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

How does George W.'s mean streak manifest itself?

It may manifest itself in his follow-through, which in a sense represents a taming of the mean-streak. If you have a goal that requires a certain amount of aggression or a certain amount of confrontation, and if you can pursue that goal over a long period of time, you've obviously got more than a mean streak working for you. But you've got to have the mean streak as the emotional engine that keeps you going.

The classic example is George Washington, who had a terrible temper. All his life he had this temper, from when he was a teenager to when he was President. Much of the personal story of his life is how he reined that in and got control over it. He managed to get so much control over it that Americans today have forgotten that this was one of his qualities. But if he hadn't had it, I don't know whether he would have had the gumption or the staying power to fight an eight-and-a-half-year war against Great Britain or to do any of a number of the other things that he accomplished.

You do point out that Clinton had more of a temper than George W. does.

Well, tantrums are different. That can be petulance.

You consider how Bush's background has shaped his governing style as President. (You explain, for example, that Harvard Business School gave Bush training in pragmatic matters of organization, and that as the son of a former President, he observed first-hand a "notoriously badly run" White House and resolved to do things differently himself.) To what extent do you think that his particular background may be influencing not just his approach to management, but his policies as well? Do his tax policies, for example, which many people say favor the rich, reflect an inability to identify with the less well off?

There are a lot of different backgrounds that can bring you to the position he holds on taxes. When I compare his tax-cutting record to Ronald Reagan's I find the two to be rather similar. And of course Reagan's background was very different. He was the son of a marginally successful shoe salesman. He became quite successful as an actor and as a movie star, but he didn't start out in the kind of privileged world that George W. Bush did. Yet they ended up in a very similar place. Did Reagan's background affect his later tax policies? You could say that it did. People did make that case when he was President. They said that the kind of economics he learned at Eureka College was consonant with what he later did as President. There's also an argument that self-made men look very favorably on opportunities to help other self-made men. All I’m saying is that there are different roots that naturally lead to a low-tax agenda.

Is Bush's low-tax agenda something that's evolved in his thinking over time, or is it something he's consistently advocated since entering politics?

Well, it seems to me that he doesn't advocate it as consistently as he might. When people think of George W. Bush, no one thinks right away about tax cutting. Everyone thought of Ronald Reagan as a tax-cutter, from the 1980 campaign on, because that's just how he presented himself. Bush is not so emphatic about it.

Some of Bush's traits are felt by Americans to be worrisome now that we appear to be on the brink of war. The fact that, as you write, "he does not tolerate, or even recognize, ambiguity" makes people wonder whether this is leading him to handle sensitive foreign-policy issues with dangerous bluntness rather than with finesse. And the fact that his profound religious faith gives him, in the words of Management and Budget Office director Mitchell Daniells, "a certain serenity that history will take care of itself if he pursues the right policies" causes people to worry that he might turn a blind eye to the realities of how things are actually going so long as he's convinced that righteousness is on his side. Do you see those qualities as cause for concern?

There are successful leaders who have felt that righteousness is on their side and there are failures who have thought the same thing. John Quincy Adams, who was not particularly successful as a leader, was an extremely righteous and self-righteous man. He read the Bible every year—some years he'd read it in German or French or Greek, just to get the variety of the different translations. This was a very devout man, and he thought that he understood God's will and that he was on the side of it. During his presidency he had a very rigid way of operating that did not serve him well.

But you can also look at Winston Churchill. He was convinced that the Germans in World War II were wicked. He used the word "wicked," which is a very old-fashioned word. No one uses "wicked" anymore. But Churchill used it all the time. Could he have been as determined as he needed to be in the Battle of Britain if he didn't think that way? Maybe not.

I think one important distinction is that whether or not you recognize ambiguity, you need to recognize complication. You can be very unambiguous about who or what is ultimately right or wrong. But you also need to be able to see that the path toward accomplishing what is right may be challenging. There may be a lot of stages along the way, a lot of choices that have to be made, and many forks in the road. If you don't recognize that, then you're probably going to come to grief.

I was struck by the fact that George W. Bush sees the world in very unambiguous terms, but he also seems to be patient. That's an interesting combination. He has a very clear notion of what the right thing to do is, but he doesn't expect things to happen tomorrow. He understands that the right thing isn't necessarily going to be easy or quick.

But don't many people feel that he's actually being impatient right now in terms of wanting to begin the conflict with Iraq? Is his patience manifested in other ways?

Well, when did he give his speech to the U.N.? That was this fall. It's almost spring now. A number of months have elapsed. And before the speech to the U.N. it had been a year since 9/11. Some of the early reporting after 9/11 suggested that some people in his Administration went to him right away and said, Well, the Iraqis are either connected with this or as good as connected. So, let's move on it. And he didn't right away. The first target was the Taliban regime and then the al Qaeda network. So is he being impatient? I don't see it that way.

You do suggest, though, that patience is somewhat new for him. In fact it struck me that parts of your assessment of the way Bush functions come across a bit like the evaluation of an elementary school child who's slowly working his way through Piaget's developmental stages. You write, for example, that:

Bush knows that following through can require patience. This is new for him: when he was with the Rangers, and in his father's White House, he was just learning patience. Though he may still see the fundamental issues in black and white, he can now wait to achieve his goals.

From your description, it sounds as though he's at the Concrete Operations stage at which, according to the Cognitive Science Dictionary, children "can understand concrete problems," but "cannot yet perform on abstract problems, and … do not consider all of the logically possible outcomes." I'm mostly being facetious, but do you think there's anything to that?

People like you and me tend to assume that someone like him must be a dunce. Right? He hasn't heard of Piaget, so how smart can he be? But there are people in the world who haven't read Piaget and they're smart anyway. That does happen. Obviously Piaget wasn't around in the Washington Administration, but whoever his equivalent was, I'm pretty sure Washington hadn't read him. But Washington does seem to have read Locke's Essay on Human Understanding. Madison gave him a copy of it, and there are some references in Washington's speeches, which suggest that he at least looked at it. Did Washington get all the way through it? I don't know. But I suspect that even after he looked at it, he was not as conversant with Locke's epistemology as Madison would have been. Does that mean he wasn't as smart as Madison? Certainly he wasn't. But in some ways, he was every bit as smart as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and all the college-educated bright boys that he drew around himself.

You write that after September 11, Bush's "strategic and personal clarity" proved to be great assets in galvanizing a focused and effective response. You also write that "he saw, seemingly immediately, that America was in a war, and that fighting it was to be the mission of his life." Should we be concerned that if he sees leading America in a war as the mission of his life, he'll keep looking for new battles, whether they're warranted or not?

Oh, I think there are enough real battles out there. I don't see that as a problem.

You emphasize that his victory over alcohol was a watershed episode in his life that continues to shape his thinking and behavior up the present.

It seems to have been. I was very struck by the parallel with Sam Houston. Bush has said several times that the biography of Sam Houston, The Raven, is one of his favorite books. Like most people not from Texas, I didn't know a lot about Sam Houston. I knew the name and that was about it. So reading this biography of him, I was struck by the fact that both Houston and George W. Bush had alcohol problems. For Houston, it was part of a very acute depression in his life. He married a much younger woman who left him, and he was distraught. He resigned the governorship of Tennessee, moved to Indian territory, and began to drink a lot. The Cherokee Indians among whom he lived even called him Big Drunk. Then after a few years he went to Texas to see if the Cherokees could resettle there. Texas is where he found himself again.

It seemed to me that this is not the kind of lesson George W. Bush could get from his own father. George H.W. Bush never had such an episode in his life. His sons must have seen him as the perfect man—a kind of idealized figure. So, if you're George W. Bush and you have an alcohol problem, who's going to be your inspiration? It can't be your actual father, so you have to find another one somewhere. Here's the father of Texas, who not only has a problem, he has your problem. And he got his act together, so maybe you can too. George W. Bush has never said this. And no one around him said it to me. But as I was reading this book that he says he likes so much the parallel just leapt out at me.

So the book really spoke directly to him?

Yes, I think this part of Houston's biography really did. What Bush says is his favorite story about Sam Houston, though, is a political episode, which occurred during the Secession in 1861. Texas was leaving the Union, and Sam Houston, who was a Unionist, said this was a terrible idea. So he was turned upon by the people of the state. But based on how the Civil War turned out, he was vindicated. That's the kind of parable that Bush says he takes from Houston's life. But to me the more interesting parable for Bush is about the recovery from alcoholism.

That political episode must be resonating with him right now as people question his stance toward Iraq.

Oh, probably. He strikes me as rather inner-directed on the issues that really concern him.

This may be a stretch, but I noticed that in his February 26 speech about bringing democracy to Iraq and fostering peace in the Middle East, he asserted that "Old patterns of conflict in the Middle East can be broken, if all concerned will let go of bitterness, hatred, and violence, and get on with the serious work of economic development, and political reform, and reconciliation." Does his wording suggest to you that he's perhaps looking at this problem through the prism of his own recovery from addiction?

That's interesting. He could be. It's probably wrong to take that too far, though. You can control your own life and your own career to an extent, but if you expect everybody to follow that pattern you set yourself up for disappointment.

What advice would you—as someone who's studied and written about several presidencies—give to Bush and his Administration on how they could be governing more effectively?

I guess my advice would be that you can only accomplish two, maybe three important things. That's really all any President can expect to do. Especially any modern President. It's wise to know that, because it helps you ration your energies. That's advice I would have given to Clinton, to George H.W. Bush, to Reagan, to Millard Filmore, to Franklin Pierce—it goes for everybody.

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.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In