Bubble Boy in the Bunker

At the New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller and David Sanger describe massive cognitive dissociation in the White House.

… senior staff members insist that Mr. Bush is in good spirits, that calls from his party to inject new blood into the White House make him ever more stubborn to keep the old, and that he has become so inured to outside criticism that he increasingly tunes it out. There is no sense of crisis, they say, even over rebellious Republicans in Congress, because the White House has been in almost constant crisis since Sept. 11, 2001, and Mr. Bush has never had much regard for Congress anyway. …

… “They have a transmitter but not a listening device,” said one well-known Republican with close ties to the administration who gets calls from White House staff members. “They’ll say, ‘What are you hearing, what’s going on?’ You tell them things aren’t good on the Hill, you’ve got problems here, you’ve got problems there, or ‘I was in Detroit and boy did I get an earful.’ And their answer is, ‘Everybody’s just reading the headlines, we’ve got to get our message out better.’ There’s denial going on, and it starts at the top.”

Bumiller and Sanger write that there are perceptions the once “politically agile” White House is “off its game.” But I’m not sure they ever had a game except, well, to play games.

From the beginning the Bush White House has been little more than a well-staged pageant. It’s not a real presidential administration; it just plays one on TV.

“It’s always the same story,” said an administration official who no longer works in the White House but who would evaluate its problems only on the condition of anonymity. “They have a plan — an elaborate plan of the president’s message, day by day. But there’s something in the system that has a hard time coping with the unexpected,” the official said, citing Hurricane Katrina, the dispute over Harriet E. Miers’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and now the port issue.

The “something in the system” is the fact that the Bushies don’t know how to do anything except run their pageant. We learned from Paul O’Neill in The Price of Loyalty that even the bleeping cabinet meetings are scripted. They can’t even put aside the pretense when they’re behind closed doors.

I suspected trouble from the beginning of the Bush Administration, when fawning news stories praised Bush’s ability to stick to meeting schedules and get to bed by 10 o’clock. You might get a kick out of this CNN story from March 2001:

Bush’s take-it-slow-and-easy approach is yet another rebuke to his predecessor. Clinton came to office promising to work for the people “until the last dog dies.” In Clinton’s world, working hard meant exhausting yourself, something the President and his staff did regularly, especially in his first term, when leaving the White House before midnight was viewed as proof of a lack of commitment. Clinton’s sheer effort was a key part of his message.

Not so President Bush. “I don’t like to sit around in meetings for hours and hours and hours,” he told TIME during the campaign. “People will tell you, I get to the point.” Meetings should be crisp and should end with decisions. Talking matters less than doing. “People who make up Republican White Houses come from the business world and are used to a business-like routine: getting in early, getting it done and going home,” says Bush spokes-man Ari Fleischer. By contrast, he adds, Democrats tend to come from “the world of government service, which is much more hectic and much less disciplined.”

How much bullshit can you pack into two paragraphs? I especially like the part about how people in the “business world” aren’t used to working late. On what planet? And actual businessman Paul O’Neill didn’t find Bush’s meetings “crisp”; he said Bush in a cabinet meeting was “like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people.”

Over the past five plus years we’ve seen, time and time again, how the Bushies handle a crisis: (a) ignore it, (b) eventually notice that they are getting bad press for ignoring it, (c) smear whoever was responsible for the bad press, (c) stage some event that makes Bush look as if he is dealing with it, and if the situation deteriorates, (d) blame Bush critics’ lack of faith in their President for the deterioration.

The President’s snowballing political problems are not the result of his being “off his game.” It’s a result of [going on] six years of flaming incompetence finally catching up to him. A ship of state as big as the U.S. will sail along for a while out of sheer entropy, no matter who’s guiding it. But not forever.

The real wonder is not why the Bush White House is falling apart, but why it didn’t fall apart sooner. The reasons for this are complex and will keep scholars and pundits busy writing theses and books for many years. But, essentially, the Republican Party, most of the news media, and even a large part of the Democratic Party have been complicit in running the pageant and maintaining the illusion. A lot of them are still working at it.

By the way, here’s the next paragraph in the story from March 2001:

Even as officials who worked for Clinton concede the point, they argue that Bush’s approach may not survive rough times. “These are high-pressure jobs,” says Leon Panetta, who served more than two years as Clinton’s chief of staff. “Someone has to carry the load, especially when there’s a crisis.” Bush has enjoyed a smooth stroll through his first six weeks on the job, but some say his need for order and structure makes him appear unsteady and slow to react when confronted with an off-the-script event.

Wow, those “some” were downright prophetic.

Also from 2001: “Bush aides have long since perfected the art of eye rolling to meet suggestions that Cheney, rather than his boss, is the man in charge.” This takes us to another possible factor in the White House meltdown — at the Washington Post, David J. Rothkopf writes that “The Dick Cheney era of foreign policy is over.”

From 2001 to 2005, the vice president’s influence over U.S. foreign policy may have been greater than that of any individual other than the president since Henry A. Kissinger held the positions of national security adviser and secretary of state during the Nixon years. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld served as Cheney’s partner in steamrolling bureaucratic rivals; Colin L. Powell toiled loyally at the largely ignored and mistrusted State Department; and Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser and ostensibly the coordinator of policy, played the role of tutor to a neophyte president and seldom challenged Cheney. As a result, policies were largely shaped by the vice president and his circle.

But Cheney’s influence has waned.

You can read the article for details; in a nutshell, Dick is out and Condi is in. I am not reassured. But what I noticed in particular about the Rothkopf article is the extent to which the POTUS himself is absent from the foreign policy process. No one even expects him to be involved, I guess. The team lets him know what his policies are after he’s had his nap.

Folks, this is no way to run a country.

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