… what made this meeting important is contained in the following report from one of the attendees, Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal. “The burden of war,” he wrote, “has not sapped Mr Bush physically as it did Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.” For Henninger, this is a sign of Bush’s strength, his determination to do what is right as he sees it, no matter how many Americans think otherwise. How do you stay so normal? Henninger asked Mr. Bush. “Prayer and exercise,” was the response.
I’ve always suspected that Mr Bush was not – how to put it – the most reality-based of individuals. Much has been made of how presidents of all dispositions and partisan affiliations find themselves in a “bubble,” told so often by sycophants how great they are that they lose any sense of themselves as real people. This does not apply in Mr Bush’s case. Any bubble in which he finds himself is entirely chosen by him. He could, after all, invite people to disagree with him in for a talk, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt did, but he clearly wants to talk only to those who will not challenge him.
This is why I have always believed that George Bush is a remarkably weak man, lacking in self-confidence and hiding his sense of inferiority behind tough talk. What I did not quite realise until I read Henninger’s account of this meeting is how George Bush not only lacks confidence, but also lacks the most ordinary sympathy for human beings and the lives they lead.
I agree with Wolfe that Bush is a remarkably weak man, but the question of his self-confidence is not so simple to answer. It seems to me that Bush’s lack of self-doubt is one of his most prominent pathologies. Indeed, Bush acts as if he has supernatural powers. If he orders something done, then (in his mind) it is done, and reports to the contrary are mere niggling details. If he wishes to believe something is true, then it must be true. Reality itself dare not defy His Insouciance.
The invasion of Iraq could stand as a case study in magical thinking. To have blithely believed only what intelligence he wanted to believe (if, indeed, he considered the intelligence at all and didn’t simply leave the detail stuff to Dick); to have ordered an invasion with less planning for occupation than is generally required for a child’s birthday party — these are not the acts of a strong leader. They aren’t the acts a rational leader, for that matter. Or any kind of leader at all.
Granted, the President is far from the only one in his administration whose behavior defies rational analysis. This bring us to another of Bush’s little quirks — a dependence on parental figures. We’ve all suspected from the beginning that it’s Daddy Dick who makes the real decisions, or at least presents to the President the decisions Dick thinks George should make. Meanwhile, the President surrounds himself with Mommies — Karen Hughes, Condi Rice, Harriet Miers.
But, conversely again, George Bush doesn’t like to be supervised. He really, really, doesn’t like to be supervised, or even to compromise, or to make his decisions vulnerable to public and congressional scrutiny. “The Bush White House has had no relationship with Congress,” said a Bush ally. Instead of working with Congress to govern the nation, Bush goes behind their backs and attaches signing statements to the laws he signs, declaring what he will and will not do.
He acts like a teenager who is afraid to ask Dad for the car keys, so he waits until Dad is asleep and takes them without asking.
Emotionally, George Bush appears to be a man who never quite made it through adolescence. And I’m not just talking about fart jokes. An adolescent is torn between wanting the guidance and approval of parents and rebelling against the authority of parents. This conflict is usually resolved when the adolescent grows up and establishes his own identity as an adult that is separate from his parents. But George W. Bush often acts as if he never made that separation. He went through most of his adult life identified as his father’s son, and whatever success he had in business or politics he achieved only by clinging to his Dad’s coattails. Bush began his first term by surrounding himself with people who used to work for his old man — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, Colin Powell, etc. Yet as President, “43” keeps a careful distance from “41.” It’s as if the younger Bush still fears his power and identity might be eclipsed by his father. (For more on Bush’s unresolved oedipal issues, click here.)
Bush’s leadership “style” amounts to promising something or even starting something (like a war) and then failing to follow through. One suspects that as a child he learned to blunt the wrath of his parents by promising better behavior, but was not held to account when the promises were broken. After the Jackson Square speech of September 2005 some pundits raved about Bush’s promises. By then many people outside the beltway had figured out the promises meant nothing. Following up the Jackson Square speech a few weeks later, Ross Chanin called Bush’s failure to follow through on his promises “a profile in cowardice.” After a year, the speech didn’t even rise to the level of “joke.” Yet Bush went back to New Orleans and (through the magic of well-planned staging) still pretended he was a great and successful leader. His failures and broken promises seemed not to bother him a bit.
Today many wonder how the President can seem so confident we are “winning” in Iraq. Is he truly delusional, or is he just trying to happy-face his way out of trouble? All I know is that he cares passionately about Iraq. You can argue about the purity of his motives but not, I think, about the intensity of his concern. No other subject gets him more worked up at a podium. Last week he made a point of defending his Iraq policy, even as the Republican Party would rather the public not be reminded.
Yet, at the same time, all along he has been weirdly disinterested in details. He has yet to demonstrate he understands the nature of the sectarian violence there, for example. Last week I quoted Peter W. Galbraith in the New York Review of Books (March 9, 2006):
Much of the Iraq fiasco can be directly attributed to Bush’s shortcomings as a leader. Having decided to invade Iraq, he failed to make sure there was adequate planning for the postwar period. He never settled bitter policy disputes among his principal aides over how postwar Iraq would be governed; and he allowed competing elements of his administration to pursue diametrically opposed policies at nearly the same time. He used jobs in the Coalition Provisional Authority to reward political loyalists who lacked professional competence, regional expertise, language skills, and, in some cases, common sense. Most serious of all, he conducted his Iraq policy with an arrogance not matched by political will or military power.
Reviewing Paul Bremer’s book My Year in Iraq, Galbraith wrote,
Bremer says that Bush “was as vigorous and decisive in person as he appeared on television.” But in fact he gives an account of a superficial and weak leader. He had lunch with the President before leaving for Baghdad —a meeting joined by the Vice President and the national security team—but no decision seems to have been made on any of the major issues concerning Iraq’s future. Instead, Bremer got a blanket grant of authority that he clearly enjoyed exercising. The President’s directions seem to have been limited to such slogans as “we’re not going to fail” and “pace yourself, Jerry.” In Bremer’s account, the President was seriously interested in one issue: whether the leaders of the government that followed the CPA would publicly thank the United States. But there is no evidence that he cared about the specific questions that counted: Would the new prime minister have a broad base of support? Would he be able to bridge Iraq’s ethnic divisions? What political values should he have? Instead, Bush had only one demand: “It’s important to have someone who’s willing to stand up and thank the American people for their sacrifice in liberating Iraq.”
And while he strikes a pose as the Great War Leader whose personal strength of character and mighty resolve will lead the nation to victory, whenever he is criticized for what actually is happening in Iraq he falls back on explaining that the generals are the ones actually running things. He calls himself The Decider, yet at times he doesn’t seem to have grasped that he is, in fact, the guy in charge.
Which brings us back to the question of Bush’s self-confidence — too much? or not enough?
Alan Wolfe calls Bush “the most un-Lincolnesque man ever to hold this office” of President. Lincoln’s approach to war was Bush’s mirror opposite. Lincoln was famously humble and self-deprecating. Lincoln took a keen interest in the details of the war, to the point of micromanagement; he would step in and countermand a general who was being an idiot, as many of them were. And Lincoln was visibly worn down by the responsibilities of his office. Wolfe writes,
Lincoln aged beyond his years before his assassination; his stooped body communicated to his people the toll the civil war had taken on him. Imagine Lincoln going to work out on a cross-trainer to burn off any stress from a day of ordering troops into battle. For that matter, image him praying to Jesus, not to forgive him for the pain he was causing, but to congratulate him for the determination he was showing.
Lincoln had father issues, also, but he appears to have resolved them long before he became President. Lincoln grew up. Bush, however, remains an emotional child. And for all the many layers of bravado Bush has built up over the years, on the inside he’s a frightened little boy who still expects Mommy and Daddy to clean up his messes and bail him out.
Update: Lance Mannion is a nicer person than I am.