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Bush owes no one an explanation

About the author
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the new e-book Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, also to be published in an expanded edition, in paperback, this August (HarperCollins).

Much of the post–mortem chat after the third presidential debate is focusing on Bush’s emotional flipflops, you might say: the president was petulant in Miami, venomous in St. Louis, smiling in Tempe, Arizona. Senator Kerry, by contrast, presented himself as a relatively constant force, forceful and direct. As usual, the commentary has a memory of about fifteen seconds. We expect more depth – and a longer historical span – of sports reporters. The agreed–upon story line – Bush’s inconsistency – masks the more significant truth: his consistent pattern of repeating slogans.

Pundits, after the first debate, teed off on Bush’s performance as if it bespoke nothing more than a certain rhetorical weakness, or perhaps fatigue, a consequence of the “hard work” he mentioned repeatedly. After the sequel, his defenders were encouraged at Bush’s apparent recovery – his fighting spirit, his toughness. They maintained that the president’s aggressive, repetitive (“on message”) style in public revealed the man as he really is—principled, focused, resolved. More of the same came after the final debate, with Republican cheerleader William Kristol taking to Fox News to declare that Bush had “slaughtered” Kerry – evidently a good thing in neocon parlance.

All miss a deeper truth. Bush’s debate performances revealed more than tactical errors, shaky nerves, weak preparations, or a shortfall in skills; even more, indeed, than any hypothetical reliance on electronic transmission, the subject of much blogger speculation after cameras picked up a mysteriously rectangular object evidently creasing the back of Bush’s jacket. Bush v. Kerry revealed – as the Republicans like to say – character.

The reason his appearances were jarring, evidently to many of the undecided as well as Kerry voters, is that they showed far more than the public is used to seeing of Bush’s behaviour inside the White House. In particular, the first debate revealed, as “an administration official, speaking anonymously” told the New York Times’ Adam Nagourney (3 October), “Mr. Bush repeatedly display[ing] on television a disdainful look that was familiar to people who work with him in the White House.” They exhibited more of his nature than a shielded–off public is normally permitted to see.

And there is more. They revealed that what Bush suffers from is not a speaking deficiency but a thinking deficiency. When confronted by unwelcome facts and counter–arguments delivered by a compelling competitor, as he is not accustomed to be in closed quarters, Bush can only repeat the readymade phrases lodged in his mind. Emotions seethe under his skin. His face reverts to the fidgety, furtive, uncertain look of a bully not used to being countered.

During his entire presidency, Bush has protected himself from contrary opinion. Uncongenial media commentary amounts, for him, to a “filter.” Objectivity comes to him, he has said, through the unmediated good offices of his employees: “the most objective sources I have…people on my staff who tell me what’s happening in the world.”

On Bush’s profound uncuriosity we have the testimony of former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill, who told reporter Ron Suskind (as quoted in Suskind’s invaluable book, The Price of Loyalty ): “O’Neill had been made to understand by various colleagues in the White House that the President should not be expected to read reports. In his personal experience, the President didn’t even appear to have read the short memos he sent over. That made it especially troubling that Bush did not ask any questions….”

O’Neill served with presidents Nixon and Ford, each of whom (O’Neill says) expected to hear advisers hash out a range of alternatives so that he could choose from among them. He expected to encounter the same from Bush. He didn’t. Bush was unfamiliar with – or allergic to – contrary opinion. Bush was not, in other words, rational.

Twice O’Neill reports that Bush tells him “I don’t negotiate with myself” –meaning that he won’t listen to an alternative, perhaps better way of introducing tax cuts. O’Neill felt he couldn’t tell his president that, as a very experienced treasury official and corporate CEO, he had found that negotiating with oneself, in the sense of testing one’s aims against reality, was vital for good decision taking.

Suskind concluded that President Bush “was caught in an echo chamber of his own making, cut off from everyone other than a circle around him that’s tiny and getting smaller and in concert on everything….” Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency chief, Christine Todd Whitman, was reduced to making “blind stabs at deducing the mind of the President.” He didn’t “offer explanation, even to his most senior aides….” “Mr. O’Neill knew that Whitman had never heard the President analyse a complex issue, parse opposing positions, and settle on a judicious path. In fact, no one – inside or outside the government, here or across the globe – had heard him do that to any significant degree.”

The tic that Bush sustained through all three debates was brute repetition. His mind kept rolling back into the same sloganeering groove. This is, I think, more than a communication tactic designed to drum slogans into the skulls of inattentive voters. His rigidity is most likely an overcompensation for thoughtlessness. His hard shell of dogma protects him from the void – a void he denies by trashing introspection. Brute repetition is a true revelation of the inner Bush – all that he is capable of. Mechanical recycling is not a stratagem but the mind of the man.

There are moments when Bush leaks this truth about himself. During the second debate, he declared “I’m not telling” whom he had in mind as a Supreme Court nominee in a second term. One of his more striking statements during four years in office is this remark to Bob Woodward in 2002: “I’m the commander. See, I don’t have to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”

I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.

This underlying, fundamentally monarchic, deeply irrational – no, anti–rational, therefore anti–democratic – assumption explains many mysteries about Bush’s White House years, among them: his blowing off the many warnings that al–Qaida was planning an attack on the territorial United States; his continuing insistence that Saddam Hussein was allied with al–Qaida, and well along toward amassing weapons of mass destruction; his refusal to plan for the post–war operation of Iraq; his indifference toward colossal budget deficits; his repeated declaration that the economy has turned the proverbial corner; his insistence on the brilliance of titanic tax cuts regardless of the economic climate; his conviction that his prescription drug program, which renounces price negotiations with the pharmaceutical companies, is a gift to seniors; his hypersecrecy about what goes on behind closed doors.

The instant polls tell us that Kerry has “won” the debates. This is hard to do against an incumbent and especially a “war president” and especially if the challenger has not himself run something, like Carter and Clinton – who were state governors. So curiously, Bush’s bluster makes him appear less experienced than an opponent who has never held executive office. There may, in the end, be something to be said for television as a truth serum.

What seems to have come across in the three debates is that Bush is indeed not a decision taker in any recognizable sense. He could have brought the public into the process of setting a strategy and conducting a war on terror, with all the inevitable imperfections of a new kind of national and international contest. He has had every opportunity to tell us what calls he had to make, what options he considered. Had he done so, few would doubt that the race would be over.

Instead, the debates seem to show that Bush runs the country on slogans. Consider, then, this disconcerting likelihood: the president of the United States doesn’t know any better than he says, and does not know that he needs to know.

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