Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"Dead Certain" author on The Daily Show

One of the more stunning revelations from the Bush White House was contained in the recent book Dead Certain: the Presidency of George W. Bush. Bush essentially admitted that he is just playing for time in Iraq, hoping that in a few months the Presidential candidates will have become "comfortable" with the idea of sustaining a long-term military presence in Iraq. The author of that book appeared on tonight's Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central to talk about the Commander in Chief.

Embedded video link and complete transcript below the fold.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, original air date 2007-09-12, ©2007 Comedy Central.

Jon Stewart: Welcome back. My guest tonight, a national correspondent for GQ magazine, his new book is called Dead Certain: the Presidency of George W. Bush. Please welcome to the program Robert Draper. Thanks for joining us.

Robert Draper: Sure, my pleasure.

Stewart: The book is called Dead Certain: the Presidency of George W. Bush. Here's what's so amazing about this book, and I'm not quite sure how you did this, how you got access this far into his Presidency: it is the most unvarnished, natural, seemingly unaffected view of this President. He was either disarmed by you or didn't think you were writing this stuff down. What was the situation?

Draper: Well, I had known Bush back from the 90's, when I covered him for Texas Monthly, and then I wrote a lengthy piece about him in '98 for GQ magazine. And that was a — I spent a fair amount of time with him and his family, but then sort of went on about my business, didn't do any more work relating to Bush, and around 2004 or so, I had just decided to do a straightforward biography of Bush. There had been a hundred books written on the subject of him, but they were largely arguments for or against him, or they were small slices of the pie like Iraq or 9/11, and frankly I kind of had the field to myself. It seemed to me the most unoriginal idea imaginable, to do a book about a sitting President, but there really wasn't anything like this going on.

Stewart: And not a polemic, and not an argument either way, and not that. It really is, for the most part — it almost seems like a casual conversation with this man that is so revelatory. It's amazing; what do you think he was trying to achieve?

Draper: Well, I think at the time, Jon, that I approached the White House — this is January 2005, he had just won re-election, he was full of swagger, you could argue even hubris, and there was no guarantee at this point that he was going to cooperate with me on this. In fact, Dan Bartlett, the counselor to the White House, basically said don't count on it. But I went on about my business for basically a couple of years, interviewed as many people as I could, and by August of 2006, I think his political fortunes had changed, and at that point he was —

Stewart: That may be the politest way of putting that I think I've heard yet. They may have.

Draper: They may have, and so I think that the notion of talking to someone who's doing, you know, a straightforward book, that intended to be a "first draft of history," became an appealing one for him in a way that it may not've been when he figured history would take care of itself.

Stewart: This is — this brings me I think to what seems like the beauty of this book, which is the distilling of this character of this President. After reading this book, I get the sense of a man who is proud of the person he believes himself to be, but he's in fact the opposite of that person. I mean, that's the general sense that I got from it.

Draper: Well, I think the title of the book intends to capture this continuing thread in his Presidency: his certitude. I think there is an element of steadfastness, and the nation at times has drawn comfort from that, after September 11th for example. At other times, though, I think that it has an element of protesting too much, of adamance, and that's also what I tried to capture, because I think there's this notion of the President as being comfortable in his own skin, but he definitely possesses insecurities like the rest of us. I mean, they're in a lot of ways classic: the eldest son of a famous father trying to define himself against his father, trying to measure up to an impossible standard.

Stewart: And what an interesting — that's what's so interesting about him, because he is constantly, when you first sit down with him over a meal and he's shouting for ice cream, and it's just such a wonderful scene, where he's sitting — he's like, "I wanna hot dog! Anyway, so I invade Iraq. Gimme ice cream!" But he keeps saying to you, "I'm not a guy who thinks about myself. I don't analyze it," and then he proceeds to go down the road of a string of declaratives of a man who has clearly sat, "This is who I am, this is what I do, this is what I like," but I'm telling you, "I don't think about it."

Draper: And again, I think that he has this sort of clarity of purpose that has served him well. I think also that, kind of, the ability to distill things down simply has caused people, his adversaries, to, as he would put it, misunderestimate him, and I think he's profited off of that. He's profited off of people continually thinking he's a dummy.

Stewart: The portrait that emerges from this book is a man who is in control of the decisions this Presidency has made; whether that works in his favor or not, I'm not sure, but he is no patsy, and is, in fact — and again, the paradox: they talk about one of his driving forces is competitiveness, and yet throughout the book it shows that he's a guy who says, "I'll fight you anywhere, any time, any place, as long as it's my house at 2:00 and I get to choose the rules." A lot of the competition is rigged.

Draper: It is. Well, he's a guy who — I think, again, it may be part of the aspect of being the son of a famous father. He wants to be relevant, he wants to do big things, but he wants to do it — the tendency is to be on a playing field that's sort of tilted in his favor. And so we see, when he was a campaigner, he would do everything he could to avoid protests. In New Hampshire, I think, he was clocked by John McCain in part because McCain came across as so informal and unscripted.

Stewart: And then he goes down to South Carolina and he talks to John McCain about, "Don't ever attack my integrity," when the entire story, the background story of that, is filled with underhanded political maneuvering — a real stain on his integrity.

Draper: No, he had "plausible deniability" of that. I mean, he could sort of —

Stewart: I'm not sure "plausible deniability," though, goes along with, "I have a lot of integrity."

Draper: Maybe not, maybe not.

Stewart: Generally they try and have a stronger service for that, but I wanted to just grab one quote, real quick, which I think just sums up this President: "You can't talk me out of thinking freedom's a good thing." [page xi] And it's a quote that he makes when he's talking about his father and his friends and how they might not think Iraq was a good idea, and he says, "You can't talk me out of thinking freedom's a good thing," and I thought, "He is inventing arguments." This is the classic straw-man. Who has ever tried to discuss freedom as a not a good thing — other than Stalin?

Draper: Except for, what he says right before then is, "You can't argue —" or "There's no need to argue about the Freedom Agenda." Now, there's something to argue about, and yet it's the President's certitude, once again, his unwillingness to sort of move off his marker, that in fact a lot of people would say, "Freedom's a great thing, but trying to apply it to American diplomacy, particularly in hotbeds like the Middle East, can be problematic."

Stewart: He consistently seems to take very worthwhile arguments and makes a blanket statement that is unassailable — you know, you want to argue about the Iraq War and he'll say, "A lot of people say, 'Iraqis can't handle democracy.'" Nobody said that! What they've said is, "You've fucked this up royally!" but he doesn't deal with that. Well, anyway, a fascinating book, and truly I think, for anyone who has lived through the last six years, a really kind of staggering achievement, to have this type of unfettered access, so thank you so much for bein' on the show. Dead Certain on the bookshelves now; Robert Draper.
Certitude is not a virtue if you're completely disconnected from reality. Admitting when you're wrong — well, recognizing and then admitting when you're wrong — must be a core strength for any effective leader. Being unable to even acknowledge the doubts others express about your decisions is a sign of weakness. I just started reading John Dean's new book, Broken Government, but I think I'll have to make time for Dead Certain real soon here.

By the way, the "Oliver's Travels" segment of tonight's Daily Show, featuring an interview by John Oliver of Qatar's ambassador to the United Nations, was a gem. The video hasn't shown up yet on Comedy Central's "Motherload" site, but keep an eye out for it tomorrow.

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