Portrait of a President

Ron Suskind has an amazing profile of Bush in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. It’s quite long, and I recommend reading the entire thing, but I have also tried to boil it down here:
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.''

It should concern us all that a prominent Republican is saying that our president is “just like” the people responsible for 9/11, especially because he’s right. The impetus for 9/11 was not a carefully crafted and thoughtful response to a perceived injustice, but a resolute belief among a group of like-minded zealots who allowed religious certitude to triumph over reason.

A few months later, on Feb. 1, 2002, Jim Wallis of the Sojourners stood in the Roosevelt Room for the introduction of Jim Towey as head of the president's faith-based and community initiative. John DiIulio, the original head, had left the job feeling that the initiative was not about ''compassionate conservatism,'' as originally promised, but rather a political giveaway to the Christian right, a way to consolidate and energize that part of the base.

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.''

It seems to me that the most important person for a man in Bush’s position of leadership should be someone who doubts him. When making a decision that is going to affect so many people, surely seeking an opposing view to your own is imperative to ensuring that the decision is the right one. Such insularity will inevitably lead to exactly the type of tactics to which Wallis was referring – those that address complicated problems (such as terrorism) with tunnel-visioned fixation at the expense of context. Ignoring poverty’s fundamental part of the tapestry of issues that breeds terrorists is foolish and short-sighted. Nuance has become a dirty word in politics, but as we increasingly shun the value of nuanced policy-making, the more likely we are to develop strategies that can win battles but lose wars.

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.''
This is jaw-dropping. Little wonder that, with this view, the Bush administration, without hesitation, enacts policies that are domestically polarizing and exclusionary, and internationally disastrous. It is of grave concern that the current American leadership believes it appropriate to dismiss empirical evidence and the experience of others in favor of designed facts structured to perpetuate presupposed “realities.”

George W. Bush, clearly, is one of history's great confidence men. That is not meant in the huckster's sense, though many critics claim that on the war in Iraq, the economy and a few other matters he has engaged in some manner of bait-and-switch. No, I mean it in the sense that he's a believer in the power of confidence. At a time when constituents are uneasy and enemies are probing for weaknesses, he clearly feels that unflinching confidence has an almost mystical power. It can all but create reality.
If only it were the power of confidence, but indeed, we have seen repeated examples of the Bush administration’s willingness to, at best, massage the facts, and at worst, outright lie to attain their objectives. Confidence is one thing, but when backed by a seemingly never-ending supply of “officials” and talking heads who will represent twisted logic and half-truths as factual evidence, what is called confidence becomes something inimitably worse: mendacious manipulation of the electorate.

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.
Do you hear that, my neighbors in Middle America? Do you hear the contempt with which this administration regards you? They depend on your ignorance to stay in power. They don’t care how hard you work, how hard your life is; the harder you have to work, the more exhausted you are, the less likely you are to ever take the time to find out the truth about who they really are. And the truth is, though you might think this president is a guy with whom you’d like to have a beer, he would never, ever want to have a beer with you.

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.''
This was the great failure of all those who assumed in 2000 that there was no difference between the two candidates. There were, in reality, fundamental and important differences between Al Gore and George Bush, not just as candidates but as men. And because you failed to take the time to discern the differences, because you ignored the details, the devil has come after us all.
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?

''Easy certainty.''
The dangers of easy certainty are these:

Over 1,000 soldiers dead
Thousand of soldiers injured
Global relations strained
Exploding deficits
Civil rights under attack
Millions of jobs lost
Millions of Americans without healthcare
Backwards movement on environmental protections
After-school programs slashed
Continued dependence on foreign oil
Separation of church and state weakening
Abortion rights under threat
AIDS crisis deepening
US more polarized than ever before

That’s what easy certainty gets you.

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