in bringing coffees and some Mylanta for Rummy on a silver tray. He’s a Laotian kid named Manny, nice boy, has a lazy eye, a stutter and a big mole on his neck. Apparently some guys at State took him in after one of his family’s oxen stepped on an old land mine and blew up his mom and two of his sisters in the bush somewhere. I make sure to give him five dollars every Christmas because of that. So Rummy says, “Hey, Manny, can you do me a favor? Can you lie on this table?” And Manny is like, “Y-y-y-yes, Secretary R-r-r-rumsfeld.”
So we put him on the table and Dick holds a napkin over his eyes and then starts pouring big gulps of ice water out of a pitcher into his nose and mouth. “C-c-c-can’t b-b-breathe!” Manny gasps, and Dick is like, “We know, Manny, that’s why we’re doing this. Just relax.” Next, Don starts pouring hot coffee in his ears and eyes, and Manny screams, at which point Dick says, “No, Don, it’s not about temperature or burning, it’s all about drowning.” Rummy nods, and we go back to pouring the water up his nose. Manny is kicking and screaming, and Dick finally starts getting mad. “You’re making a lot of noise, Manny. You’re going to have to calm down.”
But Manny is still screaming and Rummy is shaking his head, like he’s not sure it’s really working. “I still say it would work better if you could apply some heat,” he says. “I I ere, try this.” So he takes out his lighter and uses it to set Manny’s ears on fire. “There, look at that,” he says. Manny is really flailing around now, and Don looks totally engaged in the process.
“Mmm,” Dick says. “I just don’t think the law is going to let us do that.”
So they launch into an argument about it, and after a while we realize that Manny isn’t moving anymore. There’s a little streak of vomit coming out of his mouth and his little eyes have stopped blinking. Basically, he died. We had to get a new houseboy. One good thing about that is we made the decision not to set people’s ears on fire.
Do you ever look back on the past eight years and think, “Maybe I shouldn’t have let Dick Cheney run everything”?
All the time. I mean, I was here when my dad was president. Those old guys like Dick managed to do all the work back then without fucking absolutely everything up. I figured Dick would do the paperwork, and I would kiss the occasional baby and throw out the first ball at Camden Yards once a year. Instead, I’m, like, up to my eyes in bodies here. Dick was this quiet accountant type in my dad’s administration, but for me he’s been a cross between Ted Bundy and Rommel. Thanks to him, I can’t even take a walk on the Liberty University quad without people throwing shit at me.
But he handled things smoothly for your dad?
Hell, my dad barely went through two sticks of deodorant his entire presidency. He and Mommy spent all of 1989 in a cribbage game. I remember walking in the Residence once and being like, “Communism just collapsed.” And they’re like, “Just a minute, son.”
You often talked about how you didn’t need to seek your father’s advice as president, that you appealed to a “higher father.” Why not call your dad every now and then?
Let me tell you something about my dad. When I was seven, my three-year-old sister, Robin, died of leukemia. You know how he told me? It was five days later. Robin’s seat at the dinner table was empty. I’m like, “Daddy, where’s Robin?” And he’s like, “She’s dead. Finish your peas.”
Let’s go back to the 2004 election. How confident did you feel about your re-election once you saw that John Kerry was the Democratic nominee?
We all felt pretty good. Karl especially.
I remember one scene in particular. It was the night Kerry won all those states on Super Tuesday and locked up the nomination. He’s giving his acceptance speech right down the street in the Old Post Office building here in D.C., giving me all kinds of shit as usual, calling me arrogant, reckless, inept, all that shit. And as he’s saying this stuff about me, the crowd is cheering like it’s a World Series win, which is never something a politician likes to see. And I say to Karl, “Hey, Karl, what the hell? Are we vulnerable here?” And Karl says to me, calm as day, “Mr. President, this guy Kerry, every time he opens his mouth, it looks like it just had a cock in it. Don’t worry, it’s gonna be a walk.”
You called Kerry that night, if I remember correctly.
Yeah. Karl was also on the line on another phone in the room, he had his hand over the mouthpiece. It was hilarious. My girl tells Kerry to hold for the president of the United States, and he’s, like, trembling on the phone, you could almost hear it. So I come on and I’m like, “I’ll have a large pie with ham and pineapple. And don’t skimp on the pineapple.”
Kerry, the tool, he doesn’t know what to say, so he’s like, “Uh, um, Mr. President, I look forward to a clean, honest campaign. I, uh, hope we have a spirited debate, blah blah blah.” I look over at Karl, and Karl’s nodding at me, like, Go for it. So I’m like, “And get me two Dr Peppers and a bag of those fucking garlic twists.” And Kerry’s like, “Mr. President . . .” And I cut him off, and I’m like, “No, make it two bags. And don’t forget the salt!” Karl’s giggling like crazy. Then we hang up and tell the press that we just congratulated Senator Kerry on an “important victory.” It was like that all year. We were two steps ahead of that clown the whole way.
Was the Swift-boat thing your idea?
No, that was Karl too. You have to remember, the thing about Karl — what he always told me is that you don’t hit a guy where he’s weak, you hit him where he thinks he’s strong. He said the thing about Kerry is that everywhere he goes, he’s, like, pulling his medals out and showing them off, like a guy trying to get laid in a bar at three in the morning. So we figured we’d put it out there like he didn’t really earn them or whatever. And, hey, maybe that was a low blow, but the reason it worked is that he was so freaking touchy about it. Every time he squawked about it, I’d just pick up the phone and order up a whole new round of 527 ads giving Kerry shit about his medals. I was like, “Waitress, double that order!” That guy . . . he just wasn’t serious.
Let’s talk about some of the low points of your second term. Why did you make such a big deal out of intervening in the whole Terri Schiavo thing?
Well, Jeb calls me up one day and says, “A bunch of Jew lawyers are trying to pull the plug on some broad down here. I think we can spin it that they’re doing it because she’s Christian.” I ask him what he means, and he tells me the story. I tell Karl, and Karl says to me, “Mr. President, I am fully erect. This is a winner all the way.” He says we can jam up Bill Nelson down there for his Senate race by forcing him to take sides with the husband in the story, who’s like this Mike Ditka-looking atheist guy who wants to starve his wife to death while he’s running around knocking up other chicks. Politics is all about forcing people to make simple choices, that’s what my dad always told me, and this one was an A+ choice for us. Karl, you should have seen him, he was on the phone day and night, telling every news director in the country that he wanted to see that Schiavo lady’s face “on every channel, like it’s the State of the Union address.” So sure enough, we’re watching TV later that night, and CNN just has her and her drooling-ass, doped-up smile on this endless loop. Karl is literally jumping up and down with excitement at the sight of her. “She’s the best thing since Old Yeller,” he’s saying. “I want to see every liberal in the country on Larry King campaigning to yank her feeding tube. Get Ben Affleck on there, Sean Penn. Show them side by side with her looking fat and helpless with those dead-fish eyes of hers, split-screen. She’ll get us 10,000 votes an hour.”
Too bad she died.
Yeah. Karl was almost inconsolable when she passed. He kept looking for a replacement. Karen Hughes called it his “vegetable hunt.” He’d call long lists of registered Democrats, asking if they had a brain-dead wife they wanted to pull the plug on.
About five months later, Hurricane Katrina hit. With all due respect, Mr. President, what went wrong?
Yeah, that was a bad scene. As you know, the storm coincided with a vacation I had planned. The first leg of it wasn’t really a vacation — I had to go to Arizona to stroke John McCain on his birthday. Then I had to do some hug-the-old-lady deals in Arizona and California for some Medicare thing we were pushing. After that, I turn in for the night. Nobody says anything to me.
Next day, I’m working a crowd at the Coronado Naval Base with a famous country-and-western singer — I won’t say who. As we’re coming oil stage he says to me, “So, Mr. President, what are you going to do about all those niggers in the Superdome?” And I’m like, “You mean the Saints?” And he says, “No, Mr. President. New Orleans got hit by this huge hurricane, and now there’s, like, 3 million of them people camped out in the Superdome, braining each other with aluminum bats.” I just figured it was some crazy-ass hillbilly nightmare he was spewing.
It wasn’t until the next morning, when I was back at Crawford chain-sawing some brush trees, that Karl comes running out in his suit at full speed. He’s moving so fast, his tits are nearly knocking his eyes out. He’s like, “You’ve got to go on TV in 10 minutes. There’s been a terrible disaster in New Orleans. The whole city is underwater.” So that’s the first indication I had from my own people that anything really serious had happened.
Tell me how Michael Brown ended up in charge of that situation.
I knew we had a problem about three weeks before Katrina, when I visited him at his home in Oklahoma. Brownie has stables, because he used to run some kind of association for Arabian horses before he worked for us. Anyway, he’s showing me some of his animals, and he comes to this big stallion that he’s named after himself. I mean, the stallion’s name is “Mike Brown.” He’s talking to it in little baby talk, too, like, “Oh, what a good boy you are, Mike Brown! You’re such a good boy!” Then he leans over, grabs the horse by the schlong — the horse is hung literally to the barn floor — and says to me, “Just look at the cock on this one, Mr. President. You can touch it if you want.”
And I’m like, “Uh, no, that’s OK, Brownie, I can see it from here.” And he’s like, “Yeah, I know you can see it from there. You could probably see it from Tulsa.”
So I tell Andy and Karl to get rid of the guy. I mean, guy names a horse after himself and fondles its balls — who needs that? Rummy promises to stick him in Gitmo, let him read the Koran and shit through a hole in the floor for a few dozen years.
But then how did you end up saying . . .
I’m getting to that. When I fly to Mobile after Katrina to give a speech, I walk into this big airplane hangar where the whole emergency management team is waiting. There are cameras everywhere, and who’s standing right in front but — Mike Brown! I’m thinking, “What is this guy doing still alive? I thought we fixed this problem!” It turns out that we forgot to disappear him. Karl thought Andy was doing it, Andy thought Karl was doing it. I panicked. That’s when the whole “Heckuva job, Brownie” thing came out.
We’re now in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Do you feel any responsibility for what’s happening?
Hey, markets is markets. Whatever happens in a market is what’s supposed to happen. You’re not supposed to interfere. That’s why they call the market the hidden hand. If I can see your hands, it’s communism.
Are you saying that what’s happening is good?
I’m saying if you hand a retard a pistol and he shoots himself, that’s the market. And markets are good.
So when it comes to the economy, your policy was to hand out pistols to retards.
All I’m saying is that if you did hand him a pistol, he might shoot himself and he might not. But if he does, that’s capitalism, and that’s the system we live by. It’s America.
You forget, I was elected to this office twice by the people of this country. They trusted my sense of right and wrong. That’s what they elected me for, to protect these basic values of right and wrong, freedom and unfreedom. And if that isn’t always enough — well, you might not like it, but that’s the way things work in this democracy we have. I was elected and I did the best job that I could.
President, it almost sounds to me like you’re saying that it’s not your fault that we elected you.
But it’s your fault you ran, isn’t it?
Why shouldn’t I run? I have every right to run.
Sure you do. It’s a free country. But if you weren’t qualified for this office, you also had a responsibility not to run.
[Somberly] Yeah. Well. I did wonder about that once or twice.
When? What happened to make you think of that?
It wasn’t anything specific. It’s just sometimes, the way people looked at me. Laura.
Laura said something to you?
Not exactly. We were in bed one night, watching TV, and we saw this thing on the news about some poll in the Middle East showing that I was the most hated man in the Arab world, getting three times as many votes as the second-place guy, who was Ariel Sharon. And I said to her, “Jeez, what the fuck did I do to deserve that?”
And she said?
She didn’t say anything. She just kind of gave me this look. Like she was sad. My dad does it too, sometimes. Like there’s something they want to say to me, but won’t.
I think there are a lot of people who feel that way.
Really? What do they want to say?
Do you really want to know?
OK, here it is. You’re the child of two emotionally absent aristocrats who denied you any kind of love and affection from an early age. You grew up resentful and lacking completely in natural gifts or curiosity and by early adulthood found yourself desperate to fulfill the expectations your parents by then mostly had only for your much more competent brother, Jeb. You failed every test you ever faced as a young man and were unable to hold any job at all until the age of 45 or so, at which time you decided to try to win some self-respect by going into the family business. You were aided in this quest by a bunch of narrow-minded lackeys and holdovers from your father’s administration who every step of the way manipulated your obvious Oedipal resentments to their advantage, enriching themselves and their friends. All you wanted was a pat on the back and a few accomplishments of your own to hang your hat on, but instead you’re about to spend the rest of eternity pondering your now-official legacy as the worst and most pigheaded leader in the history of Western democracy, a man who almost single-handedly sank the mightiest nation on Earth by turning the presidency into a $50 trillion therapy session that ended in two disastrous wars, a financial crisis that threatens the entire system of international capitalism, and a legacy of corruption on a scale not seen since the Borgias or maybe Nero.
That, Mr. President, is what they’re thinking and not saying to you.
Jeez. I thought you guys were a music magazine.
We are. You have any album recommendations?
Sure, I thought you might ask that. I like —
Just kidding. Time’s up. Sorry.
No, really, I do have one more thing to say.
You’re sorry? For what?
[Sighs] I, uh … you know, I remember back in 1989,1 was thinking about buying a couple of Sizzler franchises in Lubbock.
You should have done it.
And I told my dad what I was thinking, and you know what he said?
He said, “Good idea, son. It’s hard to fuck up steak.”
We get it. Your father was a dick. So what? Buy a puppy or something. That’s what everyone else does.
Yeah. [A single tear rolls down his cheek.] I guess I fucked up, huh?
Big-time. Can we have the world back now?
Sure, I guess. I really am sorry.
Gotta run. Later.
[Whimpering] I’m sorry. I’m sorry.