Ex-Aide Details a Loss of Faith in the President
A top strategist for the Texas Democrats who was disappointed by the Bill Clinton years, Mr. Dowd was impressed by the pledge of Mr. Bush, then governor of Texas, to bring a spirit of cooperation to Washington. He switched parties, joined Mr. Bush’s political brain trust and dedicated the next six years to getting him to the Oval Office and keeping him there. In 2004, he was appointed the president’s chief campaign strategist.
Looking back, Mr. Dowd now says his faith in Mr. Bush was misplaced.
In a wide-ranging interview here, Mr. Dowd called for a withdrawal from Iraq and expressed his disappointment in Mr. Bush’s leadership.
He criticized the president as failing to call the nation to a shared sense of sacrifice at a time of war, failing to reach across the political divide to build consensus and ignoring the will of the people on Iraq. He said he believed the president had not moved aggressively enough to hold anyone accountable for the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and that Mr. Bush still approached governing with a “my way or the highway” mentality reinforced by a shrinking circle of trusted aides.
“I really like him, which is probably why I’m so disappointed in things,” he said. He added, “I think he’s become more, in my view, secluded and bubbled in.”
In speaking out, Mr. Dowd became the first member of Mr. Bush’s inner circle to break so publicly with him.
He said his decision to step forward had not come easily. But, he said, his disappointment in Mr. Bush’s presidency is so great that he feels a sense of duty to go public given his role in helping Mr. Bush gain and keep power.
Mr. Dowd, a crucial part of a team that cast Senator John Kerry as a flip-flopper who could not be trusted with national security during wartime, said he had even written but never submitted an op-ed article titled “Kerry Was Right,” arguing that Mr. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and 2004 presidential candidate, was correct in calling last year for a withdrawal from Iraq.
“I’m a big believer that in part what we’re called to do — to me, by God; other people call it karma — is to restore balance when things didn’t turn out the way they should have,” Mr. Dowd said. “Just being quiet is not an option when I was so publicly advocating an election.”
Mr. Dowd’s journey from true believer to critic in some ways tracks the public arc of Mr. Bush’s political fortunes. But it is also an intensely personal story of a political operative who at times, by his account, suppressed his doubts about his professional role but then confronted them as he dealt with loss and sorrow in his own life.
In the last several years, as he has gradually broken his ties with the Bush camp, one of Mr. Dowd’s premature twin daughters died, he was divorced, and he watched his oldest son prepare for deployment to Iraq as an Army intelligence specialist fluent in Arabic. Mr. Dowd said he had become so disillusioned with the war that he had considered joining street demonstrations against it, but that his continued personal affection for the president had kept him from joining protests whose anti-Bush fervor is so central.
Mr. Dowd, 45, said he hoped in part that by coming forward he would be able to get a message through to a presidential inner sanctum that he views as increasingly isolated. But, he said, he holds out no great hope. He acknowledges that he has not had a conversation with the president.
Dan Bartlett, the White House counselor, said Mr. Dowd’s criticism is reflective of the national debate over the war.
“It’s an issue that divides people,” Mr. Bartlett said. “Even people that supported the president aren’t immune from having their own feelings and emotions.”
He said he disagreed with Mr. Dowd’s description of the president as isolated and with his position on withdrawal. But he said he was not surprised. Mr. Dowd has relayed the same sentiments to Mr. Bartlett in private conversations; they are friends.
During the interview with Mr. Dowd on a slightly overcast afternoon in downtown Austin, he was a far quieter man than the cigar chomping general that he was during Mr. Bush’s 2004 campaign.
Soft spoken and somewhat melancholy, he wore jeans, a T-shirt and sandals in an office devoid of Bush memorabilia save for a campaign coffee mug and a photograph of the first couple with his oldest son, Daniel. The photograph was taken one week before the 2004 election, and one day before Daniel was to go to boot camp.
Over Mexican food at a restaurant that was only feet from the 2000 campaign headquarters, and later at his office just up the street, Mr. Dowd recounted his political and personal journey. “It’s amazing,” he said. “In five years, I’ve only traveled 300 feet, but it feels like I’ve gone around the world, where my head is.”
Mr. Dowd said he decided to become a Republican in 1999 and joined Mr. Bush after watching him work closely with Bob Bullock, the Democratic lieutenant governor of Texas, who was a political client of Mr. Dowd and a mentor to Mr. Bush.
“It’s almost like you fall in love,” he said. “I was frustrated about Washington, the inability for people to get stuff done and bridge divides. And this guy’s personality — he cared about education and taking a different stand on immigration.”
Mr. Dowd established himself as an expert at interpreting polls, giving Karl Rove, the president’s closest political adviser, and the rest of the Bush team guidance as they set out to woo voters, slash opponents and exploit divisions between Democratic-leaning states and Republican-leaning ones.
In television interviews in 2004, Mr. Dowd said that Mr. Kerry’s campaign was proposing “a weak defense,” and that the voters “trust this president more than they trust Senator Kerry on Iraq.”
But he was starting to have his own doubts by then, he said.
He said he thought Mr. Bush handled the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks well but “missed a real opportunity to call the country to a shared sense of sacrifice.”
He was dumbfounded when Mr. Bush did not fire Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld after revelations that American soldiers had tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
Several associates said Mr. Dowd chafed under Mr. Rove’s leadership. Mr. Dowd said he had not spoken to Mr. Rove in months but would not discuss their relationship in detail.
Mr. Dowd said, in retrospect, he was in denial.
“When you fall in love like that,” he said, “and then you notice some things that don’t exactly go the way you thought, what do you do? Like in a relationship, you say ‘No no, no, it’ll be different.’ ”
He said he clung to the hope that Mr. Bush would get back to his Texas style of governing if he won. But he saw no change after the 2004 victory.
He describes the administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, and the president’s refusal in the summer of 2005 to meet with the war protester Cindy Sheehan, whose son died fighting in Iraq, around the same time that Mr. Bush entertained the bicyclist Lance Armstrong at his Crawford ranch as further cause for doubt.
“I had finally come to the conclusion that maybe all these things along do add up,” he said. “That it’s not the same, it’s not the person I thought.”
He said that during his work on the 2006 re-election campaign of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, which had a bipartisan appeal, he began to rethink his approach to elections.
“I think we should design campaigns that appeal not to 51 percent of the people,” he said, “but bring the country together as a whole.”
He said that he still believed campaigns must do what it takes to win, but that he was never comfortable with the most hard-charging tactics. He is now calling for “gentleness” in politics. He said that while he tried to keep his own conduct respectful during political combat, he wanted to “do my part in fixing fissures that I may have been part of.”
His views against the war began to harden last spring when, in a personal exercise, he wrote a draft opinion article and found himself agreeing with Mr. Kerry’s call for withdrawal from Iraq. He acknowledged that the expected deployment of his son Daniel was an important factor.
He said the president’s announcement last fall that he was re-nominating the former United Nations ambassador John R. Bolton, whose confirmation Democrats had already refused, was further proof to him that Mr. Bush was not seeking consensus with Democrats.
He said he came to believe Mr. Bush’s views were hardening, with the reinforcement of his inner circle. But, he said, the person “who is ultimately responsible is the president.” And he gradually ventured out with criticism, going so far as declaring last month in a short essay in Texas Monthly magazine that Mr. Bush was losing “his gut-level bond with the American people,” and breaking more fully in this week’s interview.
“If the American public says they’re done with something, our leaders have to understand what they want,” Mr. Dowd said. “They’re saying ‘Get out of Iraq.’ ”
Mr. Dowd’s friends from Mr. Bush’s orbit said they understood his need to speak out. “Everyone is going to reflect on the good and the bad, and everything in between, in their own way,” said Nicolle Wallace, communications director of Mr. Bush’s 2004 campaign, a post she also held at the White House until last summer. “And I certainly respect the way he’s doing it — these are his true thoughts from a deeply personal place.” Ms. Wallace said she continued to have “enormous gratitude” for her years with Mr. Bush.
Mr. Bartlett, the White House counselor, said he understood, too, though he said he strongly disagreed with Mr. Dowd’s assessment. “Do we know our critics will try to use this to their advantage? Yes,” he said. “Is that perfect? No. But you can respectfully disagree with someone who has been supportive of you.”
Mr. Dowd does not seem prepared to put his views to work in 2008. The only candidate who appeals to him, he said, is Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, because of what Mr. Dowd called his message of unity. But, he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if I wasn’t walking around in Africa or South America doing something that was like mission work.”
He added, “I do feel a calling of trying to re-establish a level of gentleness in the world.”