I spent some time this week in a bookstore catching up on some recent non-fiction, including The Bush Tragedy by Jacob Weisberg; The Commission, by Philip Shenon, about the 9/11 Commission; and On the Road to Hell by Michael Scheuer, who was once the head of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit and has become a violent critic of Administration policy. I didn’t have time to give any of them (particularly Scheuer’s, which I regret to say has not yet been purchased by a single Rhode Island library) the attention it deserved, but I got quite a bit out of each.
Psychoanalyzing George W. Bush has become a popular parlor game, but I think Weisberg has come closest to hitting the mark of the various attempts I have seen. He is undoubtedly right that the President’s relationship to his father is the key to understanding him—although I don’t think he fully understands what growing up in that kind of family was like. All the evidence I have seen suggests that George H. W. was a typical successful father of that generation, constantly busy with his job, his contacts, and his athletic pursuits, and without much time for his children. The Bushes are a notoriously emotionally stiff lot, and the traumatic death of George’s sister when he was about seven must have been a critical event as well, all the more so since his parents did not even tell him she was gravely ill before she died. (That kind of denial was not uncommon among GI parents, who had spent their young adulthoods putting aside a great many unpleasant feelings and expected their kids to do the same. We did—until the late 1960s.) The father’s attitude in such families tends to change,
All this must have been much more confusing because, even though he reached the White House, Bush père was never as formidable as he seemed. While the fate of the family revolved around his fortunes, he obviously did little around the house, and he had his own insecurities, intellectual and emotional blind spots, and setbacks. He was never all that good at politics, and remains one of the few Presidents who lost as many elections as he ever won. His Vice Presidency was as humiliating as any, which is saying quite a lot. But in George W. Bush’s universe, he was the center of attention—teaching the oldest son, perhaps, how easy it might be to achieve that stature.
W’s own intellectual endowments, of course, were probably more modest than his father’s, and he clearly did not do very much at
The President, then, has relied almost entirely on a set of simple beliefs: American power can liberate the world and impose democracy, taxes and bad and profit is good, etc. Weisberg spends less time on another consequence of all this. The price of admission to his inner circle is buying into his beliefs, and like so many troubled men and women, he has a knack for finding the helpers he needs. He cannot abide any criticism—not for nothing did his minions do everything they could to keep any Democrats away from his campaign events—and he has surrounded himself with people like Condoleezza Rice and Alberto Gonzales, who seem just the same. And that leads us to the 9/11 Commission.
I could not read as much of Shenon’s book as I would like, but it was painful. There seems little doubt that neither the Clinton nor the Bush Administrations took the threat from Osama Bin Laden seriously enough, and Shenon makes clear that left to their own devices, the staff of the 9/11 Commission might have produced a much more negative report about both of them. But the Bush Administration, he argues, had a secret weapon, Philip Zelikow, a
And 9/11 leads us to Scheuer, one of the angrier middle-aged men in
Sadly, all these books confirm the famous statement by a senior Bush staffer to Ron Suskind back in 2004—that by the time the “reality-based community” catches up to what is happening, the Bush Administration will have moved on to something else. But I have hopes for the immediate future. John McCain will obviously be running for President on the same myths that have brought us to our present path. A Democratic candidate who can bluntly address fundamental truths either before or after the election will strike a very profound chord among the American people—but he (or, les likely, she) will also antagonize powerful interests. It will hurt to have reality bite us all in the rear end again, but this time mother was right—it will feel better afterwards.