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Today, Suskind may rank near the top of the administration's enemies list of least favorite journalists. Through a series of revealing magazine profiles as well as a bestselling book, "The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill", Suskind has pulled back the White House curtain perhaps more effectively than any other reporter. And the portraits Suskind has painted of Bush and his advisors are not at all flattering, though they are reality-based.
Suskind's latest article, "Without a Doubt," appeared in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, and it is arguably the most damning of all. It made headlines when the Kerry campaign seized upon a remark Bush reportedly made to top donors, quoted in the article, during a closed-door lunch in September, promising that after his swearing in in January he would "come out strong with ... privatizing of Social Security." The Bush campaign denied the quote, labeled it a fabrication, accused the Times of practicing "Kitty Kelley journalism" and attacked Suskind as a partisan hack, even including his picture and voter registration information in an e-mail blasted to the national press corps as a combination of preemptive intimidation and inoculation.
"Without a Doubt," which relies upon mostly Republican sources, examines the extraordinary degree to which Bush and his senior aides are "faith based" in their decision making, and disdain those who are "reality based." It also discusses how Bush allegedly sends special symbolic signals to his evangelical constituency of "faith-based" true believers.
Suskind's White House reporting began with the 2002 profile of Karen Hughes, Bush's then chief of communications, who was just departing her position. Suskind included quotes from chief of staff Andrew Card about Bush's being "in denial" about Hughes' leaving and Card's nervousness over the need to find somebody new inside the inner circle to "balance" Karl Rove's ideological and hard-edged political agenda. Conservative columnist Robert Novak subsequently reported that President Bush was "unhappy" with Card for talking to Suskind.
Next for Suskind was an Esquire profile of Rove, which featured John DiIulio's "star turn," as Suskind calls it. Dilulio served briefly as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In a seven-page memo to Suskind about his resignation, he detailed how the White House suffered "a complete lack of a policy apparatus," how everything is "being run by the political arm" -- in a notable turn of phrase, "the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis."
DiIulio, under pressure from the White House, abjectly apologized, asserting his charges were false. "That was an overreach," says Suskind. "And that caused great reaction in the media community. People just said, What was that? Why would somebody like John DiIulio, such a proud member of the public dialogue, why would he say his own experiences were baseless and groundless?"
One month later Suskind met Paul O'Neill, Bush's former treasury secretary, and their conversation turned to DiIulio. Suskind recalls the meeting: "O'Neill says, 'Goodness gracious. Why would a guy like that say his own comments were baseless and groundless?' And then he says, 'These people have very long memories and they're as nasty as they come, and I've met them all. And John DiIulio is a young guy and I guess he had to make some tough decisions about whether he could afford a 50-year struggle with them professionally and personally. And I guess he decided he couldn't, so he pled for mercy.' And then O'Neill says the key thing, 'But here's the difference: I'm an old guy, I'm really rich and there's nothing they can do to hurt me.'" Suskind's book featuring O'Neill depicted Bush as remarkably incurious and as a puppet of those around him, especially Vice President Cheney.
Finally, this past Sunday, Suskind published the latest chapter in his revelations about the Bush White House. I spoke to him by telephone on Tuesday.
What did you suspect would be the reaction to the Times article, and did the whole Social Security privatization flap surprise you?
I wasn't expecting that. I was expecting Bush's quote -- "I'm going to be real positive while I keep on John Kerry's throat" -- to create a lot of heat and light. I was surprised the privatization quote got so much play. I think it was largely because Kerry focused on it.
Did that then force the Bush campaign to deny the quote and call it fabricated and "Kitty Kelley journalism"?
Of course. At this point, with two weeks to go until the election, it is regrettable but expected that either side, frankly, will do just about anything. It's regrettable that both sides have jumped onto the little rowboat of that one word [privatize]. But the fact is, that's what Bush said.
As well, the president said, "I'm going to have an opportunity to name somebody to the Supreme Court right after my swearing in." That certainly suggests to me a quid pro quo, that there's been at least a passing of communication, if you will, between someone on the Supreme Court and the White House that immediately after the president's swearing in he'll have his first of what he considers, as he said at the luncheon, the first of four spots that he's expected to in his second term.
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