Ex-aide details a loss of faith in President Bush

Matthew Dowd, right, chats with Karl Rove as President George W. Bush speaks at a campaign rally in Canton, Ohio, in this July 31, 2004, file photo.

DOUG MILLS/The New York Times
Published: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

AUSTIN, Texas - In 1999, Matthew Dowd became a symbol of George W. Bush's early success at positioning himself as a Republican with Democratic appeal.

A top strategist for the Texas Democrats who was disappointed by the Bill Clinton years, Dowd was impressed by the pledge of Bush, then governor of Texas, to bring a spirit of cooperation to Washington. He switched parties, joined 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, Dowd now says his faith in Bush was misplaced.

In a wide-ranging interview here, Dowd called for a withdrawal from Iraq and expressed his disappointment in 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 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.''

Feeling a sense of duty

In speaking out, Dowd became the first member of 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 Bush's presidency is so great that he feels a sense of duty to go public given his role in helping Bush gain and keep power.

Dowd, a crucial part of a team that cast Sen. 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 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,'' Dowd said. "Just being quiet is not an option when I was so publicly advocating an election.''

Dowd's journey from true believer to critic in some ways tracks the public arc of 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 Dowd's premature twin daughters died, he and his second wife divorced, and he watched his oldest son prepare for deployment to Iraq as an Army intelligence specialist fluent in Arabic. Dowd said he had become so disillusioned with the war he had considered joining street demonstrations against it, but his continued personal affection for the president had kept him from joining protests to which anti-Bush fervor is so central.

Dowd, 45, said he hoped in part by coming forward he would be able to get a message through to a presidential inner sanctum he views as increasingly isolated. But, he said, he holds out no great hope that he will succeed.

Dan Bartlett, the White House counselor, said Dowd's criticism is reflective of the national debate over the war.

"It's an issue that divides people,'' Bartlett said. "Even people that supported the president aren't immune from having their own feelings and emotions.''

He said he disagreed with Dowd's description of the president as isolated and with his position on withdrawal. But he said he was not surprised. Dowd has relayed the same sentiments to Bartlett in private conversations; they are friends.

Doubts begin to surface

During the interview with Dowd on a slightly overcast afternoon in downtown Austin, he was a far quieter man than the cigar chomping general that he was during 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, 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.''

Dowd said he decided to become a Republican in 1999 and joined Bush after watching him work closely with Bob Bullock, the Democratic lieutenant governor of Texas, who was a political client of Dowd's and a mentor to Bush's.

"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.''

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, Dowd said Kerry's campaign was proposing "a weak defense,'' and the voters "trust this president more than they trust Sen. Kerry on Iraq.''

But he was starting to have his own doubts by then, he said.

He said he thought 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 Bush did not fire Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld after revelations American soldiers had tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Several associates said Dowd chafed under Rove's leadership. Dowd said he had not spoken to Rove in months but would not discuss their relationship in detail.

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 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 to meet with Cindy Sheehan, an anti-war protester whose son died fighting in Iraq, as Bush entertained the bicyclist Lance Armstrong at his ranch in Crawford 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 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.''

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