The Bush Tragedy

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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George W. Bush may be among the least introspective men ever to hold the presidency. But no worries! There are plenty of volunteers eager to do his self-examination for him.

Here’s Jacob Weisberg: “The president’s inability to master his feelings toward his parents drove decisions with terrible consequences not just for him, cheap but also for America and the world. To state it simply, generic the Bush Tragedy is that the son’s ungovernable relationship with the father ended up governing all of us.”

And here are the Cannons: “George W. Bush, the son of President George H. W. Bush, modeled Ñ or tried to model Ñ his presidency not after his father’s but after Ronald Reagan’s.”

Bush’s own words confirm the Cannons’ claim. Here he is in 2005: “I think if I have had to have a mentor, a public figure that reminded me on a regular basis about the power of freedom and liberty, it would have been Ronald Reagan.”

And, more notoriously, talking to Peggy Noonan in 2001 about his first European tour: “With all due modesty, I think Ronald Reagan would have been proud of how I conducted myself. I went to Europe a humble leader of a great country, and stood my ground. I wasn’t going to yield. I listened, but I made my point.”

For Weisberg, the father-son story caused the failure of the Bush presidency. The Cannons (themselves father and son) suggest that the father-son story is the best measure of the Bush failure. But both books agree that if we want to understand Bush, we have to understand his relationships with the father figures in his life. President Bush himself would dismiss this idea out of hand. But who listens to him anymore? So let’s play along and see: What (if anything) can we learn this way?

The Cannons want us to understand that Reagan was a much more cautious and unideological figure than he is remembered as. Reagan moved often in bite-sized increments, and brokered deals with his opponents.

They could have added: Reagan had an uncanny ability to distance himself from the unpleasant compromises of politics. If the compromises proved popular, he could claim credit for his pragmatism. (See Lebanon, withdrawal from.) If the compromises proved unpopular, well, he had been forced to give way against his own inclinations. (The classic example was the 1982 tax increase Ñ actually, the pair of 1982 tax increases.)

Bush, the Cannons argue, has proven himself dangerously more ambitious than Reagan. Bush began his second term by articulating a vision every bit as encompassing as Kennedy’s Ñ and with similar implications. “We are led, by events and common sense,” Bush said in his second inaugural address, “to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

Yet at the same time, Bush was vulnerably less nimble. They approvingly quote Peter Drucker’s assessment of Reagan: “His great strength was not charisma, as is commonly thought . . . but his awareness and acceptance of what he could do and what he could not do.” And they add their own verdict: “The missing element in George W. Bush’s bold assertions about transformative leadership, refusing to play ‘small-ball,’ and charging valiantly up hills as his hat flies off his head is this: To be effective, let alone great, the chief executive of the United States must convince the American people that the president’s hopes for the future are not just noble, but attainable.”

These opinions, it should be said, are hedged with caveats and provisos. Reagan’s Disciple approaches its thesis by an indirect route. Lou Cannon returns to his roots as a Reagan watcher, recapitulating many of the famous anecdotes from his biographies of the 40th president. Carl Cannon, a famously fair-minded reporter, canvasses and summarizes a wide variety of points of view on the 43rd. The result is a study that will give special pleasure to those who think Reagan great Ñ and George W. Bush . . . not so much so. The Cannons’ point of view often disappears from sight for extended periods under the weight of their own research. Still, they state their final assessment without euphemism: Bush is to Reagan as Mickey Mouse was to the Sorcerer to whom he was apprenticed. They write:

Bush was Reagan’s disciple, to be sure, but he did not face the seminal crises of his administration Ñ especially the Iraq War Ñ with the blend of principle and pragmatism that was the hallmark of Reagan’s dealings with the Soviet Union. We do not fault Bush’s intentions, but noble intentions do not excuse his performance in Iraq or the domestic failures of his second term. Nor do they explain his refusal to learn from his mistakes.

Jacob Weisberg’s essay is as taut and opinionated as the Cannons’ is balanced and discursive. Often unfair, it is never uninteresting Ñ and often acutely perceptive. His method is glorified guesswork, a series of hunches, hypotheses, and speculations. Oftentimes these speculations seem grounded in nothing more than Weisberg’s own dislike for the president: “Bush’s faith was a constructed persona, the projection of a chosen identity rather than a framework for looking at the world. The more inadequate he felt to events, the more deeply he delved into the only religious tradition he had access to, the paltry spirituality of the recovery movement.”

Some judgments, though harsh, do fit the facts:

Despite his MBA training, Bush emphasizes leadership and decision-making to the exclusion of administration and management. He delegates manfully, but doesn’t solicit feedback, evaluate results, or hold people accountable, except in extraordinary circumstances. . . . Bush sees reconsidering decisions or openly changing course as evidence of weak leadership. This stubbornness was born of a success that came from not giving in to his parents’ doubts about him and not listening to their advice. At a temperamental level, the president has almost no ability to accept blame or learn from mistakes. Disagreement, whether from critics or allies, sounds like his mother’s nagging and his father’s disappointment. . . . Disapproval hardens Bush’s conviction that he must be right and reinforces his refusal to surrender. . . . The problem here is pretty obvious: If all criticism is discounted as whining and accepting it equates to personal weakness, how can you ever recognize that you’re wrong?

Other Weisberg insights correspond to first-hand observation: “All this talk of God and guidance, this biblical imagery, must, we imagine, mean something, perhaps tempered to accommodate the strictures of secular leadership. But . . . it doesn’t Ñ it’s mostly resonant speechwriting. . . . To look for a theological motivation [in Bush’s foreign policy] is to fall into the fallacy of thinking that Bush’s oratory is packed with more meaning than it seems to be, when it usually contains less.”

Hostile as it is, The Bush Tragedy reads with the gripping fascination of a lurid magazine profile. At the same time, its judgments have to be handled with extreme care. Weisberg reports stories of Bush’s occasional high-handed treatment of subordinates Ñ not the only president afflicted with that failing, surely. He omits the much larger body of stories one could tell of the president’s compassion, sensitivity, and generosity.

He closely analyzes the Bush-Walker clan’s divided attitude to money, half noblesse oblige, half conspicuous display Ñ in ways that do not do justice to George W. Bush’s notorious indifference to material things. (Has any president ever worn a cheaper watch?)

Most important, Weisberg has not given due importance to the frankest self-explanation Bush himself has ever chosen to put on the record, in an interview recorded by Robert Draper in his book Dead Certain:

And part of being a leader is: People watch you. I walk in that hall, I say to those commanders Ñ well, guess what would happen if I walk in and say, “Well, maybe it’s not worth it.” When I’m out in the public, I fully understand that the enemy watches me, the Iraqis are watching me, the troops watch me, and the people watch me.

The other thing is that you can’t fake it. You have to believe it. And I believe it. I believe we’ll succeed.

Weisberg dismisses this statement as contrived auto-hypnotism. But isn’t it true? And isn’t it something that almost every president ever to wage a war would have agreed with? And isn’t it maybe essential to the reason that the war in Iraq, a war Weisberg also once supported, looks so much better today than it did a year ago?

Weisberg acknowledges toward the end of his book that history’s verdict on Bush may be less emphatic than his own. He protests, however, that “Bush cannot hide his mistakes behind the unknowability of future judgment.” That’s true so far as it goes. But someday that future judgment will be known. And when such knowledge arrives, one has to wonder whether the personal flaws and family foibles to which Weisberg devotes so much analytic energy will continue to seem central to the grand narrative of our times.

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