WashingtonW.’s odyssey is one of the oddest in history, a black sheep who leapt above expectations and then crashed back down. It must be a crushing burden for President Bush to have wrought the opposite of what he intended in so many profound ways.
For me, one of the most amazing reversals brought about by W.’s reign of error is this: He may have turned my sister into a Democrat.
As a girl, Peggy shivered in the bitter cold through a coatless John Kennedy’s inaugural speech, and when she saw W. “debone” Ann Richards in a Texas debate in ’94, she thought: “This guy will be the greatest president since J.F.K. He’s so good looking, bright. He’s got everything going for him.”
She volunteered at the Republican convention in 2000, toting a “W Stands for Women” sign. I snuck her into the press pen at a breakfast with George and Laura and had to tackle her when, to the consternation of reporters, she began cheering as if at a Redskins game. She flew to West Virginia to work a phone bank for W. She sat up all night election night (in vain). She cut back on Christmas presents to give him money, and proudly displayed pictures of herself at fund-raisers, one with W., one with Dick Cheney. She canceled her Times subscription when I wrote about the rigged buildup to the Iraq war, and called “Bushworld” (my chronicle of W.’s warped reality) “that silly book.”
She once told a reporter that she couldn’t totally choose W. over me because she knew if she were dying “he won’t come and hold my hand, and I know Maureen will.” So imagine my surprise when she started talking about voting for Barack Obama or John Edwards, if they stop “pussyfooting” around Hillary.
“W.’s loyalty to Cheney has hurt his presidency,” she says sadly. “When Cheney picked himself as vice president, W. should have said, ‘Bug off.’ He could have made his own banquet instead of choosing leftovers. If only he had dialed his father or listened to Powell instead of Cheney and Rumsfeld on Iraq. Not only has W. brought himself down, he’s brought down John McCain, who I wanted to support but can’t because of the war.
“I grew up in the shadow of Walter Reed and was used to seeing servicemen without limbs. But recently after watching a special on soldiers coming home from Iraq with brain injuries, I picked up a picture of my four nephews and I know how I would feel if they had fought in Iraq and came home without limbs or in body bags.
“We are spending billions on this war, and yet veterans and their children are practically getting nothing. I’m no longer a Republican. I’m an American, and I will cast my vote for the person I believe will start the process to get out of Iraq — unless, of course, it’s Hillary.”
I knew my family’s cocky red state of mind had changed when one of my O’Reillyesque brothers used a mocking nickname for W., and expressed disgust about Iraq.
Another, Kevin, praises W. on the economy but not on immigration, noting that our father, who came from Ireland in steerage at 19, had to fight in World War I to win citizenship: “The secret key to the puzzle is the word illegal.”
He supports W. on Iraq but agrees that “one of the president’s greatest assets, loyalty, has turned into his Achilles’ heel. When I started my sales career, an older rep advised me: ‘Stay away from the mean drinkers in the bar. They start the fight but someone else always gets hit.’ George Bush is getting hit because he won’t move away from ‘the mean drinkers.’ ”
“The word neocon bothered me because I have an aversion to zealotry,” he continues. “An uncomfortable visual of Cheney, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld manning the Situation Room in a scene reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove and Gen. Buck Turgidson — ‘No more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops, uh, depending on the breaks’ — began to haunt me. How could we have underestimated the postwar situation in Iraq so badly? Is our intelligence that poor, or did the people making the decisions even care?
“The Republicans got exactly what they deserved in the last election. They fell on the same sword they had brilliantly wielded to gain power. Tom DeLay was as corrupt as Jim Wright, Dennis Hastert as inept as Tom Foley.”
Even in his demoralized state, Kevin warns Democrats: “Memo to Nancy and Harry — a default blind date to the prom is not the basis for a long-term relationship.”
My sister still has her picture of W. up. But Cheney is face down in the laundry room.