More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly | March 2003
he 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.
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
by Richard Brookhiser
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.
resident 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.
During the 2000 election each candidate was asked to name a favorite book. Gore said The Red and the Black, by Stendhal. Bush often said The Raven, by Marquis James—a 1930 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Sam Houston that was last reissued in the 1980s. It is a lushly written biography of the old school, a colorful look at a colorful subject. Houston, of course, is the founding father of Texas—the man who beat Santa Anna at San Jacinto. Houston is still a presence in Austin: he occupied the present governor's mansion when he held the office, at the end of his career. (He is also a presence in Midland, Texas, where Bush grew up: the young George attended Sam Houston Elementary School and San Jacinto Junior High School.) One of Bush's favorite stories about Houston concerns the crisis of the last years of his life, when the governor, a staunch Unionist, refused to take a loyalty oath to the Confederacy. Houston's office was declared vacant, and after he left the state capitol, a crowd showered him with abuse. The lesson Bush draws from that story is the fickleness of instant verdicts and the importance of doing the right thing. It is a tale of heroic principle and of virtue rewarded in the long run: the political nadir of Houston's life became a high point in the judgment of history.
But what may have been equally meaningful to Bush was Houston's personal nadir. In 1829 Houston, then thirty-five, a protégé of Andrew Jackson, and the governor of Tennessee, married a young belle who left him after three months. Houston's reaction was dramatic: he resigned from office, moved to Indian territory (what is now Arkansas), joined the Cherokee nation, and married a part-Cherokee woman. Always a heavy drinker, he began to drink spectacularly. Alexis de Tocqueville ran into Houston during this period; the deracinated wastrel struck him as one of the "unpleasant consequences of popular sovereignty." Yet after three lost years Houston moved to Texas, where he found himself. The victory over alcohol and despair was transformative, and it set the stage for political greatness. Believing that victory over yourself can make you great doesn't mean that you will be; but it sets a goal.
ush also came to the White House with two kinds of experience—in business and in politics. He attended Harvard Business School from 1973 to 1975, making him the only modern President to have had such training. (Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush ran businesses, but neither went to business school.)
An important effect of going to business school is that it may keep one from going to law school—an especially important effect these days, when so many people in government have legal training. Many law schools and business schools, including Harvard's, use the case method, requiring students to work through historic trials or the problems of actual companies. But they use the method differently. Law school accustoms future lawyers to discerning theoretical constructs, either in past decisions or in legal principles, and applying them to the case at hand. Business school immerses future businessmen in the histories of specific companies, in order to develop problem-solving abilities. Law school worships understanding, business school worships skill. Law-school students scrutinize what has been done. If business-school students don't quite learn by doing, they learn how things have been done. Typical of the Harvard Business School's ethos is a line from the textbook Business Policy, by C. Roland Christensen, et al., about company presidents: in "the incomparably detailed confusion of a national company" the role and function of a president "cannot possibly be made clear [by] generalization." In a famous lecture at Harvard, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. declared that "the life of the law" was not logic but experience. These days the business school is actually truer to Holmes's dictum than the law school is.
The aspect of business that most interested Bush was organization. One of his favorite courses, according to Bill Minutaglio, the author of First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty, was Human Organization and Behavior. A classmate remembered him as being "pretty concerned about how organizations worked and how people worked in those organizations." When the country was smaller, Presidents did much of the job themselves—writing their own speeches, dispensing patronage, even leading troops (Washington in the Whiskey Rebellion, Madison in the War of 1812). Now that the job requires layers of underlings, and the White House is like a company, a course like the one Bush took is no bad preparation.
After Harvard, Bush went into the oil-exploration business, founding Arbusto Energy, a small company. He was so-so at finding oil, better at selling his business to progressively larger firms. He acquired additional managerial responsibility when he and a group of partners bought the Texas Rangers, in 1989.
Critics have portrayed Bush's stint with the Rangers as the result of a favor to a politically connected young man by the real movers and shakers (the partners put up $46 million, of which Bush contributed only $600,000, largely raised from his oil-business stock). Not surprisingly, the movers and shakers don't see it that way.
Bush's role was to act as Mr. Outside, handling the team's political and public-relations problems. There was a lot for him to do. In order to move from the converted minor-league park in which they were playing, the Rangers had to persuade the town of Arlington, Texas, located midway between Dallas and Fort Worth, to build them a modern stadium, using the revenue from a half-cent increase in the sales tax. The Rangers also had to balance the interests of those twin cities, which hate each other. Bush had "fabulous instincts," Richard Gilder, one of the co-owners, recalls. "He wants to be liked, so he studies people." The reason offered is inadequate; lots of people, from movie stars to unhappy teenagers, want to be liked yet do not study people. Bush, however, paid attention to those he dealt with. He had to overcome a natural impatience. "If he wasn't running the meetings," Gilder says, "which he wasn't, he couldn't really sit still. But he became a good listener. He's not a ball hog."
Bush had already tested his business-school education in his first important political job—helping his father during the campaign for President in 1988. After the elder Bush won, his son continued to act as an adviser. Bush is "the only President with functional experience of being a White House staffer," as David Frum, a former speechwriter, told me. "Vice Presidents may know how the very top of the staff system works," Frum says, but Bush operated at a lower level, albeit with a peerless pipeline to the top. (Access is power, as the Republican strategist Lee Atwater told him.) John Quincy Adams, the only other President to have training as a presidential son, also advised his father, but he could not observe John Adams's management techniques firsthand: the son spent his father's presidency in Europe, as a diplomat, and the two communicated only by letter.
George W. Bush got to observe a White House that was notoriously badly run. The chief of staff for much of the elder Bush's term was John Sununu, the former governor of New Hampshire, who had been given the job in gratitude for his crucial support at the time of the 1988 primaries. Sununu was intelligent but abrasive and willful, picking fights with legislators and journalists: he called one Republican senator, who opposed a budget deal, "insignificant," and publicly accused a Washington Post reporter at a ceremonial bill signing of being a liar. Sununu also tried to shape policy—the great temptation for chiefs of staff, who are supposed to be honest brokers between competing policy advisers but to remain neutral themselves. He did not want to be liked, and he did not study people. When the elder Bush, floundering in the face of a poor economy, decided that Sununu had to go, George W. Bush went to deliver the terminal hint. He told Sununu at the end of November 1991 that he had lost his political support. In the first Bush White House even firings went amiss: Sununu did not take the hint, and had to be asked by the President himself to step aside. (Eleven years later, when the prospective Senate majority leader Trent Lott was going down in flames for praising Senator Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat past, the fatal hint bearer was the President's brother Jeb. Lott responded, either because he had better hearing than Sununu or because the President himself had already given an unmistakable hint when he said that Lott had apologized "and rightly so.")
George W. Bush's first direct experience of political management came when he was elected governor of Texas, in 1994. The main lesson of his tenure in Austin was the importance of focusing on a handful of issues. During the 1995 legislative session these were education reform, welfare, tort law, and the juvenile-justice system. During his second term, in 1999, he pushed for parental notification in cases of abortions requested by minors, and for a tax cut. These issues, when packaged together and presented by Karl Rove, would nicely facilitate a run for the White House. Ralph Reed, the boyish former head of the Christian Coalition, who first met Bush during his Rangers days, was struck by how "focused" and "disciplined" he was as governor.
The governorship of Texas, however, scarcely allows those who hold it to get much done otherwise. It is a figurehead office, a bully pulpit that confers little power. The legislature, which meets only every other year, takes its cues from the independently elected lieutenant governor. The man who held that job during most of Bush's tenure was Bob Bullock, a conservative Democrat. Bush met with Bullock during the 1994 campaign, and they hit it off. David Guenthner, who edits The Lone Star Report, a conservative newsletter that criticized Governor Bush for his tax policies, says that Bullock had a large role in setting Bush's priorities. "Bullock told him, Here's what you can get done, here's what you can't get done, here's what you don't even try," Guenthner says. "Real cynics say that Bush embraced the agenda Bullock gave him. I would not go so far." Bush wanted to establish what he could realistically hope to accomplish when he took office. He also saw that Bullock was at loggerheads with the incumbent governor, Ann Richards, a liberal Democrat. Clearly, for reasons of both policy and politics, Bullock was a man worth studying. Governor Bush was not a dynamic leader, but he was effective because he saw the lay of the land and judged how to traverse it.
ush became President after one of the most bollixed-up presidential elections in American history (interestingly, two other notorious elections, in 1800 and 1824, involved the other father-son presidential pair). How has what he learned from business school, from his father's White House, from his corporate experiences, and from the Texas statehouse been serving him now that he is the nation's chief executive?
Following are the markers of Bush's decision-making in the White House so far—the traits he has shown and the factors he pays attention to.
Thriftiness with time. Bush begins meetings promptly and runs them briskly, starts and ends his days early, and sets aside time to spend at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. His promptness is partly for public consumption. According to one aide, he often says, "It is important that the President be on time. When I come on time, that shows people I respect them, and that shows discipline."
The discipline is even more important to him. "He feels the fleeting of the presidency, which is made up of a certain number of minutes," Frum says. "That doesn't mean cramming them all with business. You have to sleep, exercise, and keep your relationships functioning well enough to keep you sane. But then there are only so many minutes left over. Every time you let someone ramble [in a meeting], you destroy a minute." All Presidents have limited time in office—John Quincy Adams wrote of the job's "perpetual motion"—and they all recognize this fact intermittently. "The key to discipline," Frum adds, "is recognizing it all the time."
The team. Newt Gingrich, formerly speaker of the House and now a consultant, has an avid interest in both history and management; when he gave a reading list to the Republican freshmen of the 104th Congress, half the books were on American history (the Federalist Papers, Tocqueville) and half were on management techniques. "Bush," he says, "has a very disciplined sense of himself as a team leader." Rove agrees. "I had read [the management guru] Peter Drucker, but I'd never seen Drucker until I saw Bush in action." What do these buzzwords—"team leader," "Drucker"—mean in practice?
Bush was determined not to reproduce the fireworks of his father's staff. "The people who control the channels of communication [in the new Bush White House]," Frum says, "have their egos carefully under control. They have fewer psychodramas than any staff since the invention of staffs." The average newspaper-reading non-political junkie may not even know the name of Bush's chief of staff (Andrew Card). That is just fine by Bush.
Bush's advisers do not rat each other out in public. Rove says, "People told me before I went to Washington that the White House would be a snake pit. Leaking and backbiting just come with the territory." But, he claims, Bush's advisers "can go to the Oval Office and advocate a perspective diametrically opposed to the point of view of the person on the sofa across from [them]." If the decision goes against you, Rove says, "you can link arms and go on, and be certain that your [losing] view won't appear in the paper." He adds, in a nod to the human condition: "Or at least be reasonably certain."
The men and women Bush has put in positions of substance are either Texans, like Rove, or veterans of the first Bush Administration or the Ford Administration. In picking Richard Cheney to be his Vice President, Bush made another correction of his father, who chose Senator Dan Quayle as a running mate. Quayle was picked for his youth. He turned out to be a man of ideas, but his penchant for flubs made him seem more callow than energetic. Cheney was picked for his experience, which was thought to outweigh even the risks of his heart condition.
The reach back to the Ford Administration, in the persons of Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, is interesting, because Gerald Ford learned the value of a good team only on the job. He took office, after Nixon's resignation, promising to be his own chief of staff. But the storm that followed his pardon of Nixon, which was caused in part by the abrupt manner in which the pardon was announced, showed him the error of his ways. The first chief of staff Ford chose after acknowledging his mistake was Rumsfeld; when Rumsfeld became Secretary of Defense for the first time, Ford replaced him with Cheney. Significantly, Bush largely passed over the Reagan Administration in his talent search (Colin Powell began his ascent under Reagan but came into his own under the elder Bush). Reagan's inner circle was divided between true believers and convictionless operators. Bush wanted solid junior managers.
Q&L. Bush manages his team by questioning and listening. After he has put people at ease with his humor and his low-key manner, Bush wants information. Robert D. Kaplan, an Atlantic correspondent, whom Bush has questioned about the Balkans and the Near East, says that Bush "never asked a question that got the conversation off track." Talking with Bush, Kaplan says, is the opposite of punditry. "Guests on talk shows are asked things they can't possibly know. Some retired officer will be asked 'Will Saddam Hussein go to war?' Bush is different. He doesn't get into global bull sessions; he wants your knowledge."
Bush wants your knowledge even if you disagree with him. Darla St. Martin, an officer of the National Right to Life Committee, who was introduced to Bush in 1988 by Lee Atwater, sees this trait from the vantage of her special interest. "On abortion, his father has one view [pro-life] and his mother has another [pro-choice]. That may be a reason he respects people even if he disagrees with them."
Bush is capable of stirring things up. "He can listen to a roomful of consensus and say no," Mitchell Daniels, of the OMB, says. "He's often roughest when things seem too neat and pre-packaged. He will ask [the opinion of] a person who hasn't spoken up. You better be ready with a point of view." Rice agrees: "He'll say something to provoke." During the war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan he pressed his advisers relentlessly asking, "If we don't have victory by winter, what do we do?" Ralph Reed says that "some people don't want to hear what they don't want to hear," but Bush is different. "I don't know where it comes from. I've been doing this a long time. I know it's unusual."
The issue of stem-cell research, which came at Bush fast, fueled by the pace of technological innovation, offers a good case study of his open Q&L style. In 1996 Congress passed the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a pro-life measure that barred the federal government from funding research in which human embryos were destroyed (strict pro-lifers view embryos as persons, just like fetuses, newborns, and the ailing old). In 1999 the Clinton Administration's Department of Health and Human Services interpreted the amendment to mean that the federal government could fund research on embryos as long as private money paid for their destruction. By the time Bush was inaugurated, in January of 2001, scientists were arguing that experiments on embryonic stem-cell tissue could help to find cures for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. They were joined by a chorus of relatives of the afflicted, including Nancy Reagan, and by many otherwise pro-life Republican lawmakers, who saw such research as an opportunity to do good.
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 campaign (the issue was not then in play), he had to create one from scratch. Pro-life lobbyists—people like Darla St. Martin—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.
In August of 2001 Bush revealed his thoughts in a televised speech from Crawford. He announced that he would create a President's Council on Bioethics, headed by Kass. The presidential council or commission is traditionally a place to send awkward decisions and unwelcome responsibilities. But Bush's speech gave the council clear guidelines on stem-cell research.
Bush acknowledged the benefits that researchers sought, and the utilitarian calculations that would allow them to seek those benefits. If frozen embryos "are going to be destroyed anyway," he said, "shouldn't they be used for a greater good?" But he rejected a proposal by Bill Frist that federally funded research be allowed on certain newly destroyed embryos. In Bush's view, embryos fell within the definition of human life—"a sacred gift from our creator." He decided, however, that the federal government could rightly fund research on existing stem-cell lines, "where the life-and-death decision has already been made." Some pro-lifers were not happy with this exception: the National Conference of Catholic Bishops called it "morally unacceptable." But Bush would not try to fix what he viewed as mistakes of the past; he would only try to prevent new ones.
"Many people," Bush said, "are finding that the more they know about stem-cell research, the less certain they are about the right ethical and moral conclusions." The puzzlement that Bush imputed to "many people" clearly reflected his own process of sorting through the issue. He had assembled a team of advisers, from his world but as sophisticated as possible; he had considered their (conflicting) counsel; and he had found a clear, though not universally popular, position. Another President might have ducked the problem by following the emerging consensus of the country, or of his own base. Bush handled it like a manager—staffing it out and then making his own decision.
"Instinct." Almost everyone calls Bush an instinctive decision-maker, including Bush himself. In an interview for Bush at War, Bob Woodward's 2002 sketch of the defeat of the Taliban, Bush told Woodward, "I'm not a textbook player. I'm a gut player." Both Bush and his aides tend to exalt instinct; this propensity can seem like a rationalization, a cover for his lack of more obvious qualifications, such as intellect conventionally measured.
Bush's pre-presidential experience was limited in one obvious way: he had no knowledge of the world, though that is an occupational hazard of governors. Unlike Vice Presidents, congressmen, or generals who have fought foreign enemies, governors know their states and Washington, little else. Governors of Texas are more worldly than most, because they must deal with Mexico and Mexican immigrants, and during Bush's presidential campaign his advisers argued, with straight faces, that this was experience enough. It is a limitation that American voters seem to be comfortable with, since three of the past four Presidents—Carter, Reagan, and Clinton—came to the White House from statehouses.
It is easy for Bush supporters to construct a counter-mythology of brainy men who have been bad Presidents and less brainy ones who have been excellent. In the former category fall both Adamses and James Madison; for evidence of the latter they can cite Oliver Wendell Holmes's quip about FDR ("second-class intellect ... first-class temperament") or Aaron Burr's judgment of Washington ("One who could not spell a sentence of common English").
Gingrich cuts through the instinct talk. "Bush has thought systematically about leaders his whole life," he says, "and he has a very wide repertoire of experiences." When Bush encounters new people or situations, Gingrich says, "he cues off things he probably doesn't even remember" from past experiences. Gingrich offers Bush's favorable judgment of Russian President Vladimir Putin as an example of his ability to size someone up rapidly. Better to say that he is not an instinctive decider but a fast one.
Providence. In one debate among Republican hopefuls during the 2000 election cycle the candidates were asked to pick a political philosopher important to their lives. Steve Forbes, who answered first, named John Locke, and explained why he thought Locke was important. Bush, who answered after Forbes, picked Jesus Christ, saying, "He changed my heart." A couple of the remaining Republicans began their answers by testifying that they, too, thought highly of Jesus.
It was a moment made for H. L. Mencken, but it exposed, not for the first time, a truth about Bush: he did not give up drink at age forty by himself; he believes he had the help of Jesus. He continues to believe that life is ruled and sustained by God.
Bush's faith makes "his sense of history very hard for secular intellectuals to understand," according to Gingrich. Given the care with which his associates discuss his beliefs, there must be a lot of secular intellectuals in the Bush Administration. "The great mystery in his decision-making," Frum says, "is the role of religion. When Bush says, 'I'll pray on this,' it's not a figure of speech." Mitchell Daniels believes that faith gives Bush "a certain serenity," as if he trusts that "history will take care of itself if he pursues the right policies." Daniels is "tempted," he says, to call the force that Bush sees guiding history "Providence," but he is reluctant to do so: "I wouldn't want anyone to over-read [the word]," he says. Bush's well-wishers—at least those who are not as aggressive as Gingrich—worry that if they speak bluntly about his faith, it will put people in mind of the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. Bush is not a culture warrior like many conservatives of that period, who thanked God for their enemies. But he is blunt, and specific, about his faith. "Providence" might strike him as too indefinite a word, smacking of the gentlemanly theological evasions of the Anglo-American Enlightenment (of John Locke, for instance).
Practically, 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. Such beliefs, however much they may alienate him from opinion-makers, are part of his bond with one other leader—the devout Anglican Tony Blair.
Follow-through. One of the most important aspects of making a decision is making sure that it is carried out.
Bush believes in what is known in business as single-point accountability. "He does not want to know that a committee or a consortium is working together to coordinate a solution," Daniels says. "He wants one organization, or one person, to have responsibility; he wants to know who he can call. I can't tell you how alien this is to the federal government, which is marvelous at evading it."
To monitor the people or organizations responsible, Bush keeps track of certain details—ideally, not so many that he becomes a micro-manager, but enough to keep those he is managing alert. From 9/11 until January of 2002 many officials who had no direct connection to the war on terror lost contact with Bush. When he began meeting with them again, he had "a stream of informed questions about the innards of their departments," Daniels recalls. "He makes it his business to know a little bit about everything."
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. "He gives things time to work," Rice says. "He understands, probably better than his advisers, that there is a rhythm to things."
Bush's decision to withdraw from the ABM treaty, and the way he put that decision into effect, provide an archetypal example of his relentless follow-through. The treaty was a three-decades-old arrangement designed to ensure the mutual vulnerability of the superpowers during the Cold War. Conservatives had opposed it since the Reagan Administration, because it prevented all but basic research on Star Wars technology. Bush shared their opposition. How would he act on it?
In September of 1999 candidate Bush laid down a personal marker in a speech at the Citadel. He pledged that he would "defend the American people against missiles and terror" and that he would "at the earliest possible date ... deploy anti-ballistic missile systems ... to guard against attack and blackmail." He would propose amendments to the ABM treaty to permit this, but if Russia refused them, he would give notice, as the treaty allowed, that the United States would pull out.
Once Bush was elected, he put strong proponents of missile defense in key positions—Rice at the National Security Council, Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz at the Defense Department, John Bolton, as the undersecretary for arms control, at the State Department. He then asked for plans for what should be built and how the decision should be presented to the world. By May of 2001 he was ready with another speech, to the National Defense University, in which he offered Russia a "new cooperative relationship" based on missile defense and smaller nuclear stockpiles in both countries.
Stroking Russia was the key to persuading reluctant Americans and European allies alike that Bush's plans were not cowboy unilateralism. If the Russians did not object, how could anyone else? Through the summer and fall Bush met with President Vladimir Putin. The Russians were surprised at the scope of the testing that the Americans proposed; by December of 2001, when the United States gave notice that it would pull out of the ABM treaty in six months, Russia still had not given its assent. But in May of last year Putin agreed to missile-defense cooperation. The ABM treaty effectively expired the next month, without a whimper. "We thought Russia would throw a tantrum and then get on with it," one congressional staffer told me. "They didn't even throw a tantrum." Bush's soft hard sell—soft in its manner, hard in its persistence—had worked.
Neither Bush's black-and-white view of the world nor his obsession with time makes him hasty. He identified the ABM treaty as a bad thing in the fall of 1999 and spent two and a half years withdrawing from it.
o decision-making style is without its limitations. No President's approach would work for anyone else; no President's approach works perfectly in all cases for him. What are Bush's limitations?
Restricted habitat. Bush may be comfortable with reservations and disagreement, and may probe for them among his advisers. But the disagreements he will encounter are limited by the politics of the advisers he has picked, Republicans who range from moderately liberal to moderately conservative (Colin Powell to Karl Rove). Those people, in turn, reflect the scope of his thoughts and 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.
The first member of Bush's circle to break ranks and go public with criticism was the Princeton academic John DiIulio, a Roman Catholic Democrat who had advised Bush on the role of faith-based institutions in welfare. Last October DiIulio sent a 3,400-word letter to Ron Suskind, a reporter for Esquire, which was quoted in part in the magazine, and in its entirety in the Drudge Report. DiIulio hadn't at all liked his experience with the Bush White House, which he found to be populated by political hacks ("Mayberry Machiavellis") who needed "more serious policy fiber" in their diet. It is hard, DiIulio wrote, "for policy-minded staff ... to get much West Wing traction, or even get a non-trivial hearing."
The memo certainly tells us that its author found it hard to get a hearing. DiIulio's picture of White House drones both ignoring and misunderstanding his ideas may well be accurate, however. Ignorance and incomprehension are the norms in every White House. The government and the world are so protean that no polymaths or even whole administrations are capable of entirely filtering the torrent of information and events washing over them. The best a President can hope to do is identify a handful of problems and, by bearing down on them, accomplish a handful of things.
Phantom framework. Bush's strictly defined mental horizons don't necessarily amount to a clearly expressed set of political principles. It is, of course, one of the mantras of his associates that Bush, unlike some other modern Presidents, has such principles. (Richard Nixon was famously indifferent to both the principles and the details of domestic policy: he told the historian Theodore H. White that the country needed a President for foreign affairs, but that the home front could take care of itself.) More specific than Bush's reliance on Providence, his principles supposedly form a framework for the decisions he makes. His "framework" of ideas, Rove says, "colors how he reacts" to problems as they arise. "He lays out the strategic ground," Rice says, as if to say, "Here is the ground on which we're playing."
Bush may indeed have a framework of ideas that guides him. Isn't this all we expect of a decision-maker? Not quite. A leader is most effective when his policy framework is evident to others (Reagan is the recent classic example). Then they know what to expect of him; they better understand what he is saying as he says it. The framework that Rove and Rice allude to is obscured by Bush's unwillingness or inability to theorize. Bush makes his ideas clear about each decision as he faces it, much as Rice described. But in the absence of a need to decide, what does his framework of ideas amount to? One of Bush's failures is instructive here. On December 6 Bush dismissed Paul O'Neill, his Treasury Secretary (yet another Ford Administration veteran). O'Neill had a penchant for shooting his mouth off, and the economy was in sad shape, suggesting the need for a scapegoat. But O'Neill also fell into a trap unintentionally prepared for him by Bush.
Whereas the first great Treasury Secretaries—Hamilton, Gallatin—created the economic policy of the new nation, today a Treasury Secretary's main job is to act as an advocate for the President's economic policy. Bush's policy has been one of steady tax cuts. After his inauguration he proposed a $1.3 trillion tax cut, spread over ten years. After 9/11 Bush proposed a stimulus package that allowed businesses to write off depreciation of their equipment more quickly. This January he proposed to stop taxing the dividends that stocks pay to individuals. Together these cuts will be the largest since Ronald Reagan's income-tax cuts in 1981. But there is a difference between the two Presidents. Reagan was messianic about tax cuts, campaigning for them, identifying himself with them. Bush cuts taxes—but he has not laid out a systematic, ideological case for what he is up to or how far he intends to go. Bush's reticence set up O'Neill's fatal mistake.
It was the dividend tax cut that did O'Neill in. Last November, O'Neill, traveling in Britain, told the Financial Times that his priority was tax simplification. "Far from promising a hefty tax cut," the paper wrote, "he said the reforms that were most likely ... were 'minimally controversial and not very costly.'" O'Neill did acknowledge that the ultimate decision was not his: In time "[the President will] decide what he wants to do, and we'll try and get it done," he told the Financial Times. But O'Neill did not seem to know that the decision had already been made. Bush had warmed to the idea of abolishing the dividend tax at an economic summit in August at Baylor University, in Waco, where the popular investment broker Charles Schwab had proposed it. When Bush read what O'Neill was saying in Britain, according to one economist who has known Bush since the 1980s, he "went berserk." "Berserk" does not sound right—Bush (unlike Nixon and Clinton) is not a tantrum thrower. But "ticked off" is certainly in the repertoire of his reactions. The man who should have been his advocate was sending contradictory signals. O'Neill would have to go.
But it was not entirely O'Neill's fault that he was out of sync with his chief. Bush's phantom framework must share the blame. O'Neill did not have a sense of where, specifically, Bush was going on tax policy because Bush had not conveyed one during his first two years in office. A ten-year cut in income-tax rates and a break on business expenses do not necessarily predict a dividend-tax cut. If Bush's economic ideas had been clearer, his Treasury Secretary might have been clearer about them.
"Compassionate conservatism" is another example of a phantom framework, a framework that does not frame. Bush has since the early days of his presidential campaign defined himself as a compassionate conservative. This was in part rhetorical positioning—signaling that he was different from Ronald Reagan, whom liberals saw as harsh beneath a smiling face, or Newt Gingrich, whom they saw as harsh beneath a harsh face. In practice compassionate conservatism has meant allowing faith-based organizations to perform certain federally sponsored good works. One program, however, does not define a world view—and even that program has yet to get off the ground.
In the real world compassionate conservatism so far resembles what the historian Forrest McDonald has called good issues, which from a politician's point of view have "little substance" and are "ethically neutral" but can "inflame voters as if [they] were a primal moral cause." (McDonald was referring to the politics of the 1830s and 1840s, when "good issues ... included protective tariffs and the recharter of the Bank of the United States; emphatically not good issues, because they were genuinely moral and potentially explosive, were slavery and Indian policy.") Perhaps by the end of Bush's Administration we will know what "compassionate conservatism" means; perhaps not.
Lack of imagination? Bush has intelligence, energy, and humility, but does he have imagination? Winston Churchill didn't learn about Adolf Hitler by questioning journalists, or by sizing Hitler up in person. Hitler and Churchill almost met in the summer of 1932, when Hitler was rising to power but still half a year away from achieving it. Churchill, in contrast, was out of office and seemed unlikely ever to return. Churchill was in Germany, touring old battlegrounds for a biography of his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough. Ernst Hanfstängl, a Nazi hanger-on, ran into him in a Munich hotel and tried to set up a meeting with Hitler, but Churchill made a pro-Jewish remark that scotched it. Even without a meeting, Churchill intuited that this German politician was a dynamic and disastrous force. Perhaps he intuited it because he shared Hitler's dynamism, and at least some of his impulses. "I admire men who stand up for their country in defeat," he wrote in his war memoirs, "even though I am on the other side."
Bush thinks in prose. Can he hear music?
o other President has faced anything quite like 9/11. Pearl Harbor was militarily disastrous but not devastating to the economy, or so destructive of civilian life. During the War of 1812 the British captured Washington and burned the White House; the United States, however, had arguably brought that war on itself, out of greed for Canada. But New York City had not been attacked since 1776, when General George Washington was responsible for defending it and failed.
Senator Charles Schumer, of New York, saw Bush make one early decision that quickly became public knowledge. Schumer and other senators from afflicted states met with Bush in the Oval Office on Thursday, September 13. "I told him how emotional it was in the city," Schumer says. "I had not been able to find my daughter, who went to Stuyvesant High School [near Ground Zero], for six hours. I told him about the smell of death in the air." "That is why New York needs twenty billion dollars," Schumer told the President. He says now, "I expected him to say 'Let me get back to you,' or 'Let's start off with three or four billion,' or 'Send me a memo'—the usual political things. 'New York really needs twenty billion?' he said. I said, 'Yes, sir.' He said, 'You got it.'"
In the ensuing tugging and hauling over the $20 billion, Schumer never joined his fellow New York Democrats in charging Bush with betrayal, because he believed that Bush had meant what he said. "He convinced me that he felt the pain I felt and that he had thought it through. Here is a man who, on one minute's reflection, commits to something." Schumer goes on, sounding a bit like Gingrich, "In the parlors they say he's stupid. That's nonsense. He's a bright man. Is he the smartest who has ever been President? No, but he's smart enough."
This article is not a war report. But the war on terrorism has thrown Bush's decision-making style into sharp relief, even as it has raised the stakes. "You are who you are," Rove says, "and you either live up to the moment or you don't." (Rove cites Lincoln's predecessor, James Buchanan, who failed to preserve the Union, as an example of someone who didn't.) But great and terrible events offer great choices. Thomas Gray evoked an Oliver Cromwell "guiltless of his country's blood," slumbering in a rural churchyard because never called to England's stage. One can imagine the lives that great men might have had in the absence of their decisive tests: Abraham Lincoln, railroad lobbyist; Ulysses S. Grant, failed businessman; Winston Churchill, scribbling back-bencher. Sir George Washington, knighted at age sixty as a loyal and industrious subject of the United Provinces, sometimes takes out his militia uniform from the French and Indian War and regrets that he never won a commission in His Majesty's regular army ...
The attack called upon Bush's considerable capacity to focus. He rehearsed his September 20 speech to the joint session of Congress three times, the draft mutating with each read-through. For the second rehearsal a piñata of domestic issues had been hung from the text. The logic of that addition harked back to his father's Administration: despite his victory in the Gulf War, the elder Bush lost the country's confidence by failing to attend to domestic issues. George W. Bush's advisers did not want him to repeat the mistake. He looked at the paper through the half glasses he wears for reading and said, "Take it out." Yet on one occasion he relaxed his usual discipline. When he went to New York on September 14 and met privately at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center with the families of the victims, the clock ran unwatched.
In the first hundred days of the war Bush's decision-making style clearly served him well. Woodward's Bush at War is a catalogue of self-serving revelations by members of the Administration, but the vignettes of Bush that emerge are consistent with one another, and with his past. Bush led a team with some divergences of opinion, but not major ones. He had the patience to follow a strategy through ("boots on the ground"—that is, Americans in Afghanistan—before winter) and a sense of urgency that prodded those under him to get their acts together and get it done. He had to take expert advice, since he lacked both the military experience of a Washington or an Eisenhower, and the civilian war-time responsibility of a Churchill (who had been First Lord of the Admiralty in World War I). At the same time, he had to take charge. Two moments stand out. On September 12 Cheney asked Bush if there should be a war cabinet of his principal advisers, to hash out options and present them to him; it might streamline decision-making, he said. Bush replied that he would run important meetings himself: that was a commander in chief's function, not to be delegated. A month later, on October 15, eight days after the American bombing had begun, Bush told the attendees of such a meeting that they were losing their focus. "There's been too much discussion of post-conflict Afghanistan," he is reported to have said. In other words, don't everybody forget to win.
Bush's greatest strength as a wartime leader is strategic and personal clarity. The rapid decisions, forced on him by disaster, that everyone mislabels "instinctual" have created a framework that in this case is solid, not a phantom. He saw, seemingly immediately, that America was in a war, and that fighting it was to be the mission of his life.
He has been mostly well served by his team. Powell, Rice, and Rumsfeld have different approaches and emphases, and Bush turns from one to another like a carpenter going to his toolbox. An acquaintance who has known Bush for twenty years supplied a different metaphor: "Bush knows which senior vice-presidents to send to which meetings."
But has Bush stretched his team and himself far enough? After learning of Pearl Harbor, Churchill remembered a comment by an older politician, Edward Grey, who had compared the United States to "a gigantic boiler." Grey said, "Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate." Bush has chosen to tap only a fraction of America's power. We are essentially fighting a war in peacetime; most of our casualties have been civilians. The reason for Bush's relative restraint is obvious. Mobilizing for total war is economically and morally disorienting, a dire course that should be taken only in extreme necessity. We must wait to see if Bush's estimate of the force needed is correct.
Does Bush have the imagination to lead a great war? And even if he does, can he communicate it? The day before Abraham Lincoln's first inauguration, in the thick of the secession crisis, William Seward, who was to be the new Secretary of State, observed that "the President has a curious vein of sentiment running through his thought, which is his most valuable mental attribute." This is one of the shrewdest remarks ever made about Lincoln. That vein of sentiment changed the logician of the 1860 campaign into the visionary who delivered the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. Seward's remark is also one of the most astonishing ever made about Lincoln, because it came at a time when Lincoln's sentiment had not yet shown itself, and when few people, even among his supporters, had full confidence in him. Lincoln struck most people as a lanky rube, no doubt sharp but quite untried. The next day Charles Francis Adams Jr., the grandson and great-grandson of Presidents, observed the inauguration and wrote afterward that the outgoing President Buchanan was "undeniably ... more presentable."
Time will judge Bush, as it judged Lincoln. The story of Lincoln's inauguration, like the story of Sam Houston leaving Austin, is hopeful: virtue temporarily unrecognized. But 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 question 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, a senior editor at National Review, has written biographies of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Adams family. His book Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution (2001), will be published in June.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2003; Close-Up: The Mind of George W. Bush; Volume 291, No. 2; 55-69.