The press called it the Halloween Massacre. President Jerry Ford, after much doddering and dithering, had given a kick to his cabinet.
The bigger the name, the wider the target: gross old Kissinger was sacked as National Security Adviser, Arthur Schlesinger flung out of the Defense Department, and Nelson Rockefeller dropped from the Vice Presidency.
A rising star, George HW Bush (then just plain George Bush), was kicked up to the CIA, a career move that seemed to shatter any hopes of his becoming president.
Where did Nice Guy Jerry get the nerve, Washington wondered? Why the mass firings in the middle of term? And even as the old guard was shunned, why put away polite Mr Bush?
The press already had it figured; they just applied the first rule in solving whodunits: cui bono — who benefits?
All at once, the clouds parted: Donald H Rumsfeld, the president’s chief of staff, had been boosted to Secretary of Defense — the youngest in history. In turn, his chief of staff vacancy was taken up by Rumsfeld’s own staffer: an unknown called Dick Cheney, another ‘youngest in history’. And what seemed an office shuffle became one of the most blatant power grabs in memory.
Not that Rumsfeld and Cheney, career desk warriors, were doves any earlier: they’d sabotaged the SALT talks, leaked the Middle East peace negotiations, and reduced liberal VP Rockefeller to a sobbing mess (as James Cannon would say, “[VP] Cheney is now doing [in 2006] what he and Rumsfeld blocked Rockefeller from doing — influencing policy.”)
But Ford, already under attack from the Reagan right, could do little but promote the cruellest conservatives on hand. Thus started the adventures of Rummy & Cheney, the buddy comedy that left Iraq and Afghanistan smoking cesspits decades later.
Yet in 1975, there still seemed hope. Nelson Rockefeller begged Ford to reconsider, “Rumsfeld wants to be President of the United States. He has given George Bush the deep six by putting him in the CIA, he has gotten me out … he was third on your list and now he has gotten rid of two of us.”
And if Rummy couldn’t become VP, no one would. “He is not going to want anybody who can possibly be elected with you on that ticket,” Rockefeller said. “I have to say I have a serious question about his loyalty to you.”
But as every Washington fat-cat knew, Rockefeller was never the prize: George Bush was thought the most viable vice-presidential candidate; and thus banished to intelligence.
Ultimately, the neocons overplayed their hand: as chief of staff, Cheney pushed Ford’s election campaign too far to the right — it outwrestled Reagan in the primary, but lost the finale. Rumsfeld, meanwhile, sank with Ford, watching archrival Bush become president of the United States.
But old wounds seldom heal: 40 years and a week to the Halloween Massacre, the elder Bush went for a massacre of his own, and slammed the men responsible.
Not for his own scuttling, but for the sins of his son’s administration: “He just became very hardline and very different from the Dick Cheney I knew and worked with,” and built “his own empire”, the elder Bush said.
Mr Bush reserved his rage for the man’s mentor. Calling Rumsfeld “an arrogant fellow” that lacked humility, Mr Bush thought “he served the president badly. I don’t like what he did, and I think it hurt the president”. George the Elder concluded with the understatement of the century: “I’ve never been that close to him anyway.”
Yet for Mr Bush to paint a picture that the press has for long — that his son was misled by the best bureaucratic infighters in the game — is itself misleading. And as Pete Beinart put it, in bashing Rumsfeld for a “lack of humility, a lack of seeing what the other guy thinks”, Bush 41 may well have been describing Bush 43.
No doubt, George W. was a novice by comparison: Messrs Cheney and Rumsfeld had mastered Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon between them by the time they were reunited in George W.’s cabinet.
But George W. went in with his eyes open: the world knew Dick Cheney — traumatised by Watergate and a weak, watered-down White House — was bent on the broadest executive powers possible. Cheney believed in an “imperial presidency” inhaling every oil field in the world, and that was more than fine by Junior.
As for Rumsfeld, he was ringing alarm bells as far back as President Ford; Jim Baker gave the same advice to President-elect George W. years later: “All I’m going to say is, you know what he did to your daddy.” (The only president to accurately diagnose Rummy was Richard Nixon, with a description as memorable as it is unprintable.)
But Baker’s warning may have been part of the appeal for George W. To go by the son’s description of his father, the elder Bush was hampered by his own decency — a gentle rich kid humiliated by the more charming, less scrupulous Bill Clinton.
To repair the Bush family’s political fortunes, Junior would break away from the Connecticut genteel his father was, with all the Texan belt buckles and tobacco cups at his disposal. Pick up any journal from the early 2000s, and the newsprint sags with action-hero titles: the Decider, the straight-shooter, the commander-in-chief.
Beinart summed it up so well, “The elder Bush might focus on the roles of Cheney and Rumsfeld in the Iraq War. But it was his son’s own grandiosity and recklessness that empowered them. And, in a painful irony, that grandiosity and recklessness came, in part, from George W.’s determination not to be a president like his dad.” A conclusion that rings true.
A little while after the Halloween Massacre, poor, kindly Jerry Ford regretted the whole business. “I was angry at myself for showing cowardice in not saying to the ultraconservatives, ‘It’s going to be Ford and Rockefeller, whatever the consequences.’”
By the time Rockefeller died — and Rumsfeld and Cheney had made their mark — Ford was even harsher: “It was the biggest political mistake of my life. And it was one of the few cowardly things I did in my life.”
It would be hard imagining a similar confession, by a similarly unelected president.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 24th, 2015.
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