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, however, when sons reach the age of 14 or so. At that point the father in effect offers a new bargain: he will start paying some attention to his son, provided that his son agrees to become part of the father’s world, and imitate him to the maximum extent possible. That was what George W., who obviously never wanted to go either to Andover or Yale, did, and it couldn’t have been much fun.
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 Andover (and less at Yale) to develop them. And this leads to Weisberg’s greatest insight, one which historians will have to ponder for a long time. President Bush is incapable of sustained thought—partly because he has no interest in it. He knows how to take an impressive position upon an issue, and few if any Presidents have ever been better at sticking to it, but he has no concept, really, of how to implement it, test it against reality, or reassess. Weisberg repeatedly quotes Bush’s predecessor’s assessment of him: “He doesn’t know anything,” said Bill Clinton, “and he doesn’t want to know anything, but he’s not dumb.” This quality extends even to the subjects Bush seems to care about most, such as religion. While Bush’s basic beliefs are surely sincere, they show very little sophistication about the Evangelical religion. He does not attend church regularly, uses lots of profanity, and has not scrupled to invent some new Christian doctrine when it suits him—the idea, for instance, that the Almighty has granted us all the right to live in a democracy. His religiosity was both a way to distance himself from his family (when he argued with his mother about whether one must be born again to get to Heaven, he was actually challenging her own right to be there) and, as it turned out, to find a political constituency. One suspects that he has what Gary Wills identified 35 years ago as a particularly American attitude towards religion: that his success proves that the Lord is on his side.
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 University of Virginia historian who had collaborated with Condoleezza Rice on a book about the re-unification of Germany and (this I did not know) had helped write the national security strategy of 2002 endorsing preventive war. He was frequently in touch with Karl Rove while the Commission worked, and Shenon argues that he was willing to downplay criticism of the Clinton Administration to help save Bush, whose re-election was at stake. Any severe criticism of either Administration was labeled as “partisan.” It will be decades now before we know exactly who knew what before 9/11.
And 9/11 leads us to Scheuer, one of the angrier middle-aged men in America. Scheuer was one of the first American experts on Osama Bin Laden, and now, six years after 9/11, he simply cannot believe that the American government seems to have learned almost nothing about him. He is appalled, to begin with, that the entire political establishment (as he sees it) has managed to sell the country on the idea that Islamic radicals hate the United States for what it is, not for what it does, even though they have never been shy about stating their complaints about our support for Israel, our attempts to secure all their oil at cheap prices, our support for dictatorial clients in the Middle East, and, now, our invasion and occupation of two Muslim countries. We have, he thinks, done almost exactly what Osama would have liked us to do since 9/11, and he has described the Iraq War as “the gift that keeps on giving” to Bin Laden. He concludes the book with a long imagined report from Bin Laden’s intelligence chief in the U.S. (and he is certain such a person exists), repeatedly expressing astonishment that we could have been so stupid in so many ways. And in the end, he has the courage to say what no politician except Ron Paul seems willing to say, namely, that we have no reason to care how Muslim nations rule themselves, and that we must pay more attention to what they think if we want to live in peace with them. (That will not, he adds, solve the problem, and he anticipates a need for a great deal more violence on our part to deal with the threat that already exists.)
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.