Flashbacks October 2004

Close Up: George W. Bush

Insight into the mind and career of President George W. Bush.
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Few Presidents have been scrutinized in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly as extensively as George W. Bush. In addition to publishing many articles on Bush's policies, the magazine has tackled his time at Yale, his debating style, and, most recently, his approach to Iraq. But it is Richard Brookhiser's "The Mind of George W. Bush," The Atlantic's cover article for April 2003, that perhaps provides most insight into the way he thinks and works. Brookhiser, a biographer of several presidents, suggests that the personalities of most leaders fall into one of several types—"extroverts" like Truman, "ringmasters" like Franklin Roosevelt, or "scholars" like Jefferson. But Bush, he suggests, does not fit easily into any category. He is best defined, in Brookhiser's view, by his humor, his decisiveness, and perhaps above all, by his faith.

Bush, Brookhiser points out, is unique as the first commander-in-chief to hold an M.B.A. Throughout his career, the people-management skills he learned in graduate school have served him well. As a young businessman, for example, despite his lack of expertise in the oil-exploration industry, he was very good at attracting investors to his oil companies. And in 1989, when he bought the Texas Rangers with a group of business partners, he was able not only to drum up public funding for a new stadium but to mollify the competing interests of Dallas and Fort Worth. Years later, when he assumed the presidency, he was able to apply lessons he had learned from observing his father's "notoriously badly run" White House, and thus to safeguard against clashing egos by fostering a spirit of teamwork. "Bush was determined," Brookhiser writes, "not to reproduce the fireworks of his father's staff."

Bush put together a cabinet largely selected from the ranks of his father's and the Ford Administrations—Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice—experienced policy-makers who could be counted on to be "solid junior managers." Aware of his cabinet's extensive experience and of his own comparatively limited experience, he adopted a management approach known as "questioning and listening," in which he solicits opinions from an array of well-informed people and then synthesizes a stance on the issue for himself. Brookhiser points to Bush's deliberation on the question of stem-cell research as an example:

Bush is not a scientist. To address the stem-cell problem, he would have to rely heavily on expert advice. But because he had not had a stem-cell team during the [2000] campaign (the issue was not then in play), he had to create one from scratch. Pro-life lobbyists—people like Darla St. Martin [of the National Right to Life Committee]—were available. The opinions of Republican senators such as Senators Orrin Hatch and Bill Frist (each of whom supported at least some types of stem-cell research) were out there as political givens; the opinion of an iconic figure like Nancy Reagan would have to be taken into account. Bush also turned to academic pro-life ethicists—for example, Leon Kass, of the University of Chicago.

Of course, such methods, Brookhiser notes, are not without their limitations; though Bush regularly consults an array of experts on a given subject, those experts tend to represent a limited political spectrum. "Bush may a free-range animal," Brookhiser writes, but he has a habitat, in which he stays."

Though some observers have criticized Bush's decision-making processes as too instinctual and lacking in nuance—and thus as suggestive of a limited capacity for sophisticated thought, several people who have actually worked with him, such as Newt Gingrich and Senator Charles Schumer (the senior Democrat from New York), told Brookhiser that Bush is a "bright man" with a "considerable capacity to focus." Moreover, though he relies heavily on adviser expertise, he brings to bear a personal clarity when it comes to broad strategic goals.

We do not yet have the benefit of history in judging this President, and many of his policy decisions are not fully played out. It may not be for several more years to come, therefore, that the nature of his legacy will become clear.

"If he prevails [with respect to Iraq]," Brookhiser writes, "Americans will want to understand how he did it. If he fails, he and the decisions that misfired will be disgraced and dismissed."

Benjamin Freed is an intern for The Atlantic Online.
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