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Talking Politics

Senior executive editor Paul Burka on George W. Bush and this month's cover story, "The Man Who Isn't There."

By February 2004Comments

texasmonthly.com: Why a cover story on Bush now? Why not wait until closer to the election?

Paul Burka: We learned four years ago that it is impossible for us to cover a presidential campaign. We have monthly deadlines but events change daily. The February 2004 issue of Texas Monthly will hit newsstands right around the first spike of real interest in the election—the January 27 New Hampshire primary—and during one of the last moments that we could publish a major story about the president while minimizing the risks of being overtaken by events or drowned out by the major dailies, TV news channels, and magazines. It’s our best chance to have an impact on the way people look at the president.

texasmonthly.com: What made you decide to put yourself into this story?

PB: We have been talking about how to do a story on the president ever since he took the oath of office. Should we send one of our writers to Washington, and if so, should the assignment to cover the White House be semi-permanent? Should we use a national political writer? What kind of story do we want? Remember, this is the most covered person in the world. What do we have to add to the flood of words about him that is uniquely ours? Last summer we made the commitment to do a Bush cover story in February, and then we talked about how to do it. Most suggestions were impractical because none of us really knows the world of Washington or keeps up with the daily flow of events there, the way we do in Texas. Finally, we decided that the thing that was uniquely ours was GOVERNOR Bush. I had covered him. So I would write about the similarities and differences in Governor Bush and President Bush. Most political journalism is written in the third person, because third person is more authoritative when you are trying to shed light on something the reader may not know about. You want to convey a sense of, “This is the way it is”; the author is trying to give the reader an accurate sense of a personality or an issue. But editor Evan Smith and I agreed that first person was more appropriate for this story. It would be foolish for me to write a “This is the way it is” story about President Bush, because every one of our readers already has an opinion that is just as valid as mine. So I wrote in the first person because the thing that separates me from our readers is that I knew George W. Bush fairly well and therefore I had to be a character in my own story.

texasmonthly.com: Do you think this story will be the one that kills any future press time with the president and his advisers? Why or why not?

PB: You can’t think about that if you’re a writer. I have to do what I have to do, which is to write the best story I possibly can, and they can do what they want to do, which, I hope, will be to regard me as someone who has always tried to treat them (and everybody else) fairly.

texasmonthly.com: What about your readers? Now that they will know how you voted, do you think you will lose credibility with some of them? Why or why not? If so, did that play a role in the way you approached the story?

PB: I don’t see how knowing how I voted will cause me to lose credibility with our readers. I’ve voted for Reagan and for Clinton, for Ann Richards and for George W. Bush, in the Democratic primary in some years and in the Republican primary in others. I’m independent. How is knowing that going to hurt my credibility? Besides, judging by the letters we get, a lot of readers make up their mind about my political philosophy without knowing a damn thing about me. Might as well confuse them with the facts.

texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of working on this story? Why?

PB: I think the hardest thing was trying to get the tone of the story right, and the truth is, now that the story is done, I still don’t know whether I succeeded. I didn’t want readers to feel that I was forcing them into adopting my view of Governor Bush or President Bush. I did want them to feel that I was being honest with them in how I felt and why I felt that way, even to the point of revealing how I voted in the past.

texasmonthly.com: You’ve covered politics for a long time. Has your opinion of politicians in general changed over the years? If so, how?

PB: When I first went to work in the Texas Legislature in my last year of law school, I believed that representative government was supposed to solve problems. I had the liberal Democratic perspective that all that was needed to solve problems was to pass the right laws, and the only reason that the right laws hadn’t been passed was because of selfish special interests. After seeing the Legislature up close, I couldn’t believe that anymore. I saw that most politicians (and most voters) were suspicious of change, and rightfully so, because change brings with it unintended consequences, and I came to believe that the primary role of representative government is first and foremost to provide a pressure valve for the system, a place where people can argue their differences with words rather than with guns or bombs. Solving problems is important, but it’s secondary. I care more about the process than I care about the results; if the process is fair, the results will take care of themselves. The biggest change in politicians that I have seen is that they are much more consciously partisan, both R’s and D’s, than they used to be, and I think that’s bad for Texas.

texasmonthly.com: What intrigues you most about politics? Why?

PB: It is a perpetual war involving the most and least noble motivations of the human spirit—altruism and progress on the one hand, fear and greed on the other.

texasmonthly.com: Did you try to interview the president for this story?

PB: No, I didn’t. I would love to have had the kind of interview I was able to have with him in Austin, part questions and part conversational digressions, but I knew there was no chance of that. The president of the United States has to stay on message, especially this president. It would have been a formal interview, and I’m no good at formal interviews. It’s not the answers that matter to me, it’s what they reveal about the person.

texasmonthly.com: How do you think Bush will be remembered by historians?

PB: It’s way too early to say what the final assessment will be, but I’ll take a stab at a few things. 1) He will be seen as the third of a trio of presidents—Reagan, Clinton, Bush 43 (Hillary would make it a quartet if she’s elected in ’08)—who governed in polarizing times and were scorned by the opposition, to the point where their legitimacy was questioned: Reagan, because the Democrats regarded him as being a figurehead, an actor who was playing a role; Clinton, because the Republicans regarded him as morally unfit for the office; and Bush 43, because Democrats regarded him as not legitimately elected. Notice that Bush 41 fades from view, in part because he was a one-termer—the same fate that befell William Howard Taft, wedged between reformers Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. The interesting question for historians will be whether the politicians themselves were polarizing or whether it was simply the times, with the generation that grew up in the sixties carrying its battles over cultural issues to the grave. 2) He will be seen as the president who was dealt the worst hand since Lincoln, with the possible exception of FDR: the disputed election, a serious recession, and the Al Qaeda attacks, all in his first year. 3) Many people see him as a very conservative president, but he will be harder to classify than we think. He greatly increased federal involvement in and support for public education; he enacted the biggest entitlement program since the Great Society in extending Medicare to cover prescription drugs, and now he proposes to help illegal immigrants. The old description of “compassionate conservative” may make it into the history books. Conservative columnist George Will recently suggested that Bush’s moves mean the Republican party has at last made its peace with big government and the welfare state. On the other hand, Bush has put himself at risk, as far as history is concerned, with his anti-environmental policies (especially on global warming), his tax cut, and his doctrine of preemptive war. He has a lot of chips on the table, rolling the dice on the tax cut and on his war policy, and if either of these have disastrous results, he will not fare well. Nor will he fare well if he is defeated for reelection, which I don’t think will happen.

texasmonthly.com: Is there anything you would like to add?

PB: George W. Bush is president of the United States. I wish him well.

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