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Bush culls presidential memos for campaign tips

A strategist combs through the troves of memos and personal papers to pick out what worked and what didn't for Republican incumbents in elections of the past.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
Published June 2, 2004

ARLINGTON, Va. - Two years ago, White House political czar Karl Rove sent Matthew Dowd on a secret mission.

Dowd, a top Republican strategist, was sent to the libraries for presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush to study old memos, polling reports and organizational charts. His goal: to help the Bush-Cheney campaign learn the lessons of the past.

As he sifted through the boxes and file folders, Dowd found a rich history of modern campaigns - evidence of shrewd planning, personal squabbles and a few missed opportunities.

The hundreds of old papers revealed the problems of unclear leadership (Bush 1992), the danger of failing to respond to voters' concerns (Ford 1976) and the risk of starting late (Bush 1992). Those lessons have been incorporated into the Bush-Cheney campaign and can be seen in its early, aggressive start.

Political strategists have a long tradition of analyzing past campaigns by reading books and interviewing former staffers. But it is highly unusual for them to dig up old memos in a presidential library, according to political scientists and campaign officials.

Ron Kaufman, political director for former President George Bush, said the Bush-Cheney team is obsessed with history.

"They have looked at every re-election campaign back to Julius Caesar," Kaufman said. "They have learned from each one of them."

* * *

You are not now perceived as being a strong, decisive leader by anywhere near a majority of the American people. Our campaign must change this perception, but it cannot unless some current problems such as in-house staff fighting are corrected.

- Strategy memo to President Ford, 1976

* * *

The memos and letters offer an unvarnished view of presidential campaigns.

Some documents reveal the quirks of the candidates. In a 1980 memo, former President George Bush, who was seeking the Republican nomination against Ronald Reagan, said he wanted to be based in Maine during the summer because "I can relax best" there.

Dowd said the documents "give you the human dimension - not just of the people in the campaign, but of the presidents."

Some documents include frank assessments of the candidates. The unsigned 1976 memo to Ford said voters were beginning to question whether he was "smart enough" for the job.

"Many do not see the president as a leader - they perceive that he has limited vision, no will to control his administration ... no compassion," the Ford memo said. "He also looks like a loser to many (and) seems befuddled in the face of campaign and congressional challenges."

The libraries also hold many handwritten documents, such as James Baker's 1976 notes about how to coordinate the Ford campaign with the Ford White House and the 1980 Bush memo in which someone had scribbled that "family time" had been set aside for son Neil Bush's wedding.

Other papers reveal internal clashes. "Personalities are a big part of it. You could see staff (disagreements) or somebody being upset about something," Dowd said.

Ken Mehlman, the Bush-Cheney campaign manager, said he and Dowd interviewed many staffers from the past campaigns, but they found people forgot details or exaggerated their roles.

"The papers reflect more fully what people were thinking about," Mehlman said.

Dowd studied incumbents' campaigns rather than open races, figuring the incumbents would have the most similarities with the Bush-Cheney campaign. He focused on Republican presidents so they could get more cooperation from the libraries.

Some material was in the public collection of the libraries. To see the rest of it, they got permission from the top officials in the Ford, Reagan and Bush presidencies.

"They were happy to help," Dowd said.

Dowd and Mehlman are students of history.

Dowd, a former Democrat who prefers polo shirts to the standard Washington shirt and tie, seems to have read every modern campaign book. He and Rove jointly taught classes at the University of Texas.

Mehlman's bookshelves are filled with election histories such as the Newsweek's Quest for the Presidency series and Back from the Dead: How Clinton Survived the Republican Revolution. He has a bust of Ronald Reagan on his desk.

* * *

We need people out talking about the president, explaining, agreeing with, and praising his actions. ... This needs to be happening in the various regions of the country every day during the early months of next year.

- 1975 memo from Ford pollster Robert Teeter

* * *

Dowd spent one or two days at each presidential library and at the one at Rice University that contains the papers of James Baker, a senior adviser to Ford, Reagan and former President Bush.

Dowd's mission was a secret because campaign planning and research is typically done quietly. Also, they did not want to reveal that they were plotting the campaign more than two years before the election. Only a handful of key people knew about his trips: Rove, Dowd's wife, Nicole, and President Bush.

Dowd said it appeared many documents had not been reviewed before. Some were faded, dog-eared and had the musty smell of old paper. Some were stained with coffee or mustard.

The Ford papers indicated a lack of early planning, that his advisers were consumed by Reagan's candidacy and were surprised by the emergence of Democrat Jimmy Carter. The papers showed a lack of coordination between the campaign and the White House and indicated that Carter had done a better job addressing voters' desire for leadership and vision than Ford.

By contrast, the 1984 Reagan papers showed good coordination between the White House and the campaign. The campaign was disciplined and communication between the White House and the campaign was limited to a few people.

The 1992 Bush papers revealed some of the same problems as the Ford campaign - a late start and management difficulties.

Bush's aides seemed lulled into complacency because of favorable poll numbers after the Persian Gulf War. They did not realize they were in a serious contest until late in the campaign. The papers revealed internal confusion because there was no clear leader. Three people were each trying to run the campaign.

The papers also showed Bush was not connecting with voters because he was not addressing their concerns about health care and the economy.

After Dowd returned from the libraries, he wrote Rove a 10-page memo and included copies of letters, meeting agendas and organizational charts from the archives.

The lessons of the past campaigns can be seen in how Rove, Mehlman and Dowd are running the Bush-Cheney operation.

They created clear lines of authority: Mehlman was given the power to hire and fire at the campaign.

They started early and aggressively, launching their advertising in March and attacking Sen. John Kerry as soon it was apparent he would be the Democratic nominee.

They streamlined communication between the White House and the campaign. Rove, a White House staffer, serves as the main conduit.

And they stick to their message. Ask them about Kerry, and they'll tell you he's a flip-flopper. Ask them about something else, and they'll tell you again that Kerry is a flip-flopper.

Said Dowd, "The way to make as few mistakes as possible is to learn from the mistakes others have made."

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