On George W. Bush: The 'Decider' Who Didn't Decide?

No real-world human being brings to the U.S. presidency the range of attributes necessary for full success in the job. In principle a president should be great at: formal oratory before vast audiences; informal persuasiveness in small groups; high-speed fact-absorption and analytical intelligence; slow-paced,  unhurried deliberation; understanding both the past and the future; exercising both IQ and EQ; delegating duties; maintaining physical and emotional stamina; knowing and managing his or her own impulses; and on through a nearly infinite list. No one has all these skills. Therefore the best we can expect from the real people who hold the job is that they recognize their limits and try to address or offset them.

Yesterday I argued that George W. Bush's combination of traits was particularly unfortunate for the choices he had to make in the 18 months between the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq. Joseph Britt of Wisconsin, who has worked as an aide to a Republican U.S. senator, writes about one of the attributes I mentioned -- Bush's apparent desire to be decisive even in areas about which he was not deeply informed:

Per your observations on G. W. Bush's decisiveness, I wonder if you have ever noted an interesting contradiction in the Bush administration's record.

No American President, with the possible exceptions of those who faced civil (Lincoln) or global (Franklin Roosevelt) war, ever made claims for Presidential authority and prerogatives as sweeping as the last President Bush did.  Yet in practice, Bush yielded more Presidential authority to selected subordinates than any President since Wilson had his stroke.

The war on terrorism was effectively run by Vice President Cheney after 9/11.  Both Bush's Secretaries of Defense were left all but unsupervised with respect to war policy -- apart from the Bremer period in Iraq, when Bush gave the former ambassador a free hand to make decisions no one else wanted to make.  Perhaps most striking of all was Bush's unqualified delegation of executive power to his Treasury Secretary at the end of his tenure.  We might with justice refer to most of 2008 as the time of the Paulson administration.

For all the airs he put on as "The Decider," Bush was in many respects an extraordinarily weak President.  The ignorance and intellectual laziness you spoke of often drove his decisiveness toward finding someone else to make decisions.

Context for this discussion and some upcoming items in the queue: not Bush himself, who has been admirably low-profile since leaving office, but our general understanding of the wars America launched 10 years ago this month.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In