Interviews March 2003

What Makes W. Tick?

The historian and journalist Richard Brookhiser weighs in on George W. Bush—his management style, his mean streak, his religiosity, and his recovery from alcoholism

When George W. Bush took office in January 2001, amidst controversy over the election that had put him there, it was generally assumed that his presidency would not be an especially memorable one. After all, the picture of Bush that had emerged from the preceding campaign was not impressive. Many saw him as a privileged, none-too-bright underachiever with a shaky command of both national and international affairs.

It quickly became clear, however, that Bush would lead with greater authority than had been anticipated as he set about promoting a conservative agenda on Social Security, taxes, energy production, reproductive rights, education, and faith-based services.

When terrorists struck in September, Bush again defied expectations, reacting with composure and a focused determination to root out the forces that had assaulted America. When he sent troops into Afghanistan to quash the Taliban's terrorist breeding ground, the international community rallied around him, and his domestic approval rating soared.

But more than a year later, national and international sentiment regarding George W. Bush has soured in many quarters. The conviction with which he vowed to pursue America's enemies now strikes some observers as worrisome rather than reassuring. And as he relentlessly presses forward with plans to remove Saddam Hussein from power—ignoring pleas from American allies and citizens for peaceful disarmament, and apparently impervious to the jittery effect the threat of war is having on the American economy—many wonder whether his tenacity reflects the courageousness of a visionary leader aware that decisive action is necessary though unpopular, or the foolhardy obsession of a man bent on vengeance.

With a view to gaining a coherent sense of how this controversial leader thinks and functions, the journalist and historian Richard Brookhiser spent several months interviewing those who have known or worked with Bush, assessing his policy decisions, surveying his pre-presidential experience, and pondering some of Bush's more reflective statements about himself. In "The Mind of George W. Bush" (April 2003 Atlantic) he shares his conclusions.

Brookhiser assures readers that despite Bush's bumbling lack of speaking ability, he is a reasonably intelligent man and an excellent manager. Having studied organizational techniques at Harvard Business School and having had the opportunity to observe and learn from his father's mistakes in the White House, Bush now directs his team with assured deftness. He asks his staff good questions, listens attentively, sizes people up quickly and accurately, and makes use of an informal, bantering style to diffuse tension and foster camaraderie. He neither micro-manages nor delegates tasks to the point of losing track of what's going on, but turns responsibility over to appropriate parties, checking in regularly to monitor progress.

Also see:

Sage, Ink: "It's a Bad, Bad, Bad, Bad World"
(February 2002)
A cartoon by Sage Stossel.

What some readers may find less reassuring, however, is the fact that, as Brookhiser explains, Bush's worldview is extremely rigid, circumscribed by the good-versus-evil religious convictions to which he has adhered since his recovery from alcoholism seventeen years ago. "Practically," Brookhiser writes, "Bush's faith means that he does not tolerate, or even recognize, ambiguity: there is an all-knowing God who decrees certain behaviors, and leaders must obey." While this clear-cut belief structure enables him to make split-second decisions and take action with principled confidence, it also means that he is limited by "strictly defined mental horizons."

Abstract, imaginative thinking, Brookhiser emphasizes, is not the President's strong suit. And though Bush does take care to draw upon the counsel of intelligent, informed advisors, each with a different point of view, those varying viewpoints tend to fall only within a range of perspectives that reflect his pre-existing inclinations.

Bush may be a free-range animal, but he has a habitat, in which he stays. If he needs to know some facts that his advisers don't know, he can discover them. But if he needs to think some thoughts that they can't, he may have a hard time doing it.

Consider Saudi Arabia. To a moderate liberal like Powell, Saudi Arabia seems to be a non-radical Arab state, possibly a partner in resolving the Israel-Palestine issue. Moderate conservatives like Cheney and Rumsfeld would remember it as a strategic partner during the Cold War and the Gulf War. Texans would think of the Saudis as fellow oilmen. But if the Saudis, in addition to being these things, are breeders of terrorists and bankrollers of anti-American ideology worldwide, how will Bush's advisers help him see that? They generally won't—and generally haven't.

Brookhiser refrains from passing judgment, however. Ultimately, he argues, how history views the presidency of George W. Bush will depend on how things pan out in Iraq.

If virtue can be unappreciated, so can mediocrity be overpraised. Bush's approval rating after 9/11 was sky-high, but we must wait for the long run to see how effective his decision-making is. The verdict of history will settle the questions of Bush's mind. If he prevails, Americans will want to understand how he did it. If he fails, he and the decisions that misfired will be disgraced and dismissed.

Richard Brookhiser has written biographies of George Washington, four generations of Adamses (John, John Quincy, Charles, and Henry), and Alexander Hamilton. His book Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution, will be published in June.

We spoke by telephone on March 3.

—Sage Stossel

You explain that to write your analysis of Bush you talked to "insiders and outsiders, higher-ups and lower-downs, who have known him in a variety of circumstances." Despite the variety of people you consulted, you say that the impression they gave you—of Bush as a quick decision-maker with firm convictions, strong religious faith, a disarming tendency to banter, and a black-and-white perception of the world—was extremely consistent. How much variation was there in how the people you spoke with felt about him personally? Did people generally feel warmly toward him or was there anyone who felt misused by him and bitter?

I knew that those who are still working for the White House would probably say they feel warmly toward him no matter what, so I didn't even ask that question. I wasn't so much interested in their feelings anyway. I was trying to get them to be analytical. What was interesting was that not just the people who work for him now but also the people who no longer work for him and haven't worked for him for a long time all seem to have the exact same sense of what he's like.

That consistency was one of the few factors that made the piece doable. It was hard to write, because Bush lacks a lot of obvious handles that journalists and historians look for in their subjects. You look for subjects who are flamboyant rather than plain, because they're easier to describe; you look for subjects who are well-spoken rather than inarticulate, because they're easier to quote; and you look for subjects who have conflicts rather than subjects who don't, because that gives you something to talk about. With respect to each of those factors, Bush is difficult. He's not well-spoken, he's not flamboyant, and he doesn't seem to have a lot of conflicting impulses. But the fact that he's so consistent at least gave me a chance to get a fix on him.

When people talk about their interactions with Bill Clinton, they usually describe having been utterly magnetized by his charisma or put off by what they perceive as smarminess.

Or some combination of both. There are a lot of people who served him, who admire him, who think he's very talented, but who shake their heads over this or that aspect of his personality.

And Bush doesn't evoke such strong reactions?

He doesn't seem to be quite so high-affect a character.

Did you have any preconceived views about Bush before you started focusing on him as a subject?

I didn't have many preconceptions. I didn't know him. I knew his father a little bit. I had written speeches for his father for about six months in 1982 when he was Vice President. That was a mid-term election period, and Bush's staff took on some extra speechwriters because he was going to do a lot of campaigning for Republican congressional candidates. I was one of those added speechwriters. It wasn't a very close association but I did get to see him somewhat during the course of that campaign. I had some feelings about him. As for his son, I didn't have a lot of strong reactions. He was not my favorite candidate in the 2000 Republican primaries.

I come to this with two hats. I'm both a historian and a journalist. I write about dead politicians and about live ones. As a journalist, I work for The National Review, which is a conservative journal of opinion. That's my vantage point on the political world. When Governor Bush was running for President, he seemed like a fairly conservative figure, but I wasn't sure how conservative. I did not feel the kind of emotional pull toward him that I had felt for Ronald Reagan or that older conservatives had felt years back for Barry Goldwater. So I had a certain distance that persisted through the early days of his Administration. September 11 did change that as it changed so many things, but I think I came to this piece from a pretty good vantage point for doing a fair portrayal. I didn't hate the guy, but I wasn't in love with him either.

How did your views about him change after 9/11?

Well, it became a war and he became a war leader. One has a lot more positive—not necessarily rational—emotions toward such a figure. But the standards for measuring him also become much higher, because if a peace-time leader blows it, there's only so much damage he can do. If a war-time leader blows it, it's a lot more serious.

What were your feelings toward his father?

Not positive. I think George H. W. Bush is a very decent man. I think he's a very earnest man. I think he did some good things as President, and some of those things were not easy to do. The comedian Jackie Mason had a line he used to say about Ronald Reagan—that the presidency was not his field. I don't think that was true of Reagan, but I do think it's true of several other Presidents. I think it was true of John Quincy Adams, for example. I also think that in many ways it's true of George H. W. Bush. He's a very public-spirited man and has had a long and honorable career in public service. But some people simply aren't naturally suited to the top job.

So would you say that the younger Bush is better suited to the position than his father was?

Well, we'll know the answer to that when the war is over, and that could be a long time from now. But it's possible that he is. George W. Bush has a mean streak, which his father did not have. I think a leader has to have a mean streak. If he lets it dominate him, that's a bad thing. But it has to be there somewhere.

Presented by

Sage Stossel is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." She is author/illustrator of the graphic novel Starling, and of the children's books  On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC. More

On Election Day in 1996, launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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