As related in Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial,” p. 12. The scene is Barbara Bush’s 75th birthday party in Kennebunkport, Maine, in June 2000. One of the guests was Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States and a close friend of the first President Bush:
George W. pulled Bandar aside.
“Bandar, I guess you’re the best asshole who knows about the world. Explain to me one thing.”
“Governor, what is it?”
“Why should I care about North Korea?”
Bandar said he didn’t really know. It was one of the few countries that he did not work on for King Fahd.
“I get these briefings on all parts of the world,” Bush said, “and everybody is talking to me about North Korea.”
“I’ll tell you what, Governor,” Bandar said. “One reason should make you care about North Korea.”
“All right, smart aleck,” Bush said, “tell me.”
“The 38,000 American troops right on the border. … If nothing else counts, this counts. One shot across the border and you lose half these people immediately. You lose 15,000 Americans in a chemical or biological or even regular attack. The United States of America is at war instantly.”
“Hmmm,” Bush said. “I wish those asshole would put things just point-blank to me. I get half a book telling me about the history of North Korea.”
I suppose there are several ways you can read that. A generous interpretation is that this shows Bush doing exactly what he’s criticized so often for not doing–broadening his horizons, going out and seeking information from someone who knows the score. That’s a falling-off-the-balcony stretch, though, if you believe the account (from a family friend, mind you) about his impatience for point-blank facts and his distaste for details like the history of North Korea.
But the damning thing about the story is that this conversation took place well into the presidential campaign and long, long after the Clinton administration had been engaged in negotiations with North Korea. Bush condemns the Clinton approach now, but back then, seven months before he became president, it sounds like he didn’t have a clue what was going on there.