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A Journey to Candor A Journey to Candor

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Vantage Point

A Journey to Candor

It wasn’t easy for me to criticize President Bush after I had worked for him. But it was the right thing to do .

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In 2004: Karl Rove and Matthew Dowd(Doug Mills/The New York Times/Redux)

More than two months ago, I wrote a column about the WikiLeaks controversy and the importance of the truth, and concluded with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please; you can never have both.” Upon reflection, and in light of some current events, I would like to offer my own perspective on the journey to one’s truth.

In April 2007, The New York Times ran a front-page story about me headlined “Ex-Aide Says He’s Lost Faith in Bush.” It noted my background as a political consultant who worked for Texas Democrats in the 1990s before enlisting in George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000 and serving as his chief campaign strategist in 2004. Not surprisingly, the article attracted a lot of attention. Many people faulted me for openly criticizing the president; others congratulated me. What hardly anyone understood was my journey to the story. I didn’t wake up one morning and decide I was going to tell my truth to The Times. It was a lot more complicated than that; there were many small steps along the way.

 

It’s my belief that in our professional and personal lives, God or the universe gives us windows of opportunity to understand our own truth and to communicate it to others. Sometimes we see these windows and step through them, not always knowing what’s on the other side. Sometimes we can’t see these windows because our lives are so busy that we don’t pause long enough to look around us. And sometimes we see the window but ignore it because we don’t want to upset our lives or those of others. So we keep moving on, telling ourselves that one day we’ll live what’s in our hearts. At one time or another in my life, I have been in all of those positions. I realize now that I feel most embraced by the universe when I open windows and climb through, even when it’s confusing or upsetting to do so.

I don’t know exactly when my journey to the front page of The Times began, but as I’ve watched the coverage in recent days of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s autobiography, I realized there was a moment during the Abu Ghraib prison scandal when I recognized a need to tell the truth in a small way. One reason I went to work for then-Gov. Bush when he first ran for president was that I bought in—big-time—to the idea that our politics and leadership needed more accountability. As the Abu Ghraib story unfolded in 2004, I thought that if we were going to be true to our accountability value, then Rumsfeld should resign. I made my opinion known to a number of officials in the White House. I note that in his book, Rumsfeld said he felt he should quit—and “tried” twice but was rebuffed. (As an aside, I don’t know how, if you feel you should go for the good of the country, you can be talked out of resigning.) Should I have said something publicly about Abu Ghraib in the midst of the 2004 campaign? I still don’t know, but I knew then I wasn’t ready for that public telling.

After the election, as I began to spend more quiet moments reflecting on the previous four years, I realized that my hopes for Bush’s presidency had not been matched by the reality of his time in office. I knew that at some point I would have to communicate this publicly. And so life provided windows for me to do that.

 

In 2006, I was asked a question in the media about the push by the White House and Republicans to ban gay marriage, and I criticized this move as both substantively wrong and politically dumb. A small step, but a step forward for me. In January 2007, I was at a postelection briefing in Berkeley on the California governor’s race, and an obviously angry young liberal student stood up to criticize my work for Bush. The panel’s moderator wanted to move the program along and not get into this, but I said I wanted to respond to the student’s comments. Thus, in front of an audience, I began to lay out how one can hope things will be a certain way only to see them turn out differently. Again, a small step.

A few months later, Texas Monthly ran a cover story on Bush’s legacy, and I was asked by my good friend Evan Smith, the magazine’s editor, to provide comments, which I did. Another step. Afterward, The New York Times asked me to explain how I had gone from Bush loyalist to critic—one of the first Bush aides to break with the president. It felt like it was the right time to walk through that window.

I have made many mistakes in my life and have not always done my best in telling my truth. But what I have learned is that life is a haphazard process, one in which we have to listen to our heart and soul, and then look for the windows that will appear along the way. Life isn’t about getting on a plane in one place and getting off in another but about making the slow walk in the woods and choosing the forks in the road. As Robert Frost said, “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

This article appears in the February 19, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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