Tuesday, December 05, 2006


James Baker will have 2 books on the shelves this Christmas -- the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq (for which the bookstores will be competing with the free boxes outside the White House) and his own memoirs, the latter currently being serialised in the Times (UK). While for the most part the memoirs are the cagey-partisan blend that one expects from Baker, he has a few revealing asides, particularly with regard to the 2000 non-recount in Florida. Baker discusses how he ensured that the Bush-Cheney campaign was able to frame sub-components of the dispute in their favour --

Florida is largely remembered as a legal battle, but in my opinion it was every bit as much a political battle, and we may have understood this point better than the other side ... It was vital to our success that we controlled both the messengers and the message on what was happening in Florida.

One surrogate we didn’t get was Colin Powell. After the Democrats tried to throw out some overseas military ballots, we asked him to speak up for the right of our troops to have their votes counted, but he demurred. He was in line to be George W.’s Secretary of State, and I think he wanted to stay above the fray. I regret that he did not come to Florida. Coming might well have strengthened Colin’s relationship with George W. Bush, which in turn might have helped him in the first-term battles for influence and power in administration.

He seems to be up to a couple of things here -- getting in a dig at Powell, but more importantly providing a good insight into the mind of George W. Bush. Florida 2000 remains the Original Sin of the last 6 years, the period when the supposed moderate conservatives had their first Bilbo Baggins moment (a transformation not, as often later claimed, due to 9/11). But for Bush it was also a hazing ritual: Colin Powell was expected to show he could play dirty even when he didn't want to.

Powell failed that test, and so at some level earned the contempt of his boss even when he got the Secretary of State job. Bush needed him, of course, because he needed the Washington pundit class who had hitched their wagon to Powell. And he did give Powell a 2nd chance at truly being one of the boys -- by delivering a pack of lies at the UN about WMD, but for the true believers, Powell was always going to be the one who hadn't chugged all those beers the first time around. Anyway, Powell turned out to have just enought shame to get out, although not enough to force any change from within.

Baker's little aside reveals that Powell's entire tenure at the State Department was a charade: Bush had no respect for him from the start, and the expectation of the pundits, and Tony Blair, that Powell could control Bush was doomed to fail. All because of Florida.

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