When coffins start coming home and peace demonstrations heat up, there are those who say angrily, “No one wants war,” but they're mistaken. Some people want war. The first President George Bush had a secret contingency plan to raise his poll numbers by invading Cuba and ousting Fidel Castro, based on statements Bush's late campaign manager made in my presence.
Nearly 14 years ago, on Thursday Oct. 31, 1991, I sat in a conference room at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and listened with a dozen other reporters as pollster Robert Teeter--who later became the first President Bush's campaign manager--said in an off-hand way that Bush had a secret plan to invade Cuba should his poll numbers drop below a certain level. It was a sleepy afternoon for the dozen or so reporters assembled that day. We were taking sabbaticals from our jobs for nine months of study at the expense of the University of Michigan. We had pledged we wouldn't report on anything said in the twice-weekly seminars we attended as part of the program, so only a few of us were taking notes.
I remember looking up startled and glancing around the room where we lounged on sofas and cushy chairs to see if others had registered what Teeter said. When no one spoke up to ask a follow-up question, I raised my hand and asked if I'd heard him right.
Teeter responded, sotto voce, that yes, the president was considering just such a strategy—an attack on Cuba--should he fall significantly behind in the polls. I asked Teeter how far Bush would have to sink in the polls before initiating such a plan, but Teeter shrugged off the question and changed the subject.
After the session several of us went to a nearby restaurant for dinner, where we talked about Teeter's remarks. Most were dismissive. At the time it seemed unlikely the president would take such a gamble. Bolstered by his more-or-less successful execution of the Gulf War, Bush the elder was riding high in the polls and the Democratic opposition appeared fragmented. Bill Clinton had yet to emerge as the frontrunner and already questions about his character were emerging.
Still, the question arose that evening as to whether we should report on Teeter's remarks. Opinion was mixed. Few thought it would be a tragedy if Castro were ousted from power. After all, communist regimes had fallen the world over in recent years and Castro was an aging and repressive anachronism. It seemed his time had passed.
On the other hand, a couple of us thought we had an obligation to report what Teeter had said, because clearly lives hung in the balance. It was the old dilemma faced by psychologists, lawyers, priests and reporters. Should one report death-threats uttered in confidence? Surely people would die if Bush committed troops to invading Cuba.
In May, 1992, most of us went back to our regular jobs—mine at the News-Sentinel, others at the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Detroit Free-Press, ABC News, the San Jose Mercury News, to name a few.
As the economy took a downturn and Bush fell sharply in the polls that summer and fall, I watched for signs that he would execute a plan along the lines of what Teeter had suggested. I was determined to report what Teeter had said—and do everything I could to get the story told nationally--should signs of conflict with Cuba arise, but they never did.
Why the plan was never executed remains a mystery to me. Teeter died in June 2004. Maybe the plan was abandoned because Bush's decline in popularity was so precipitous it would've looked too suspicious had he acted. Maybe Castro had an ace of his own to play. Could be that horrific Hurricane Andrew, which struck Cuba and South Florida in 1992, influenced events. Maybe George the elder was too nice a guy or too wise to follow through. I have no such illusions about his son.
I tell the story now only because George W. Bush has surrounded himself with many of the people from his father's administration. Some go back to the Reagan years and the shadowy days of Iran-Contra. Together they have embraced a policy of pre-emptive regime change in the name of fighting terrorism. It's been vastly under-reported, but the Bush administration has worked to undermine the elected government in Venezuela, according to a variety of media. Last year our government sided with revolutionaries who ended a democratically elected regime next door to Cuba, in Haiti. I have no idea what the neo-conservatives surrounding Bush are planning in order to bolster Bush's falling poll numbers, but when a president acts, lives often hang in the balance, as fresh coffins arriving in East Tennessee suggest. Some hold people we know.