Democratic presidential candidates in their Tuesday night debate were ragging, as usual, on "cool hand" George W. Bush’s "failure to communicate," but I don’t think they get why the president, an intelligent fellow, does a poor job of explaining his actions.
When reporters told me in 2000 they thought Gov. Bush dumb, I told them he was business-management smart rather than graduate-student smart, a la Bill Clinton — and who needed more Clinton?
When I knew "W" during the 1990s, he did not like bull sessions. He wanted practical options laid out without wasted words. He did not want to talk about his decisions. His goal was to make them and let the results do the talking.
Well, it turns out that being grad-student smart has two uses. I knew one and incorrectly discounted it. I did not comprehend the second.
The one I knew is that top journalists are grad-student smart rather than management smart, and if a president won’t play with them, they won’t play with him. Mediacrats have not only a liberal bias but, unsurprisingly, a pro-communications bias. When they view a president as not only ideologically wrong but unable or unwilling to speak their language, they pounce.
The use I didn’t understand is that a grad-student-smart willingness to debate everything is the antidote to a communications lockdown. Team Bush’s lockdown initially seemed like a strength in opposition to leak-happy Clintonistas. The Bush business-smart idea was to develop a shrewd inside plan and stick to it, without having a public (and often messy) debate about alternatives.
That made sense in one way. President Bush saw no reason to give his media opponents ammunition. He wanted to develop the most leak-free administration in modern times. He has succeeded.
Freedom from leaks, though, often has meant freedom from broad debate. From poverty fighting to Iraq, the administration has circled the wagons when challenged. The Bush administration became smart tactically but weak strategically — and in the absence of a strong strategy to educate the American public about some crucial issues, the tactics worked only for a while.
For example, look what happened to the faith-based initiative in 2001, even before Sept. 11 altered everything. When opposition to Christian involvement inevitably surfaced, Bush strategists did not work on educating the American public. Instead, they proposed legislation that included what one White House advisor told me was a "stealth provision" for the creation of a system of social-service vouchers.
I like vouchers. I don’t like stealth. I reported what I knew, and liberal journalist Bill Berkowitz was astonished: "I have to admit that since I read Olasky’s piece I’ve been scratching my head as to why he would provide so many details on the inner workings of the White House."
Well, the answer then and since is that I’m a journalist who really believes in what Puritan poet John Milton wrote 360 years ago: "Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?"
The Bush administration never encouraged that free and open encounter. Its stifling tactics hurt the development of ideas and turned out to be not even PR-essential. Team Bush did not take seriously enough a big change: Conservative talk shows and blogs, although still possessing modest firepower compared to that of the media-industrial complex, now reach a wide audience, especially when FOX News picks up their themes.
The media change means liberal orthodoxies no longer go unchallenged and Republicans no longer go undefended. Those with alternative ideas can now find venues. Transparency brings criticism, but it is not politically suicidal.
The Bush administration did not take that change to heart. Now it’s too late.