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Perino, Bush and the Unlearned Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis

December 11, 2007

On Saturday, White House press secretary Dana Perino confessed her ignorance regarding the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the Bay of Pigs fiasco the previous year. Of course, it should come as no surprise that the chief spokesperson for President Bush would confuse John F. Kennedy's signature national security triumph with his greatest foreign policy failure. After all, President Bush is not merely ignorant of the history, but determined that JFK's two lessons from the Bay of Pigs - taking accountability and rethinking the policy making process - would never be heeded by the Bush White.
Appearing on National Public Radio's Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me quiz show, Perino did what comes naturally and played dumb:

"I was panicked a bit because I really don't know about...the Cuban Missile Crisis," said Perino, who at 35 was born about a decade after the 1962 U.S.-Soviet nuclear showdown. "It had to do with Cuba and missiles, I'm pretty sure."
So she consulted her best source. "I came home and I asked my husband," she recalled. "I said, 'Wasn't that like the Bay of Pigs thing?' And he said, 'Oh, Dana.'"

Perino could be forgiven for channeling the shocking intellectual shortcomings of her boss if it weren't for the relevance of Kennedy's Cuban experience to President Bush's own fiasco in Iraq.
In April 1961, Kennedy was devastated and embarrassed by the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the tragically abortive exile invasion of Castro's Cuba architected by the Eisenhower CIA. Unlike his successor 40 year later, JFK moved quickly to address the two lessons of the disaster.
First, Kennedy took complete responsibility for the calamity, taking to the airwaves the next day for a nationally televised mea culpa. In his April 21 press conference, JFK made it clear that responsibility for the Bay of Pigs was his alone. "There's an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan," Kennedy said, adding, "I am the responsible officer of the government."
Second, President Kennedy took immediate steps to shake up the national security team and group-think process that had served him so poorly. Complaining about the CIA and Joint Chiefs, JFK admitted, "I just took their advice." He responded by sacking CIA Director Allen Dulles and two of his deputies. More importantly, Kennedy put in place the Executive Committee (or ExComm) including both current and former cabinet members (among them Republicans) to ensure multiple perspectives and options in times of crisis. Just one year later, Kennedy's out-of-box approach paid rich dividends for him and the nation in the successful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis.
Sadly, George W. Bush is no Jack Kennedy. The self-proclaimed "war president" could not admit to a single mistake he had made when asked during an April 2004 press conference. In his January 10, 2007 address to the nation, President Bush offered Americans an "unpology" disingenuously stating, "Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me." As for reaching out beyond his core team of Cheney, Rice, Rove and Hadley, President Bush wholly rejected the recommendations of the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. Instead, Bush ignored Senator Chuck Hagel's pleas in June 2005 to emulate Kennedy's approach and stood firm on his present course, later announcing "I'm the decider, and I decide what is best."
As for Dana Perino, her role in the Bush White House is not to know history or even present the truth, but to be the smiling face of plausible deniability. She aptly summed up her qualifications, "once a Bushie, always a Bushie."
But for George W. Bush, Kennedy's 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster and Cuban missile crisis victory the next year could have provided a guide to handling the calamity in Iraq President Bush should have listened to one other nugget of wisdom from President Kennedy. "The essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer," Kennedy concluded, "often, indeed, to the decider himself."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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