In its latest issue, Newsweek magazine has a disturbing portrait of George W. Bush as an aloof, out-of-touch president, isolated by his own governing style. Because of his intolerance for dissent, he has effectively surrounded himself with yes-men (and women) fearful of telling the president anything he doesn’t want to hear.
Written by veteran reporters Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe, the Newsweek story confirms reports we have heard for the last five years about Bush’s disinterest in the policy process or even the day-to-day politicking that ordinarily goes with the job. He dislikes meeting with members of Congress, is not a big consumer of news that does not come to him through official channels and relies almost exclusively on a small cluster of close aides, ignoring his Cabinet and the rest of the federal establishment.
The result is that Bush appears to live in a sort of fantasy world utterly divorced from reality. For example, Newsweek quotes a senior Republican congressman—unnamed for fear of White House retaliation—who was astounded in a meeting with Bush about Social Security at how out-of-touch he was with the political prospects for his reform plan. The congressman and everyone else in the room knew the plan was dead, yet Bush went on and on as if it were on the brink of enactment.
“I got the sense that his staff was not telling him the bad news,” the lawmaker said. “This was not a case of him thinking positive. He just didn’t have any idea of the political realities there. It was like he wasn’t briefed at all.”
According to Newsweek, in many subtle ways Bush discourages his aides from telling him the truth. One is the way he phrases questions—not so as to elicit information, but rather in order to force subordinates into a position where the only answer they can give is to confirm the wisdom of whatever decision he already made.
This problem is compounded by Bush’s antipathy for in-depth briefings. He prefers short conversations that are “long on conclusion, short on reasoning,” we are told. “Faith, not evidence, is the basis for decision-making,” Thomas and Wolffe report.
Bush loyalists will, no doubt, question the veracity of the Newsweek account. But it is only the latest portrait that paints the same picture. Last year, for example, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind reported that a senior White House aide actually mocked him for living in the “reality-based community.” The aide said that the White House was creating its own reality that did not require thought, analysis, evidence or logic. It simply acted and reality changed.
But as the Iraq war and declining poll ratings weigh ever more heavily on Bush, the disconnect with reality seems to have gotten worse. In September, Time magazine reported that his bubble had grown “more hermetic … with fewer people willing or able to bring him bad news—or tell him when he’s wrong.”
In October, Thomas DeFrank of the New York Daily News reported that Bush is now given to temper tantrums. He frequently berates others for his own mistakes, refusing to take responsibility for them, DeFrank reports. The picture that emerges is eerily familiar to anyone who has read about Richard Nixon’s last days in office.
Other press reports suggest that Bush administration officials are now going to extraordinary lengths to avoid displeasing their boss. According to an item in New York magazine last week, administration officials threatened to walk away from global warming talks if Bill Clinton were allowed to speak to the group. Perhaps the United States should abstain from the United Nations conference on policy grounds. But to do so simply because of a Clinton speech is petty in the extreme.
Unfortunately, it appears that there is nobody—even his father—in a position to sit President Bush down and force him to change course. The one person who might be able to do so is Vice President Cheney, but he has long been Bush’s principal enabler, according to a report by John Dickerson in the online magazine Slate. Lacking any political ambitions of his own, Cheney has no incentive to disagree with Bush on anything. This has contributed to the hermetic nature of the White House, helping vitally to sustain the bubble in which Bush operates largely on his own without ever hearing a dissenting voice.
In the unlikely event that Bush decides to take a new course, one place he might turn is to University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, who recently posted some good advice on his website. Bush needs to accept reality on Iraq, Sabato says, talk up the economy, develop a new domestic agenda, re-staff his administration and admit error, especially on the unaffordable Medicare drug benefit. I agree.