In February 1984, I met Richard Darman for the first time, in his West Wing office where he served as Secretary to the Office of the President (Reagan). For about an hour we talked economics and politics, a pleasant meeting, as he confided his enthusiasm for supply-side economics and his admiration of Rep. Jack Kemp. I expressed surprise, saying I'd always believed that because of his long association with Jim Baker he was a Bush supporter. He scoffed and said, "I have never worked for George Bush for one minute." He said Baker had asked him in 1979 to be issues director in the Bush campaign for President and he had flatly refused. Why, I asked. "Because I had such little regard for the man's intelligence," he replied. At that moment, he clearly believed there was no chance Vice President Bush would ever be elected President, but that Kemp might. It subsequently became clear to me that Darman has a low opinion of the intelligence of practically everyone.
The scene came back to me yesterday while reading the sensational four-part series in The Washington Post by Bob Woodward, which began Sunday, centering on Darman's role in economic policymaking. The series has the White House and Bush campaign team in agonizing convulsions. It makes it absolutely clear what a snake Darman had been in undermining the no-new-tax economic mandate of the President, with far more elaborate manipulation than any of us were aware of at the time. It also makes clear Darman's disdain for the President. When the President last March publicly acknowledged that it had been a mistake to break his campaign pledge to make possible Darman's 1990 budget deal with Congress, Woodward quotes Darman as saying this was "sheer idiocy." Darman is also quoted as saying the President's best friend, Nick Brady, is a "dolt," and "the weakest Treasury Secretary in the nation's history." Nobody believes Woodward is making any of this up. He has spent countless hours with Darman in preparation for this series and a book he is planning on the subject. Darman surely believed he would get a positive spin from Woodward, one in which he is always shown to have been right and everyone else around him wrong, including the President. Instead, Woodward has turned over a rock, and all we see beneath are slithery, scurrying creatures.
Woodward lets us know exactly where his sympathies lie with the closing sentences of his final installment:
Criticism of the economic team became so widespread that Roger Ailes, the president's former media adviser, came to Bush last fall and urged a mass firing, sources said. According to one account, Ailes told Bush that the American public could not understand why the economic threesome was not more like the gulf war team. "You have a war and you put Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and General Schwartzkopf in charge of it," Ailes told the president..."[The people] don't understand why you don't pick three guys that are like the other three guys. To them, it's just one more war....If we went over to Saudi Arabia and started getting our ass kicked, you would change commanders. People are out there saying, 'Where the hell is Schwartzkopf, Powell and Cheney?'"
The question is posed on the eve of the first presidential debate Sunday -- really the last chance President Bush has to close Bill Clinton's 14-point lead and win. There will be three debates, but the President is so far behind that he has to score heavily in this first debate or he and his team will be thoroughly demoralized, falling into a defensive crouch until November 3. Who is in charge of the debate preparations? Darman. Who will impersonate Clinton in the practice sessions this weekend? Darman. Who compiled the Q&A book for them? Darman. There will be others at the sessions helping the President, but the man who thinks the President capable of idiocy will dominate. There is no CEO in the country who would put up with this. Barbara Bush, who is well aware of Darman's low opinion of her husband's intelligence, did not want him in the Cabinet in the first place. As she surely read the Woodward series, we can just imagine the thoughts she might be sharing with Poppy.
Now I still believe the President could win November 3, as impossible as the odds against him seem. The fact is, very few Americans have a high degree of enthusiasm for Bill Clinton. Associated Press reported yesterday that the President is ahead by 55% to 39% in the Weekly Reader poll of 600,000 school children. The poll has been correct in every election since 1956. The reason is that children reflect the political enthusiasms of their parents more accurately than the parents may when polled by outsiders. They don't simply pick the incumbent, as witness Carter's victory over Ford and Reagan's over Carter. In this campaign, a majority of Americans wish they could vote for Bush over Clinton, and this is what the children are hearing. The pollsters are hearing what the parents are expecting to do.
President Bush's campaign team understands this dichotomy, but for some reason does not understand that yelling negatives about Clinton will get them nowhere. The voters are already negative about Clinton. They wish they could vote for the President. But not if it means four more years of the kind of economic malaise the nation has experienced at the hands of the Beltway's smartest man, Richard Darman, and the Beltway's nicest man, Nick Brady. The President would stand a better chance of winning the election by firing Darman and having no debate preparation than being seen by the whole country as submitting to Darman's Svengali machinations. If Bill Clinton or Ross Perot do not rub this in on Sunday night, ridiculing the President for retaining such losers at the expense of the American people, they would be missing a grand opportunity.
The President, I hear, is said to be confused by the Woodward series, perhaps unable to grasp the enormity of the damage he has sustained at the hands of his Budget Director. Psychologists call this process denial. The President had invested so much confidence and loyalty in Darman, perhaps he cannot bring himself to believe what lies at the essence of the Woodward series: Richard Darman has an exceptionally low regard for the intelligence of the American people and a cynical disdain of democracy itself. How could the masses be so dumb as to elect a leader so foolish as to think the nation's economic problems could be solved without raising taxes?
Where is James Baker III? The Financial Times this week reported that JBIII is playing lots of weekend golf, which is either a sign that he is supremely confident of victory, or that he knows it's all over. His deputy, Bob Zoellick, is home in bed with a fever after one solid month of 17-hour work days. We understand JBIII has not even bothered to read the Woodward series, or at least is telling people he hasn't. By all accounts coming here, Republican Party elders who have read the series are heartsick, still figuring there's no way the President will pull the plug on Brady and Darman. The two have no known signs of support anywhere near the White House or the campaign, where there is only guessing about the possible reasons why they are still around. Unless the President makes it absolutely, perfectly clear on Sunday that these guys are as cold as yesterday's mashed potatoes, the debates are over even before they begin.