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

By Sage Stossel

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.

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.

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