Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Dead Certain: Reading Bush's Character

I just finished reading Robert Draper's book Dead Certain: the Presidency of George W. Bush. The book has been out for several weeks already and has already been reviewed in many places -- here and here, for example, and Draper has been interviewed here and here and here -- so I'm not pretending that I'm writing breaking news.

The reason to read this book is to get insight in to George Bush's character, not to find startling new behind-the-scenes information. There was a flap in the press about Draper quoting Bush as not remembering how the Iraqi Army got disbanded -- one of the most important blunders of the occupation -- but that kind of stuff is exceptional. What you get instead is the steady drip-drip-drip of Bush's reactions to events and the reactions of the people around him. If you consider Bush and his people bad company, you will not enjoy this book. (It's hard enough for me to relive the 2000 and 2004 campaigns through the eyes of Gore or Kerry. To see it from the Republican side was like scraping my fingernails on a blackboard.) But the accumulation of detail gives Bush a three-dimensionality that I haven't seen anywhere else.

So you can read the book and form your own impressions -- my conclusions don't always match Draper's, so yours probably won't match either his or mine. But here's the main stuff I gleaned about Bush's character:

He wants to do big things, but he doesn't want to work hard or sweat the details. I'm reminded of the song "Extraordinary" from the Broadway musical Pippin.
Give me my chance
And give me my wings
But don't make me think about everyday things.
It's so secondary
For someone who is very
Like me.
I remember feeling that way myself when I was about 12. (That's the point in Pippin as well. It's a coming-to-maturity play, and Pippin sings "Extraordinary" near the beginning.) I wanted to be a baseball pitcher. Now, if you're serious about that ambition, the first thing you need to work on is control of your pitches. So you need to find a pitching motion that seems natural and practice it until it's robotic. But at 12 I would much rather imagine on one pitch that I was Juan Marichal and do his high leg kick, while on the next pitch I'd be Kent Tekulve and do his submarine delivery. I would have thrown left-handed like Koufax if I could have managed it.

That's Bush in a nutshell. Not the variation, but the unwillingness to sacrifice fantasy to boring work. He doesn't want to "play smallball" as he puts it. He doesn't want to learn about Sunni and Shia, or why the Kurds don't get along with the Turkmen. He wants to be Churchill. He wants to be Truman. Let's just hope he doesn't decide to be Caesar.

If that sounds like I'm saying Bush in immature, well, yeah. His life is full of 12-year-old-boy concerns: How to prove his independence from his father, for example, or shaping his day around when he's going to ride his bike.

He thinks that a leader's job is to project certainty and confidence. Meanwhile his aides, the ones he's supposed to be inspiring with his certainty and confidence, think that their job is to protect him from harsh criticism and bad news that might disturb his confidence and thereby prevent him from leading.

That's what creates the weird dreamworld aspect of the Bush presidency. There's a mutual projection going on. Bush has projected his need to be perfect onto the troops and the other people he tries to lead. It's not for himself that he refuses to admit any mistakes. They need to believe he's perfect. How can he ask the troops to risk their lives for his policy if they can see that he's not sure it's the right thing to do? The people around him, meanwhile, don't look at the bad news because the president doesn't want to hear it and needs to be protected from it. And they know he won't dig it out on his own. That's how the administration could bungle Katrina so badly. The rest of us could just turn on our TVs and see the anarchy. But it took days for that information to penetrate the bubble around President Bush.

None of these people believe they're being self-serving when they put forward some nonsense like "we're kicking ass" in Iraq. Bush thinks it's his job to say stuff like that, and his people think it's their job to enable him to do it with conviction.

Bush's compassion is a free-spinning gear. It turns, but it's not connected to anything. Liberals often look at Bush's policies and speculate that he doesn't feel compassion, that he's totally self-absorbed and can't grasp that people are being hurt. It's more subtle than that. Draper's book is full of stories of his visits to wounded Iraq veterans in the hospital and his conversations with families of dead soldiers. He has strong emotional reactions to those visits. (So much so that sometimes the vets and the families seem to feel like they need to buck him up, not the other way around.) He admits to crying a lot. But somehow he never comes out of those visits thinking "I have to find a way to stop this." The emotion is an end in itself. The only action it leads to is Bush crying.

This pattern didn't start with Iraq. "Compassionate conservatism" has been that way from the beginning. In the old, bad, uncompassionate conservatism, the rich are rich, the poor are poor, and that's just dandy. If the poor had any talent or gumption, they'd be rich. But they don't, so they stay poor and it's their own damn fault. In the new compassionate conservatism, on the other hand, the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, but the rich occasionally think about the poor and feel moved by their plight.

Folks who don't get this dynamic, like David Kuo, feel betrayed by what they see as a lack of follow-up or even as hypocrisy. That's because they started with the misconception that compassion is supposed to motivate you to help people. But the point of compassionate conservatism is to be therapeutic for the conservatives themselves, not for the objects of their compassion. The point is to break the icejam in the conservative heart and let those emotions flow. It's a healthier way to live.

And George W. Bush is nothing if not healthy. He regularly outruns or outbikes the young agents that the Secret Service handpicks to keep up with him. He doesn't drink any more. He watches his weight. He gets to bed by nine, no matter what kind of crisis might be popping somewhere.

He might live to a hundred. Maybe longer. Maybe instead of thinking that he's Churchill, he'll start thinking he's Methuselah and plan to live to be 969. He'll surround himself with people who tell him he can do it. And when he starts failing at 105, he won't admit it. Not because he's afraid of dying, of course, but because it would be too hard for his people to face.


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