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.
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.