David Abshire moved to Alexandria in 1958, eventually settling in a four-story house on St. Asaph Street. But as much as he loves the history, people and quality of life in Old Town, there is one place where he seems to be even more at home: the halls of power. He has made a career of walking them himself, forging personal relationships with presidents, senators, spooks and generals, and he has studied those who walked them in the past.
Abshire is the CEO of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, which brings together decision-makers in government and informs the discussions with a study of presidential history. On Tuesday, Abshire came to the Belle Haven Country Club to analyze the mid-term elections for a meeting of the Alexandria Rotary Club.
Although he is a lifelong Republican, Abshire said the president’s response to his party’s “solid defeat” by the Democrats has already made him optimistic. He talked about specific moments: 11 p.m. on Nov. 7, when he said Bush grasped the enormity of the power shift in government and made “the big move,” replacing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates.
He talked about another moment that happened the next day, when Bush met for the first time with the new Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Instead of knocking heads for partisan gain, both parties had a constructive conversation.
Abshire was Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to NATO from 1983 to 1987. He was called back into Reagan’s cabinet when the Iran-Contra scandal threatened the administration. He said that, until Reagan called him back, the president had been in denial about the severity of the trouble he was in. When he accepted it, he restored trust in himself and his office by firing, at Abshire’s urging, his chief of staff.
“If you live, you will get into a hole,” Abshire said. “The test is whether you dig it deeper or you have the character to get yourself out.” Reagan saved himself, Abshire said, because “he knew that the most sacred quality of a president, or any leader, is trust. Trust is the coin of the realm.”
He said the country’s current president was “deep in the hole and in denial” until mid-term elections opened his eyes.
To explain his optimism about Bush’s meeting with Pelosi, Abshire cited George Washington’s qualities of “civility and inclusiveness.” When these are prioritized, he said, “you learn that you can talk across differences and very often get onto higher ground.”
“HISTORY DOESN’T REPEAT itself, but it can rhyme,” Abshire said, quoting Mark Twain. “We don’t want Iraq to rhyme with Vietnam. Are we letting it?”
He brought up Abraham Lincoln, “our greatest strategist,” to explain the decision to invade Iraq while already committed in Afghanistan. Despite pressure from his cabinet, Lincoln refused to declare war on Britain in 1862. “George W. Bush should have heard old Abe: One war at a time.”
Abshire said he knew the personal toll that a course correction would take on the people making the decisions about the war. “These are all friends of mine. But we have boys and girls going over there and dying and that comes first. We should admit mistakes.”
Abshire described how he and his Center were instrumental in convening the Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker III, that is being touted as the nation’s best, bipartisan hope for finding a solution to the war it has been fighting for over three years.
He said the announcement that Gates would replace Rumsfeld was the “biggest thing” to come from the mid-term elections. “He will open things up in the Defense Department.”
ABSHIRE DESCRIBED how great wartime presidents surrounded themselves with good advisers, and suggested that communication between the military, Congress and the presidency could lead to new ideas and positive change. But if that unity is undermined, the consequences could be dire. “Sometimes in our history we have done the impossible. But it is late in the hour, and if we can’t stay together in this country, then it is going to be very bad.”
“We’re in grave peril, and the only thing I can say about it is that when this country has been in great peril in the past, the leadership has come out to meet it.”
When he introduced Abshire, the Rotary Club’s Craig Miller expressed his professional admiration. “Your resume is big,” he told his neighbor in Old Town, “I’ve got three pages here and they’re legal size. I was going through this and I have to tell you, I had resume envy.”
“He is a remarkable man,” said Ray Lewis after Abshire finished. Lewis and Abshire attend St. Paul’s Church together. Lewis expressed his personal admiration for a man who is more than 80 years old and still extending himself in service to his country. “He has accomplished a lot. He has a remarkable strategic mind. That’s his strong point.”
And as a good tactician, Abshire closed his speech by analyzing the terrain. “I think we’re going to make it to higher ground,” he told the Rotary Club.