The Bush Tragedy, Dead Certain, and The Fall of the House of Bush

By Jacob Weisberg
By Robert Draper
By Craig Unger

“As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their hearts desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” – H. L. Mencken

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

Not the election of George W. Bush. That was supposed to happen. It was, after all, what the friends of his father had been investing in all those long bankrupt years Junior spent drilling for dust in a failed bid to become a player in the Texas oil “bidness.” From this background, through his richly rewarded stint as . . . what? blue-chip nameplate? corporate cheerleader? . . . for the Texas Rangers, to his judicial appointment as 43rd president of the United States, the biography of Dubya was nothing if not arranged every step of the way.

What was not supposed to happen was his having to actually be a president. Coming to office after the peace and prosperity of the Clinton 90s, all the second Bush would have to do is . . . well, whatever he was doing on the board of the Texas Rangers. Or less. Rarely has any individual come to such a position of political power so ignorant and so ill-prepared, so clueless and inexperienced in virtually all matters foreign and domestic. But that wasn’t supposed to matter. “Being president was something beyond Bush’s capacities in a way he didn’t recognize,” Jacob Weisberg concludes in his study of The Bush Tragedy. “It is something he should never have been given a chance to do.” Yes. But of course at the time it seemed like a job anyone could handle.

As the story later went, Bush was hag-ridden from the beginning both by Oedipal agonies and by what Bob Woodward in Shadow described (prophetically) as the “myth of the big-time president.” To borrow a favourite sports metaphor, he wanted to be a president who would “swing for the fences” in an attempt to radically shape history – an approach to politics Robert Draper says is “fundamental to who George W. Bush is.” But this only came after 9/11, the event which launched the disastrous presidency that was never supposed to happen. Contrary to this official line, the administration’s original vision was distinctly “mini ball.” Spending a lot of time golfing, for example. Watch this drive!

What was supposed to happen was a restoration of “dignity” to the White House. Education reform. Commissions on energy policy and Social Security. Tax cuts for the rich, naturally. Even Draper will allow that it seemed at the time a “timid agenda,” the president himself “accidental, undersized, disinterested” (qualities perhaps more “fundamental” to who he really was). And then came the great “opportunity” of 9/11 and the manufactured president had to be re-invented yet again. Politics hates an emptiness. Crisis revealed a void in the Oval Office that had to be filled with something. And, as fate would have it, something was waiting eagerly at hand:

Given his lack of knowledge when it came to foreign policy, his limited experience as a hands-on executive, and the extraordinary bureaucratic skills of the neocons, George W. Bush was an exceedingly easy mark. “This guy was tabula rasa,” said a State Department source who later became a critic of Bush. “He was an empty vessel. He was so ripe for the plucking.”

He, and the country he only nominally led.

Enter the neocons. Or, as they are often designated, the “true believers,” the political “idealists.” The labels are nonsense. In fact the neocons differed little from the foreign policy realists they supposedly supplanted. They were simply more cynical and aggressive when it came to working the levers of power. The tag about being believers was part of the media kit, something even critics like Craig Unger continue to retail:

the most significant “clash of civilizations” today is not between Islam and the West at all, as the conflict is usually framed, but between fundamentalists – not just Islamists, but Christian and Orthodox Jewish fundamentalists as well – and the modern world. In other words, the most powerful enemies of our modern, humanist post-Enlightenment world may not be militant Islamists more than an ocean away, but Christian fundamentalists and their neoconservative allies who have been waging a ferocious war against “militant secularists,” and who finally became influential enough to install, for the first time, a powerful leader of the Christian Right, George W. Bush, in the White House.

It has a surface appeal, but doesn’t hold up to close analysis. For starters, how well does it describe the Believer-in-Chief? Not very. Weisberg is good on the striking banality of Bush’s preaching, “zealously proclaiming the message inside a fortune cookie.” Such banality was part of an act:

In personal terms, religious language expressed how Bush thought he had to appear to the country. . . . He wanted everyone to know that God was guiding him. But this was a hollow certainty and a hollow confidence. As with his conversion by Billy Graham and his decision to run for president, this faith narrative was a conscious autobiographical construction.

Weisberg goes on to opine that to “say that Bush’s religious persona is a calculated projection does not mean it is fraudulent,” since “for practised politicians” calculation and sincerity are often mixed. Perhaps. But this stretches the meaning of belief. Just as the neocon faith in spreading democracy, another calculated construction that flies in the face of resounding evidence to the contrary, requires a similar exercise in cognitive dissonance.

All of which makes writing a Bush biography a bit of a challenge. As if the now legendary degree of secrecy – the cult of no fingerprints that has ruled the administration from day one – were not enough, how can one begin to fathom the soul, much less the mind, of such a total zero? And what would be the point? George W. Bush has been one of the least personally consequential presidents in history, insofar as he seems to have had little connection to, and sometimes little interest in, anything that was going on around him. The decision to disband the Iraqi military? “Well, the policy was to keep the army intact. Didn’t happen.” Apparently there is nothing more to say. When Unger goes into a detailed discussion (largely drawn from a series that ran in the Washington Post) of some of Cheney’s incredibly secretive bureaucratic machinations to implement far-reaching legal changes expanding executive authority, at no point is there any indication that the president knew what was happening. If he had known, there seems little chance he would have cared enough to understand. He was, after all, uninterested in details, as well as being (in Draper’s unintentionally devastating phrase) “a man who required comfort and routine.” And he simply wasn’t very bright. The dyslexic torturing of the language isn’t the worst of it. Time and again interviews reveal that there’s just nothing there. Draper asks him about his plans for after leaving office and something about a Freedom Institute is mentioned, an organization that “really, you know, just kind of imparts knowledge and deals with big issues.” One doesn’t take away from this that Bush has trouble expressing himself. One registers that Bush himself has no clear idea, or perhaps any idea at all, what he’s talking about. And this happens nearly every time he opens his mouth.

Each of these three political biographies has its strengths and weaknesses. The Bush Tragedy provides an excellent overview and is particularly insightful on the relationship between Bush and Cheney, but is hampered by too heavy a reliance on family psychology and a strained analogy to Shakespeare’s history plays. The lightweight character of George W. Bush can’t bear the weight of such analysis. One begins Robert Draper’s Dead Certain expecting a hatchet job as Dubya is observed at unpleasantly close range chawing a low-fat hot dog. But more often than not Draper is prepared to give the benefit of the doubt and not look too deeply into matters. He takes at face value the story of Bush’s transforming walk with Billy Graham (an account both Weisberg and Unger discredit). He describes Saddam Hussein as “booting out” weapons inspectors (he didn’t, they left), and, incredibly, as someone “spoiling for a fight.” He credits Condoleeza Rice with the line about the smoking gun for Iraqi WMDs coming in the form of a mushroom cloud. One expects better attention to detail, even in a book as timely as this.

There are, however, some choice bits. The wonderful Bushisms, for starters. After 9/11 we hear the commander-in-chief boldly declare that “this ass is going back to Washington.” More inadvertent candor can be found in his expressed desire to put the Iraqi people “in a position to kind of be free.” Which must be kind of like wanting to spread democracy. Perhaps the biggest revelation though is how seriously Bush takes the business of working out: religiously jogging, biking, or lifting weights one to two hours a day, six days a week. Some readers may find all of the accompanying jock-talk, and the nagging suspicion that there might have been something more important to occupy his time, a bit troubling.

Craig Unger’s The Fall of the House of Bush is more contextual, in particular examining the rising influence of fundamentalism in American politics. He is also good on the many failures of the media, like their inability to understand “dog whistle politics” (whereby coded messages were sent to the religious right in the guise of campaign rhetoric that on its face appeared bland and innocuous). As critical as all of these authors are, however, there are a pair of larger questions that I would have liked them to address: Is it better to be a consequential president, even if those consequences are disastrous, than one who simply manages to steer the ship of state with dull competence? Can one be a great president without starting a war?

Sadly these are not rhetorical questions at all, and the answers provided, at least by the cheerleading media over the past eight years, have been Yes in the first instance and No in the second. Bush himself came to believe all the hype – that to be a great president it was necessary to be a commander-in-chief, that it was better to strike out in spectacular style while swinging for the fences than to play small ball. The results were catastrophic. And not only because of what happened in Iraq, a situation that may still be resolved to the benefit of the United States. The real, abiding legacy of George W. Bush will likely consist of less media-sexy items, a long list topped by his complete failure to provide any leadership whatsoever on environmental issues, his ballooning of the national debt, and his (or more accurately his vice-president’s) refashioning of an “imperial” presidency. For all of this America will pay a terrible price.

Review first published online March 24, 2008. With regard to the smoking gun/mushroom cloud line, the actual provenance of that gem of propaganda, employed by Bush as well as Rice, is murky: Apparently Rice lifted the line from a September 8, 2002 New York Times story – byline Michael Gordon and Judith Miller – which is where it first appeared in public, though it had in fact been planted by the White House. According to Isikoff and Corn in Hubris it had initially been conceived by Bush’s chief speechwriter Michael Gerson.

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