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.

Update: Deadline for Koufax voting is midnight tonight. The Mahablog has been nominated in these categories:

Best Blog (nonprofessional)

Best Writing

Most Deserving of Wider Recognition

While you are voting for YOUR FAVORITE BLOG (wink, nudge) I hope you will leave a donation to Wampum in the tip jar. The awards are a great service to the Left Blogosphere, but they are also a great deal of work and eat up bandwidth.

17 thoughts on “Bubble Boy in the Bunker

  1. Forgot to mention in the previous comment: use your mouse to pick him up and get him moving again. Or throw him. Or slam him against a handy bubble. …

  2. Oh, my gosh… I had so much fun slamming him against bubbles. I had no idea that would be so enjoyable.

  3. Freefall was fun for about 5 min.
    I’m too nice to delight in slamming a wimpering shrub.
    It’s my personality flaw.Heard any good jokes lately?
    BTW, Barbara, great post!

  4. Apologies if a partial post appears…my fingers sometimes don’t work exactly as I wish they would.
    You cannot expect Bush to actually “accomplish” anything, because HE DOESN’T KNOW HOW. It would be like expecting a third grader to use advanced calculus. Ain’t gonna happen.
    There are four levels of competency. The lowest level is “unconscious incompetence.” That’s when you fail because you don’t know how to accomplish the task at hand. That is the level of competency that Bush is displaying.
    Because Bush refuses to listen to anyone but sycophants, he will never reach the next level of competency — “conscious incompetence”. That’s when you fail, but you realize that you’ve done something wrong. Like when I play online poker and go “all in” on a marginal hand. I know it’s wrong, I know I’m going to get creamed, but I do it anyway. It’s part of the learning process. Unfortunately for us, the people of Iraq, and to the danger of the planet, Bush refuses to learn.

  5. OK, Maha…I voted…Like they said at Wampum, the only losers are the one’s who take the voting too seriously.. so

    I hereby declare and decree, by the power vested in me by my existence, that the Mahablog is the best blog in a non-professional capacity and its writer, Barbara O’Brien, has earned the recognition she so rightly deserves in the best writing category.Further, I bestow honor for the Mahablog’s selfless dedication and tenacious spirit in bringing to light and combating the malignancy that has invaded our Government in the form of George Bush and company.

  6. I have a feeling that Bush has never been leveled with in his life. He’s never had to deal with someone who called him on his stuff. That’s why he has sycophants.
    He needs a Wanda Sykes type wake up moment.In fact the whole country does. We as a culture will accept a tongue lashing from a black woman. This is not disrespect or pigeonholing but maybe a hold over from a past where a ‘ mammy’ raised all the children and made them toe the line. We expect honesty and discipline from them.

    Oh that there was a Barbara Jordan today.

  7. Comment no 6.

    I ditto Swami’s comments.

    I voted and just got in before last hour as I haven’t been much lately.

  8. Hell, even Billie Bob Thornton’s character in “Slingblade” had better sense than Bush.

  9. This presidency is the sequel to “The Candidate”. Robert Redford turned down the part after he read the script.

  10. Mike – That’s pretty much the way I feel every day living under this president’s policies.

  11. Condi is in. wow. Be afraid. be very afraid. Isn’t her main claim to her success being able to properly kiss Boosh’s ass and tell him how wonderful he is?

  12. The arrogant sneering at the reality-based community & creating their reality for us to just observe (senior official to Susskind..my guess is Rove) is really magical thinking..reality world collides with twilight zone. They can only do political campaigns well (with cheating)…wars, disasters, economy..just apply their own reality (magical) citeria & everything is just peachy.

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