Then-Vice President Dick Cheney, right, shakes hands with former Vice President Dan Quayle as Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., looks on at a ceremony to unveil a bust for Quayle in the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 10, 2003. Could Gen. Colin Powell have made a better running mate for either President George Bush? Photo by Roger L. Wollenberg/UPI | License Photo
President George H.W. Bush's latest book will hit the shelves Tuesday. The book has already reopened old wounds over September 11th and the second Iraq war. Known as 41 to differentiate himself from son George W. Bush, America's 43rd president, the father had unkind things to say about 43's vice president, Richard B. Cheney, and secretary of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld. And 41 rebuked 43 for the "Axis of Evil" speech linking Iraq with North Korea as enemies of the West.
But suppose either 41 or 43 had chosen other vice presidential running mates. How different the world might have been. In early 1992, George H.W. Bush seemed electorally invincible. After the 100-hour destruction and eviction of Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Bush's popularity rose to 90%. The Soviet Union had imploded. Bush's economic plans were gaining traction. As Ronald Reagan promised, this was truly "morning in America."
Governor Bill Clinton would win the Democratic nomination for president, but the White House was reluctant to take the challenger seriously. After all, Clinton was viewed in the demeaning terms of a "draft dodging, pot-smoking womanizer." Yet, the polls were moving in Mr. Clinton's favor and Ross Perot was mounting a third party movement to oppose President Bush.
That summer, former Defense and Energy Secretary and CIA Director James Schlesinger met with President and Mrs. Bush. Concerned that Bush could lose in November, Schlesinger presented the president with a brilliant idea. Why not pick a new vice president?
Bush had selected the junior senator from Indiana Dan Quayle as his running mate in 1988. Quayle had never recovered from the battering he took in the October vice presidential debate against Senator Lloyd Bentsen from Texas. In the debate, Quayle made the error of comparing himself to President John F. Kennedy. Bentsen, a decorated World War II veteran, was waiting in ambush. "I knew Jack Kennedy. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy!" Quayle was incinerated.
Schlesinger suggested General Colin Powell, then in his last year as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as the Quayle alternative. Mrs. Bush warmed to the idea. The president considered the suggestion and then declined to dump Quayle. Whether Powell would have accepted or whether his selection would have overcome Perot's 19 percent take of the vote is unknowable. Vice presidents rarely affect the general election. But a Bush 41 second term would clearly have altered who would have been in charge in 2001.
In 2000, George W. Bush asked former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to form a vice presidential search committee. The outcome was not surprising. Cheney would be on the ticket. That made sense at the time. Cheney had the experience Bush lacked in Washington. Unfortunately, Cheney would dominate White House decision making for the first term and some of the second. Among the consequences were the catastrophic second Iraq War and the destabilization of the region that continues to threaten peace and stability.
But suppose Bush 43 had favored Powell over Cheney? Of course, Powell may not have accepted, preferring to become Secretary of State. In 1996, he and his family seriously considered his running for the presidency. In the end, the general decided he would not seek the Oval Office.
Running as the number two, however, would have been less onerous. The prospect of becoming the first African-American to rise to the second highest office in the land was compelling. Powell also would have brought the necessary foreign and national security experience to the White House, including two tours in combat in Vietnam where he had once been wounded in action.
Perhaps had Powell and not Cheney been vice president, the post-September 11th response to the al-Qaida attacks would not have ended in nation building in Afghanistan. Nor might 43 been so keen to intervene in Iraq in March 2003, as Powell was never in favor of that decision. But being a loyal soldier, the Secretary of State made the administration's case for war at the United Nations in February 2003, categorically assured by then-CIA Director George Tenet and Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
That a Vice President Powell might have run in 2008 against Barack Obama would have produced possibly the most exciting presidential race in America's history. Of course, none of this happened. Still, speculation over the consequences of a Powell vice presidency under either Bush 41 or 43 is intriguing. Would the disasters following September 11th been averted or minimized? The latest book by 43 suggests the answer would have been yes.
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business; and Senior Advisor at both Washington D.C.'s Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security. His latest book is A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces the Peace.