OPINIONS / Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Bush: The Difficult Decisions

In October 2006, things were not going well for George W. Bush or the Republicans. Iraq was a mess, and the fast-approaching midterm elections looked as though they would be a disaster. But the president was determined to give it his all, and that was how I found myself in suburban Detroit at a campaign rally for U.S. Senate hopeful Mike Bouchard.

I was a few months into my tenure as White House communications director — and a million miles removed from the press table at Reunion Arena, where I had been the Mavericks communications guy for almost two decades.

As the president concluded his remarks, I hustled for the motorcade. You see, just as the Mavericks team bus doesn’t wait for the PR guy, the presidential motorcade doesn’t wait for the communications director.

Just before the motorcade departed for Air Force One, a Secret Service agent stuck his head into the van. He told me that the president wanted me to ride with him in his limo (“stagecoach” in Secret Service parlance). I waited outside the president’s car and wondered why he sent for me. Soon he appeared, with Karl Rove at his side.

“Sully, get in,” the president ordered. “We need some laughs.”

Now this was pressure. I was being asked by the leader of the free world to help lighten the mood.

My mind raced. Rove was wearing a Tigers cap someone had just given him, which made me think of Ivan Rodriguez. I asked the president who the catcher was on his first Rangers team, back in ’89.

As he began to rattle off names — Chad Kreuter, Geno Petralli — a smile came to his face. He proceeded to name, in meticulous detail, the starting lineups for all five of his Rangers teams. He also recounted a few stories — remember the homer that bounced off Jose Canseco’s head? — and we all laughed.

Bouchard would go on to lose that election by 16 points. But for that day, I had done my job.

For eight years, the president did his job, too.

Last week he returned to Texas with a host of achievements. Most notably, he made the difficult decisions — often at the cost of his own popularity — to prevent another attack on our home soil, something unfathomable in the days following 9-11.

He also removed threatening regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, liberating 50 million people in the process. In Africa, he provided medicine and treatment for more than 2 million afflicted by HIV/AIDS.

At home, for 40 million seniors he added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare; cut taxes for every American taxpayer (fueling a now-obscured all-time record 52 consecutive months of job creation); improved lives in communities across America through his landmark faith-based initiative; promoted a culture of life; and appointed two Supreme Court justices who will strictly interpret our Constitution.

And thanks to the president’s first legislative achievement — the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act — African-American and Hispanic students are doing better than ever in reading and math.

Which leads to the question: Why didn’t the president achieve more bipartisan successes after having worked both sides of the aisle so effectively as Texas governor?

The president will tell you this is his responsibility, listing his inability to change the tone in Washington as one of his deepest disappointments. But that responsibility should be shared.

For one thing, though the president had sharp disagreements with his political opponents, he never stooped to the childish name-calling of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Indeed, for all the media interest in the president’s inability to duplicate the civil discourse of Austin, I don’t recall any reporter asking Reid why he wasn’t more like Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock or Nancy Pelosi why she wasn’t more like Lt. Gov. Pete Laney.

As I return to the private sector as a communications consultant, the biggest disappointment of my Washington adventure is Congress.

There was little that Reid and Pelosi and their acolytes wouldn’t say to score political points, even when they knew it was untrue. And as issues from immigration to entitlement reform show all too clearly, there exists on both sides of the aisle an unwillingness to take big swings at the big issues. It always seems to be about the next election.

Now it’s President Obama’s time. In our final weeks, I had productive transition meetings with his team, and I wish them well.

Obama is not hindered by the partisan rancor and congressional cheap shots that were so prevalent during the Bush years. And as the record-breaking crowds at the inauguration attested, he enjoys runaway popularity.

Let’s hope he uses these advantages to make the kinds of tough decisions President Bush did — even at the risk of becoming a little less popular.

Kevin Sullivan was White House communications director under President George W. Bush and previously spent 18 years as a communications executive with the Dallas Mavericks.