Close Up: The Mind of George W. Bush

The decisions—about Iraq, about Korea, about fighting terrorism—that confrontthis U.S. President may turn out to be as momentous as any an American leader has faced in decades. What capacities does President Bush bring to his decision-making? What limitations hamper his judgment? The author, a journalist and a historian, speaks with people close to the President and probes his private life and public career. Bush is, he concludes, focused, quick to make decisions, persevering, a good judge of character, and yes, "smart enough" to be an effective President. The unknown quantity is imagination—the imagination to foresee consequences, the imagination to be a wartime President
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The powers of the presidency have changed almost beyond recognition since the infancy of the office, when foreign relations were handled by a dozen clerks and diplomats, the armed forces consisted of several thousand soldiers and sailors, and the President himself took months-long summer vacations from the yellow-fever-ravaged capital of Philadelphia or Washington, D.C.

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One pattern of presidential decision-making was established early on, however. The process is determined not by the office but by who holds it. The first President, George Washington, a veteran officer and a lifelong performer, led from the front; his decisions, clear and direct, were announced—if not made—in public. Thomas Jefferson, the third President, had a different style; a century and a half before the political scientist Fred I. Greenstein coined the phrase "hidden-hand presidency" to describe Dwight D. Eisenhower's time in office, Jefferson operated behind a screen of reticence, dinner-table charm, and the feints of congressional front men. The first Presidents also pioneered different ways of taking advice before making decisions. Washington weighed the counsel of often quarrelsome advisers, chiefly Jefferson, his Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton, his Treasury Secretary; John Adams, the second President, dealt with a Cabinet that was positively mutinous by firing half its members in his last year in office. In this area, too, Jefferson introduced a new model: the men around him all sang from the same page. His most important advisers—James Madison, at the State Department, and Albert Gallatin, at the Treasury—had worked with him and each other for years, and harmonized in ideology and temperament.

Presidents do not choose from a number of complete decision-making models but gravitate toward one pole or the other on a variety of axes. The axis of presenting decisions gives us extroverts (Truman—"the buck stops here") or hidden hands (Van Buren, who "rowed to his object with muffled oars"). The axis of advice-taking gives us ringmasters presiding over an endless circus (FDR) or unifiers who deplore or even hate conflict (Nixon). There are Presidents who take in information and assign tasks through an orderly, hierarchical structure (Eisenhower named the first chief of staff), and those who position themselves at the center of converging spokes of counsel (Clinton). There is an axis of learning, which runs from Presidents who seek frankly for guidance to Presidents who know everything to begin with. (Jefferson was considered a polymath—though some weren't so sure. John Quincy Adams, then a senator, heard Jefferson tell White House dinner guests that he had learned Spanish in only nineteen days, using a grammar and a copy of Don Quixote. "But," Adams wrote in his diary, "Mr. Jefferson tells large stories.") No extreme on any axis guarantees success; there are heroes and dogs at either end of each one. The axis of mental health, along which are ranged the serene (Ford) and the tormented (Nixon again), might seem to be an exception—until we remember the deep depressions of Abraham Lincoln. The possible permutations have yielded almost as many kinds of decision-makers as we have had Presidents.

George W. Bush, No. 43, is not an easy man to write about. He is not contradictory, not flamboyant, and not well-spoken. He thus deprives reporters, as he will deprive historians, of three of the handles—conflict, gestures, words—they automatically reach for to describe their subjects. It is possible, though, to figure out how Bush makes decisions. Nothing reveals a man's mind, especially the mind of a man who is not articulate, better than the decisions he makes. Here his very consistency helps. To write this article I talked to insiders and outsiders, higher-ups and lower-downs, who have known him in a variety of circumstances: in Texas and in Washington, in business and in government. Their collective portrait was not of a Jekyll and Hyde sort; by and large everything they said fit together. Even when, in my view, almost all of them were mistaken in their reading of the man, they were mistaken in the same way. The picture of Bush deciding is as close as we can easily come to Bush's mind.

President George W. Bush came to office with a particular package of traits and experiences. His two most obvious personal traits are humor and seriousness.

Bush's humor was most in evidence during his campaign and in his early days in the White House. It was not universally admired: Bush has no ability to bathe a crowd in a delighted glow, as Ronald Reagan could. Yet almost all who deal with him, from loyal associates to unsympathetic reporters, testify that one-on-one he is a funny man. Evidently you have to be there. When Bush, speaking to the journalist Tucker Carlson, jeered at the condemned murderer Karla Faye Tucker's plea for clemency (Carlson's description: "'Please,' Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, 'don't kill me'"), you didn't want to be there.

Journeys With George, the home movie that the journalist Alexandra Pelosi shot with a camcorder on Bush's plane during the 2000 campaign, may have been the first treatment that conveyed his humor to outsiders. Bush got into the spirit of Pelosi's project and mugged without pretension—or shame. The movie shows how Bush makes his humor work for him: he charmed Pelosi and put her at her ease; he also subtly put Pelosi's colleagues, who were giving her a bit of a hard time during the campaign, in their place (they didn't get the next President in a home movie).

Bush uses his humor when he makes decisions. Any officeholder transforms those who come into contact with him, and this is especially true of a President. He is not just a person; he is power. But Bush, one journalist says, "gets you to relax so much you say what you know, not what you think he wants to hear." Another way of putting this is that Bush uses his humor to lower the bar for himself, and thus makes others lower their guard. The White House political adviser Karl Rove, when I asked him to compare his boss to other Presidents, mentioned Eisenhower on the grounds that both men had a "wiliness about being underestimated." Like Ike, Bush knows that low expectations work to his advantage. Eisenhower used geniality and opaque rhetoric to make people think less of him. Bush clowns.

Finally, Bush's humor helps him maintain control over his aides. "He keeps people in their place in a friendly way," says Mitchell Daniels, the director of the Office of Management and Budget. "There are no self-seekers in this group; the general ethos is one that would discourage that." Condoleezza Rice, Bush's National Security Advisor, says, "He will kid people, tease people." One of the ways he teases the earnest Rice is to call her a mother hen.

Bush's seriousness became evident after 9/11, but the signs were there earlier for those who looked. By any normal standard Bush has led a charmed life: he was born to wealth and prominence, and has carved out an even larger share. He did have a problem, however. Though Bush does not use the A-word, he drank as a young man. Then, at age forty, he stopped. Bill Clinton also had a life touched by addiction—his stepfather's drinking, his half brother's drugs. During the 1992 campaign Clinton presented these encounters to Joe Klein and other journalists as Baby Boomer, Al-Anon growth experiences. Bush may think of his own escape somewhat differently.

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