Hero Worship

by Noam Scheiber | October 11, 2004

Paul O'Neill probably knew what to expect when he showed up for a White House meeting about tax cuts in November 2002. Nearly two years as Treasury secretary should have taught him that the Bush administration never misses an opportunity to cut taxes for the wealthy. And, in case they hadn't, Vice President Dick Cheney clarified the White House's intentions at a meeting earlier in the month. When O'Neill politely suggested to Cheney that a cut in dividend taxes wasn't necessary, as Ron Suskind reports in The Price of Loyalty, Cheney coldly informed him, "We won the midterms. This is our due." Still, not long into the meeting, O'Neill got the impression the president was open to debate on the matter, much to the discomfort of the usual tax-cut proponents, such as Karl Rove, National Economic Council Director Lawrence Lindsey, and Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Glenn Hubbard. George W. Bush asked Lindsey, "Won't the top-rate people benefit the most from eliminating the double taxation of dividends? Didn't we already give them a break at the top?" To Hubbard's reply that action was necessary on the supply side of the economy, Bush snapped, "This is about demand. ... I want this to work." Then, just as soon as Bush voiced his dissent, Hubbard and Rove talked him down. "Eliminating the double taxation of dividends is a game-changer," Hubbard said, invoking what, according to Suskind, is one of the president's favorite expressions. "You should be basing the package on principle," Rove chimed in. This logic made eminent sense to the president, who considers himself nothing if not principled. "Why do we play our hand now, negotiate against ourselves? I want to stay with principle," Bush said a few minutes later. There, there, Rove seemed to respond, before leading into one of the tactical discussions that always soothed his boss. "We want to dictate the debate, Mister President. Not be too specific out of the box." Pretty soon, the storm clouds had passed. "Good, what I am hearing is that we roll out in mid-December." Rove could barely contain himself. "Stick to principle," he purred. The episode is vintage Bush. Conventional wisdom holds that the president is a conservative hard-liner bent on upending the Middle East and the U.S. tax code. But, while those may be the practical implications of the decisions he's made as president, the way George W. Bush makes sense of the world isn't through ideology. It's through narrative. Bush has always been a sucker for a good storyline--and never more so than when it involves him. In his own mind, Bush is the central figure in an ever-unfolding series of dramas. As such, Bush prides himself on possessing the qualities of a hero: compassion and justness on the one hand; boldness, principle, and resolution on the other. Bush almost always supports policies that appear to reinforce this image of himself; he opposes policies that appear to contradict it. To be sure, these are qualities that often make Bush a decent, even likeable human being--as when he extemporaneously came out against legacy admissions (a policy he'd personally benefited from) at a recent conference of minority journalists in Washington, D.C. The problem with Bush's penchant for making decisions based on whether they reinforce his own internal storyline is that, when divorced from logical argument or empirical evidence--neither of which Bush has much patience for (see Franklin Foer, "Closing of the Presidential Mind," July 5 %amp% 12)--narrative is an essentially contentless proposition: You can construct equally compelling narratives to justify either side of just about any decision Bush has had to make as president. The Bush tax cuts could be framed as an effort to upwardly redistribute wealth (as Bush initially presumed) or as a bold, principled plan to turbocharge the economy (as Hubbard and Rove subsequently convinced him). Iraq could be framed as a disastrous departure from the war against Al Qaeda or as an attempt to weaken Islamic fundamentalism at its geographic heart. Unfortunately for the country, during Bush's presidency, it's the advisers who favor the most radical policies who have been most successful at telling their stories. Without Ideology Bush's apparent reluctance to cut taxes for the wealthy might seem confusing coming from a man whose administration has done more to reward the wealthy than any in history. Then again, Bush has never been an especially ideological man. Pretty much the only real political conviction in evidence throughout his life is a vague cultural conservatism that came as a response to the 1960s. At Yale, Bush was constantly put off by "[p]eople who felt guilty about their lot in life because others were suffering," he explained to The Dallas Morning News in 1994. One of the most searing experiences of Bush's early adulthood was an encounter he had with the Yale chaplain, William Sloane Coffin. Not long after George H.W. Bush lost a brutal U.S. Senate campaign in Texas in 1964, Coffin informed W., "Oh, yes, I know your father. Frankly, he was beaten by a better man." The memory of the exchange lingered for years. "What angered me was the way such people at Yale felt so intellectually superior and so righteous," Bush told a Texas Monthly reporter in 1994. Still, these feelings never amounted to anything approaching a coherent worldview, certainly not one that was the product of any thoughtful deliberation. During his senior year at Phillips Andover, a roommate was shocked to find Barry Goldwater's The Conscience of a Conservative on Bush's desk. He casually explained that his father had told him to buy a copy. "He was not obsessed by anything, or a cause. He didn't have an agenda, a timetable, a program," one of Bush's former Yale fraternity brothers told Bill Minutaglio, author of the Bush biography First Son. On the rare occasion that Bush talked about his post-college plans, they usually entailed getting rich as a stockbroker. When Bush worked in politics, it wasn't as an activist but as a campaign operative--as the political director of a 1972 Republican Senate campaign in Alabama and later as a paid adviser to his father in 1988. The experiences did little to equip him with the kinds of ideas that might motivate a run for office. If anything, they seemed to make him even less ideological. Asked about his "political agenda for Texas" while flirting with a gubernatorial campaign in 1989, Bush was something less than profound, telling Texas Monthly, "I want to affect the lives of people. ... I want to make life better. I think politics is an arena where you can do that." Within the Bush family, George W. was known as the genial backslapper to his brother Jeb's brash ideologue. As "the old man" would later assess the differences between the two sons in his diary: "[W. ] is good, this boy of ours. He is uptight at times, feisty at other times--he includes people. He has no sharp edges on issues. He is no ideologue, no divider." When it came to Jeb, by contrast, "He is passionate and caring in his beliefs." One of the key factors behind George W. Bush's success during the 1994 gubernatorial campaign was his relentless focus on four themes, dubbed the "four food groups" by the Texas press: education, tort reform, juvenile justice, and welfare reform. (This focus had the advantage of providing a concrete agenda while limiting the terrain Bush had to cover during the campaign.) None of these issues, as George H.W. Bush noted, had an especially sharp ideological edge. In fact, on education, the issue in which W. took the most direct personal interest, some of his stands were downright liberal. Bush had come to believe, as he explains in his autobiography, A Charge to Keep, that financing schools with property tax revenue was "inherently unfair and unequal, because property values are different in different parts of the state." So, during the 1997 legislative session, he proposed an ambitious overhaul of the state tax system: Cut local property taxes by $3 billion and raise revenue through a sales tax increase and a statewide "business activity" tax. The revenue from these taxes would be used to fund schools more equitably. (Bush ultimately settled for a radically scaled-back $1 billion property tax cut when business groups revolted at the prospect of a steep tax increase.) If anything, Bush's impulses have been even more scattershot during his presidency. Take Bush's first encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16, 2001. The nominal purpose of the meeting was for Bush to lay out his case for missile defense, nato expansion, and junking the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which is basically what he did. But, after the private discussion with Putin, the president deviated from his talking points. Bush had spent the previous several months talking tough with the Russians and complaining that his predecessor had over-personalized relations with Boris Yeltsin; Condoleezza Rice had explicitly told European allies earlier that spring that the Russians only respected strength. But, during a joint press conference, Bush made a point of referring to Russia as a "partner." Bush also spontaneously invited Putin to visit his ranch in Crawford, Texas (Putin accepted), and, oh yeah, personally vouched for the goodness of Putin's soul. "I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy," Bush told reporters. "I was able to get a sense of his soul." All the happy talk was a little dispiriting for the foreign policy commentariat, which alternately bristled at the description of Putin as trustworthy (Zbigniew Brzezinski) and groused that the Crawford visit had been deployed as a gift, not a carrot (Bill Safire). It was lost on no one that our new Russia policy had apparently been based on a mere peek at Putin's immortal spirit. As it happens, though, the reason for the policy shift was even creepier. Bob Woodward tells us in Bush at War that Bush was amazed to find Putin wearing a cross his mother had given him. Putin, noticing Bush's reaction, promptly took his cue: "The rest of the story is, is that I was wearing my cross. I hung it on a dacha," he told Bush. "The dacha burned down, and the only thing I wanted recovered was the cross.... I remember the workman's hand opening, and there was the cross that my mother had given me, as if it was meant to be." "Well, that's the story of the cross as far as I'm concerned. Things are meant to be," Bush assured him, signaling his affirmation. The president appears to have been won over by a Sunday-school homily. And not even a very good one. Judging from the Putin episode, Bush is a man with preternaturally strong vision. Not "vision thing" vision. The more mundane kind. We know this because, to the extent Bush can be said to make foreign policy, much of it happens on the fly, after emotional personal encounters with key players, at the end of which he invariably looks them in the eye. Bush's assessment of Putin's soul came after he'd "looked the man in the eye." Bush decided to go to the United Nations before invading Iraq mostly because Tony Blair had lobbied him hard for it, and Blair was a man with "cojones." According to Woodward, Bush was able to discern this by looking Blair in the eye. (Not, as you might think, in said cojones.) In late October 2001, as the Afghan campaign appeared to be stalling, Bush made the decision to stick with his original military plan, Woodward notes, after "look[ing] around the table from face to face ... mak[ing] eye contact, maintain[ing] it, saying in effect, 'You're on board, you're with me, right?'" Bush had Central Command General Tommy Franks trek to his Crawford ranch in December 2001 to discuss his options in Iraq so he could size up Franks's "body language, [his] eyes, [his] demeanor," writes Woodward. Even when Bush neglects to make eye contact, his meetings have an emotional dimension that often leads him to shift course abruptly. Writing in The New Yorker last December, Connie Bruck reported how Bush became taken with the reformist Palestinian finance minister, Salam Fayyad, when Fayyad, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Texas, arrived at their first meeting with his pinkie and index fingers extended--"In the sign for Texas Longhorns!" according to one Israeli diplomat. "He and Bush got along very, very well," the diplomat recalled. At Fayyad's urging, Bush subsequently demanded that the Israelis release Palestinian tax revenue they had frozen in 2000, telling the Israelis, "It's not your money. Why are you holding it in the first place?" (The Israelis had been convinced that, absent adequate controls, some of the money would end up financing terrorism.) Bush also became outraged during a July 2003 meeting with then-Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who presented Bush with a map of the Israeli- built security fence and pressed Bush to condemn it. Bush, again according to Bruck, became so emotional he threw the paper away and shouted, "You'll never have two states with this!" Shortly after the meeting, Bush shocked the Israelis by announcing at a Rose Garden press conference that "I think the wall is a problem.... It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and the [Israelis] with a wall snaking through the West Bank." (Previously, American officials had gently noted their concerns in private.) Bold and Resolute Bush's habit of making snap decisions based largely on emotion would obviously be exasperating for an administration official trying to forge coherent policy. Aides have responded by heavily regulating the flow of information to the president. Meetings between Bush and his top officials are almost always choreographed. Woodward notes that "[Rice] liked to deliver the president clear, unambiguous summaries that reflected their thinking. The best way frequently was to orchestrate and script the next day's [National Security Council] meeting. They agreed on who was going to say what, and in what order." Suskind writes in The Price of Loyalty (which drew heavily from interviews and documents provided by O'Neill), "Before most meetings, a cabinet secretary's chief of staff would receive a note from someone on the senior staff in the White House. The note instructed the cabinet secretary when he was supposed to speak, about what, and how long. ... [O'Neill] had been in many White Houses. He had never heard of such a thing." The other reason aides have taken to scripting their interactions with the president is more sinister: It makes it easier to exploit Bush's view of himself as a tough, bold leader. Every other word out of Bush's mouth in the first few days after September 11 reads like a two-bit John Wayne impression. "That's what we're paid for, boys. We're going to take care of this," Bush announced to his staff aboard Air Force One the day of the attacks. "And, when we find out who did this, they're not going to like me as president." Not long after, Bush informed Cheney, "We're going to find out who did this, and we're going to kick their asses." In late October, when intelligence suggested an attack on the White House might be forthcoming, Bush refused to consider leaving, bellowing, "Those bastards are going to find me exactly here." For top administration aides, this self-image is ripe for manipulation. One could plausibly argue that the bureaucracy most at fault for September 11 was the CIA and that CIA Director George Tenet should have lost his job in the aftermath of the attacks. But Tenet's genius in dealing with Bush after September 11 was to play to the president's preference for bold action. One of Tenet's masterstrokes was to haul his charismatic counterterrorism chief, Cofer Black, into a National Security Council (NSC) meeting to sell the president on the CIA's plan for Afghanistan. Black, who had apparently done an extended tour in a Tom Clancy novel, was fond of saying things like, "When we're through with them, they will have flies walking across their eyeballs," and jumping up from his chair to emphasize a point. "Mister President, we can do this [mission]," he told Bush. "But, you've got to understand, people are going to die." This played perfectly to the president's bold streak. "Let's go. That's war. That's what we're here to win," Bush said. A few days later, Tenet pressed Bush to launch a covert global war on terrorism, which, he argued, would require ceding the CIA "exceptional authorities" to snatch or kill suspected Al Qaeda operatives and to subsidize foreign intelligence agents. Tenet had titled his detailed proposal "Going to War" and had dramatically affixed a picture of Osama bin Laden with a red diagonal bar through his face to the first page of the document. By the end of the presentation, in which Tenet hopscotched through CIA plans in some 80 countries, senior aides like Donald Rumsfeld were a little uneasy about granting the CIA such broad latitude. But Bush was once again enthralled with the ambitiousness of Tenet's plan. "The president made no effort to disguise what he thought of Tenet's proposals," Woodward reports, "virtually shouting, 'Great job!'" Two days later, Bush approved the CIA request. "We are going to rain holy hell on them. You've got to put lives at risk. We've got to have people on the ground," Bush opined, echoing Tenet's and Black's language. The problem, of course, was that the plan Bush endorsed didn't actually put many lives at risk--at least not American lives. Instead, it relied heavily on proxy forces, cruise missiles, and high-altitude bombing, which helped bin Laden and his minions slip out of Tora Bora and into Pakistan in December 2001. But Bush couldn't be bothered with details once he had decided the CIA shared his hunger for bold action. Worse, Tenet was able to leverage his risk-taking story into immunity for himself and his agency. As Woodward summarizes Tenet's thoughts after September 11: "The new factor was the absence of doubt at the top. Bush displayed no hesitation or uncertainty.... It was a new ethos for the intelligence business. Suddenly there seemed to be no penalty for taking risks and making mistakes." (This growing affinity between them would later lead the president to accept Tenet's assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction- -"It's a slam dunk!"--even though the president found the evidence lacking.) Other top administration officials have been equally skilled at playing to the president's John Wayne complex. During a discussion of the Iraq war plan between Franks, Rumsfeld, and Bush in January 2002, Franks informed the president that support for Saddam Hussein's government would be directly related to Iraqis' assessment of U.S. intentions: The greater the buildup of U. S. forces in the region, the clearer Bush's commitment to ousting Saddam would be, and the more likely it was that Iraqis would begin to undermine the regime themselves. This made perfect sense. Unfortunately, Franks and Rumsfeld had no idea whether it was actually true, since no one had any intelligence to back it up. But then, who needs intelligence? "Whatever the merits," Woodward writes, "the argument added to the momentum to war. ... [A]s they all knew, little was more appealing to President Bush than showing resolve." By the summer of 2002, both sides in the internal debate over Iraq had realized that winning over the president required convincing him your position was more action-packed than the alternative. This bias generally favored the hawks, who, after all, wanted to depose a brutal regime half a world away. But not always. Having lost the debate over whether to go to the United Nations on Iraq, Cheney and Rumsfeld were dead-set against calling for a new resolution that would once again demand that Saddam disarm. They complained that the United States would only get bogged down in a "process solution," another Bush buzz phrase. But Powell was up for the fight. "You can't say all of this without asking them to do something," Powell complained when he noticed the call for a resolution missing from a late draft of Bush's U.N. speech. "There's no action in this speech." "He knew that the appeal for action would resonate strongly with Bush," Woodward explains. It did. Bush eventually announced to the world, "We will work with the U.N. Security Council for the necessary resolutions"--this despite Rumsfeld's last-ditch appeal for the president to stand on principle. The Anti-Clinton In contrast to Powell and Tenet, other aides have taken a bank-shot approach to dealing with the president, defining what they oppose as weak and timid, and then encouraging the president to do the opposite. This is where Bill Clinton has proved exceptionally useful. Prior to 1992, Bush had understood politics as an ongoing conflict between Middle America and liberal Northern elitists. Clinton, despite not actually being from the North, became the face Bush affixed to this trope following his father's defeat. Much of what Bush did during the '90s was motivated by the idea of himself as a bulwark against creeping Clintonism. In what Minutaglio tells us was partly a dig at Clinton, Bush announced in his 1994 gubernatorial inaugural speech, "For the last thirty years, our culture has steadily replaced personal responsibility with collective guilt." During an annual White House dinner for the nation's governors, Bush informed anybody who would listen that "[Clinton] is in trouble in Texas." In A Charge to Keep, Bush condemned the cultural rot he felt Clinton epitomized, writing that, "The changing culture blurred the sharp contrast between right and wrong and created a new standard of conduct: 'If it feels good, do it' and 'If you've got a problem, blame somebody else.'" And, of course, on the campaign trail in 2000, Bush vowed to restore honor and integrity to the Oval Office. From the earliest days of the administration, Cheney and Rumsfeld became expert at playing the anti-Clinton card with Bush. This had certain tactical implications. During the Afghan war, for example, Rumsfeld would cleverly deploy Bush's pet term for Clinton's antiseptic, cruise-missile approach to war- -"pounding sand"--when confronted with a proposal he wanted to derail. ("How does the strategy work domestically? We don't want to look like we are pounding sand," Rumsfeld said in opposing a delay in bombing out of sensitivity to Pakistan. "Rumsfeld knew that [the term] was loaded," Woodward tells us.) But it also had important strategic implications. In Plan of Attack, Woodward describes a meeting between Rumsfeld and Bush during the presidential transition period, in which the future defense secretary claimed the Clinton era had been defined by constant retreat from foreign policy threats-- "reflexive pullback," in Rumsfeld's lexicon. He argued that the Bush administration should adopt a "forward-leaning" posture, and Bush enthusiastically concurred. Cheney made a variation of this argument after September 11, maintaining that the Clinton administration's indifferent response to each terrorist incident during the '90s essentially invited the next one. These arguments shaped Bush's thinking, even if he occasionally mangled them. Bush told Woodward in 2002 that he believed the experience of Somalia had paralyzed the Clinton administration, preventing it from taking bold action in places like Afghanistan, where Clinton lobbed a few cruise missiles after the 1998 East Africa Embassy bombings, and Kosovo in 1999, where Clinton bombed Serbian troops from the safe remove of 30,000 feet. ... Wait, Kosovo? Didn't Bush only reluctantly support the Clinton administration's Kosovo campaign--and wasn't his concern that Clinton was too aggressive? (As one Bush adviser explained in the September 27, 1999, issue of The New Republic: "We don't believe in this emotional stuff. We don't believe in sending troops all over the place.") Oh, never mind. The important thing is that Kosovo happened on Clinton's watch. Rumsfeld pressed his Bush-as-anti-Clinton line to begin laying the groundwork for Iraq in the aftermath of September 11. He pointed out that, unlike Afghanistan, Iraq actually had targets capable of being hit, which played to Bush's refusal to "put a million-dollar missile on a five-dollar tent, " another allusion to Clinton-era cravenness. Rumsfeld also argued that the United States needed to demonstrate it was going on a global offensive, a contrast with the allegedly defensive posture of the Clinton era, which Bush seized on. The ploy worked. On November 21, 2001, with the military portion of the Afghan campaign winding down, Bush took Rumsfeld aside and asked him to begin preparing options for a possible invasion of Iraq. Indeed, it was arguably Clinton who provided the coup de grce on Iraq. By early 2003, administration hawks were claiming that, with tens of thousands of troops in the region, failing to invade would deal a devastating blow to U.S. credibility. In January, Rumsfeld told Bush, "The penalty for our country and for our relationships and potentially the lives of some people are at risk if you have to make a decision not to go forward." Cheney, according to Woodward, "felt that once the president had laid out his objective of regime change, and begun the process of troop deployments and CIA work, then if they didn't follow through, they would be like Clinton--a lot of bold talk and not much action." The logic had a certain circular beauty: Bush needed to take action up front (i. e., deploy troops), as Franks had advised, to make the war easier if he eventually decided to wage it. But, once he did so, it would constitute a Clinton-like retreat not to follow through with an invasion. Echoes of Reagan Bush isn't the first president to make sense of the world by reducing it to simple stories featuring himself in the starring role. As Lou Cannon writes in his definitive Ronald Reagan biography, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, "Reagan's reliance on metaphor and analogy for understanding made him vulnerable to arguments that were short on facts and long on theatrical gimmicks.... He made sense of foreign policy through his long-developed habit of devising dramatic, all-purpose stories with moralistic messages, forceful plots, and well-developed heroes and villains." And yet, Reagan's presidency was less spooky than Bush's. One reason is that Reagan was, in some sense, more hands-off--some might say out of the loop--than Bush, which created a vacuum his advisers were forced to fill. That meant ambitious aides couldn't simply exploit the characterological weaknesses of the president. They had to duke it out among themselves in more traditional bureaucratic warfare. The corollary to this is that influential positions within the Reagan administration were more evenly distributed between moderates (like Treasury Secretary Don Regan, Secretary of State George Shultz, Chief of Staff James Baker), and hard-liners (like Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, many of the political appointees at Treasury, and, at least early in his tenure, Office of Management and Budget Director Dave Stockman). Hard-liners won on the 1981 tax cut and the administration's defense buildup; the 1986 tax reform package was a victory for moderates. In the Bush administration, by contrast, the list of high-ranking moderates consisted of O'Neill, Powell, and Christie Whitman, head of the Environmental Protection Agency. O'Neill and Whitman were early casualties. Powell was marginalized from the get-go. Perhaps more important, the narrative Reagan clung to most stubbornly was, on the one hand, more dada than anything Bush could dream up, but, on the other hand, more detailed in its policy implications. Reagan, as Hendrik Hertzberg points out in his 1991 tnr essay on the Reagan presidency, was obsessed with saving the world from Armageddon, which he understood to mean nuclear holocaust ("The Child Monarch," September 9, 1991). Although the goal was grandiose, Reagan understood it in very concrete terms: eliminating nuclear weapons. Bush's preferred narratives, by contrast, have always been vague enough to lead to almost any policy. One outgrowth of Bush's image of himself as a heroic leader has been a near-evangelical zeal to spread freedom around the world. Bush's response to Powell's plea in August 2002 about the potentially chaotic consequences of invading Iraq was, "[M]y job is to secure America.... And that I also believe that freedom is something people long for. And that, if given a chance, the Iraqis over time would seize the moment." Bush told Woodward in December 2003, "I say that freedom is not America's gift to the world. Freedom is God's gift to everybody in the world. I believe that. As a matter of fact, I was the person that wrote the line, or said it. I didn't write it, I just said it in a speech. And it became part of the jargon." But, unlike Reagan's determination to save the world, Bush's Simn Bolvar pretensions are ill-defined. Since restoring freedom in Bush's mind could simply mean toppling a tyrannical regime, it provided zero prescription for action once U.S. forces had ousted the Taliban and Saddam. Rumsfeld, Cheney, and others exploited this vacuum to push their vision of how the military should be employed. In Afghanistan, Rumsfeld and Cheney adamantly opposed using American troops for nation-building, and Bush parroted this argument back to them, unaware of the contradiction with his ostensible desire to build a democratic government. "Look, I oppose using the military for nation-building. Once the job is done, our forces are not peacekeepers," he said at an NSC meeting in mid-October 2001, as the Northern Alliance closed in on Kabul. By January 2003, two months before the invasion of Iraq, Cheney had recognized that establishing democracy was one of Bush's motivations. But, at the same time, the vice president's mantra in internal deliberations was that the United States needed to maintain a "light hand in the postwar phase." Bush, of course, endorsed this "light hand" approach. Partly as a result, the story of Iraq hasn't had a very happy ending--at least not outside the president's mind. Then again, to George W. Bush, that's the venue that's always mattered most.

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