The New York Times published an outstanding (and chilling) article about the Bush Presidency today. I’ve included some excerpts, but I encourage you to follow the link to their web site to get the full text of the article.
Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a treasury official for the first President Bush, told me recently that ”if Bush wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting on Nov. 3.” The nature of that conflict, as Bartlett sees it? Essentially, the same as the one raging across much of the world: a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion.
”Just in the past few months,” Bartlett said, ”I think a light has gone off for people who’ve spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he’s always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.” Bartlett, a 53-year-old columnist and self-described libertarian Republican who has lately been a champion for traditional Republicans concerned about Bush’s governance, went on to say: ”This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can’t be persuaded, that they’re extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he’s just like them. . . .
”This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts,” Bartlett went on to say. ”He truly believes he’s on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.” Bartlett paused, then said, ”But you can’t run the world on faith.”
[Senator Biden] was, in fact, hearing what Bush’s top deputies — from cabinet members like Paul O’Neill, Christine Todd Whitman and Colin Powell to generals fighting in Iraq — have been told for years when they requested explanations for many of the president’s decisions, policies that often seemed to collide with accepted facts. The president would say that he relied on his ”gut” or his ”instinct” to guide the ship of state, and then he ”prayed over it.” The old pro Bartlett, a deliberative, fact-based wonk, is finally hearing a tune that has been hummed quietly by evangelicals (so as not to trouble the secular) for years as they gazed upon President George W. Bush. This evangelical group — the core of the energetic ”base” that may well usher Bush to victory — believes that their leader is a messenger from God. And in the first presidential debate, many Americans heard the discursive John Kerry succinctly raise, for the first time, the issue of Bush’s certainty — the issue being, as Kerry put it, that ”you can be certain and be wrong.”
Every few months, a report surfaces of the president using strikingly Messianic language, only to be dismissed by the White House. Three months ago, for instance, in a private meeting with Amish farmers in Lancaster County, Pa., Bush was reported to have said, ”I trust God speaks through me.”
The president has demanded unquestioning faith from his followers, his staff, his senior aides and his kindred in the Republican Party. Once he makes a decision — often swiftly, based on a creed or moral position — he expects complete faith in its rightness.
The disdainful smirks and grimaces that many viewers were surprised to see in the first presidential debate are familiar expressions to those in the administration or in Congress who have simply asked the president to explain his positions. Since 9/11, those requests have grown scarce; Bush’s intolerance of doubters has, if anything, increased, and few dare to question him now. A writ of infallibility — a premise beneath the powerful Bushian certainty that has, in many ways, moved mountains — is not just for public consumption: it has guided the inner life of the White House. As Whitman told me on the day in May 2003 that she announced her resignation as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency: ”In meetings, I’d ask if there were any facts to support our case. And for that, I was accused of disloyalty!”
”He’s plenty smart enough to do the job,” Levin said. ”It’s his lack of curiosity about complex issues which troubles me.”
Lantos went on to describe for the president how the Swedish Army might be an ideal candidate to anchor a small peacekeeping force on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Sweden has a well-trained force of about 25,000. The president looked at him appraisingly, several people in the room recall.
”I don’t know why you’re talking about Sweden,” Bush said. ”They’re the neutral one. They don’t have an army.”
Lantos paused, a little shocked, and offered a gentlemanly reply: ”Mr. President, you may have thought that I said Switzerland. They’re the ones that are historically neutral, without an army.” Then Lantos mentioned, in a gracious aside, that the Swiss do have a tough national guard to protect the country in the event of invasion.
Bush held to his view. ”No, no, it’s Sweden that has no army.”
The room went silent, until someone changed the subject.
A few weeks later, members of Congress and their spouses gathered with administration officials and other dignitaries for the White House Christmas party. The president saw Lantos and grabbed him by the shoulder. ”You were right,” he said, with bonhomie. ”Sweden does have an army.”
This is one key feature of the faith-based presidency: open dialogue, based on facts, is not seen as something of inherent value. It may, in fact, create doubt, which undercuts faith.
…Rubenstein described that time to a convention of pension managers in Los Angeles last year, recalling that Malek approached him and said: ”There is a guy who would like to be on the board. He’s kind of down on his luck a bit. Needs a job. . . . Needs some board positions.” Though Rubenstein didn’t think George W. Bush, then in his mid-40’s, ”added much value,” he put him on the Caterair board. ”Came to all the meetings,” Rubenstein told the conventioneers. ”Told a lot of jokes. Not that many clean ones. And after a while I kind of said to him, after about three years: ‘You know, I’m not sure this is really for you. Maybe you should do something else. Because I don’t think you’re adding that much value to the board. You don’t know that much about the company.’ He said: ‘Well, I think I’m getting out of this business anyway. And I don’t really like it that much. So I’m probably going to resign from the board.’ And I said thanks. Didn’t think I’d ever see him again.”
A cluster of particularly vivid qualities was shaping George W. Bush’s White House through the summer of 2001: a disdain for contemplation or deliberation, an embrace of decisiveness, a retreat from empiricism, a sometimes bullying impatience with doubters and even friendly questioners. Already Bush was saying, Have faith in me and my decisions, and you’ll be rewarded. All through the White House, people were channeling the boss. He didn’t second-guess himself; why should they?
Moments after the ceremony, Bush saw Wallis. He bounded over and grabbed the cheeks of his face, one in each hand, and squeezed. ”Jim, how ya doin’, how ya doin’!” he exclaimed. Wallis was taken aback. Bush excitedly said that his massage therapist had given him Wallis’s book, ”Faith Works.” His joy at seeing Wallis, as Wallis and others remember it, was palpable — a president, wrestling with faith and its role at a time of peril, seeing that rare bird: an independent counselor. Wallis recalls telling Bush he was doing fine, ”’but in the State of the Union address a few days before, you said that unless we devote all our energies, our focus, our resources on this war on terrorism, we’re going to lose.’ I said, ‘Mr. President, if we don’t devote our energy, our focus and our time on also overcoming global poverty and desperation, we will lose not only the war on poverty, but we’ll lose the war on terrorism.”’
Bush replied that that was why America needed the leadership of Wallis and other members of the clergy.
”No, Mr. President,” Wallis says he told Bush, ”We need your leadership on this question, and all of us will then commit to support you. Unless we drain the swamp of injustice in which the mosquitoes of terrorism breed, we’ll never defeat the threat of terrorism.”
Bush looked quizzically at the minister, Wallis recalls. They never spoke again after that.
”When I was first with Bush in Austin, what I saw was a self-help Methodist, very open, seeking,” Wallis says now. ”What I started to see at this point was the man that would emerge over the next year — a messianic American Calvinist. He doesn’t want to hear from anyone who doubts him.”
But with a country crying out for intrepid leadership, does a president have time to entertain doubters? In a speech in Alaska two weeks later, Bush again referred to the war on terror as a ”crusade.”
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
And for those who don’t get it? That was explained to me in late 2002 by Mark McKinnon, a longtime senior media adviser to Bush, who now runs his own consulting firm and helps the president. He started by challenging me. ”You think he’s an idiot, don’t you?” I said, no, I didn’t. ”No, you do, all of you do, up and down the West Coast, the East Coast, a few blocks in southern Manhattan called Wall Street. Let me clue you in. We don’t care. You see, you’re outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don’t read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way he walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it’s good for us. Because you know what those folks don’t like? They don’t like you!” In this instance, the final ”you,” of course, meant the entire reality-based community.
”I’m going to come out strong after my swearing in,” Bush said, ”with fundamental tax reform, tort reform, privatizing of Social Security.”
A regent I spoke to later and who asked not to be identified told me: ”I’m happy he’s certain of victory and that he’s ready to burst forth into his second term, but it all makes me a little nervous. There are a lot of big things that he’s planning to do domestically, and who knows what countries we might invade or what might happen in Iraq. But when it gets complex, he seems to turn to prayer or God rather than digging in and thinking things through. What’s that line? — the devil’s in the details. If you don’t go after that devil, he’ll come after you.”
That very issue is what Jim Wallis wishes he could sit and talk about with George W. Bush. That’s impossible now, he says. He is no longer invited to the White House.
”Faith can cut in so many ways,” he said. ”If you’re penitent and not triumphal, it can move us to repentance and accountability and help us reach for something higher than ourselves. That can be a powerful thing, a thing that moves us beyond politics as usual, like Martin Luther King did. But when it’s designed to certify our righteousness — that can be a dangerous thing. Then it pushes self-criticism aside. There’s no reflection.
”Where people often get lost is on this very point,” he said after a moment of thought. ”Real faith, you see, leads us to deeper reflection and not — not ever — to the thing we as humans so very much want.”
And what is that?
Read the Full Article at The New York Times
“Without a Doubt”
by Ron Suskind
October 17, 2004