The Misunderestimated Man
How Bush chose stupidity.
The question I am most frequently asked about Bushisms is, “Do you really think the president of the United States is dumb?”
The short answer is yes.
The long answer is yes and no.
Quotations collected over the years in Slate may leave the impression that George W. Bush is a dimwit. Let’s face it: A man who cannot talk about education without making a humiliating grammatical mistake (“The illiteracy level of our children are appalling”); who cannot keep straight the three branches of government (“It’s the executive branch’s job to interpret law”); who coins ridiculous words (“Hispanos,” “arbolist,” “subliminable,” “resignate,” “transformationed”); who habitually says the opposite of what he intends (“the death tax is good for people from all walks of life!”) sounds like a grade-A imbecile.
And if you don’t care to pursue the matter any further, that view will suffice. George W. Bush has governed, for the most part, the way any airhead might, undermining the fiscal condition of the nation, squandering the goodwill of the world after Sept. 11, and allowing huge problems (global warming, entitlement spending, AIDS) to metastasize toward catastrophe through a combination of ideology, incomprehension, and indifference. If Bush isn’t exactly the moron he sounds, his synaptic misfirings offer a plausible proxy for the idiocy of his presidency.
In reality, however, there’s more to it. Bush’s assorted malapropisms, solecisms, gaffes, spoonerisms, and truisms tend to imply that his lack of fluency in English is tantamount to an absence of intelligence. But as we all know, the inarticulate can be shrewd, the fluent fatuous. In Bush’s case, the symptoms point to a specific malady—some kind of linguistic deficit akin to dyslexia—that does not indicate a lack of mental capacity per se.
Bush also compensates with his non-verbal acumen. As he notes, “Smart comes in all kinds of different ways.” The president’s way is an aptitude for connecting to people through banter and physicality. He has a powerful memory for names, details, and figures that truly matter to him, such as batting averages from the 1950s. Bush also has a keen political sense, sharpened under the tutelage of Karl Rove.
What’s more, calling the president a cretin absolves him of responsibility. Like Reagan, Bush avoids blame for all manner of contradictions, implausible assertions, and outright lies by appearing an amiable dunce. If he knows not what he does, blame goes to the three puppeteers, Cheney, Rove, and Rumsfeld. It also breeds sympathy. We wouldn’t laugh at FDR because he couldn’t walk. Is it less cruel to laugh at GWB because he can’t talk? The soft bigotry of low expectations means Bush is seen to outperform by merely getting by. Finally, elitist condescension, however merited, helps cement Bush’s bond to the masses.
But if “numskull” is an imprecise description of the president, it is not altogether inaccurate. Bush may not have been born stupid, but he has achieved stupidity, and now he wears it as a badge of honor. What makes mocking this president fair as well as funny is that Bush is, or at least once was, capable of learning, reading, and thinking. We know he has discipline and can work hard (at least when the goal is reducing his time for a three-mile run). Instead he chose to coast, for most of his life, on name, charm, good looks, and the easy access to capital afforded by family connections.
The most obvious expression of Bush’s choice of ignorance is that, at the age of 57, he knows nothing about policy or history. After years of working as his dad’s spear-chucker in Washington, he didn’t understand the difference between Medicare and Medicaid, the second- and third-largest federal programs. Well into his plans for invading Iraq, Bush still couldn’t get down the distinction between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the key religious divide in a country he was about to occupy. Though he sometimes carries books for show, he either does not read them or doesn’t absorb anything from them. Bush’s ignorance is so transparent that many of his intimates do not bother to dispute it even in public. Consider the testimony of several who know him well.
Richard Perle, foreign policy adviser: “The first time I met Bush 43 … two things became clear. One, he didn’t know very much. The other was that he had the confidence to ask questions that revealed he didn’t know very much.”
David Frum, former speechwriter: “Bush had a poor memory for facts and figures. … Fire a question at him about the specifics of his administration’s policies, and he often appeared uncertain. Nobody would ever enroll him in a quiz show.”
Laura Bush, spouse: “George is not an overly introspective person. He has good instincts, and he goes with them. He doesn’t need to evaluate and reevaluate a decision. He doesn’t try to overthink. He likes action.”
Paul O’Neill, former treasury secretary: “The only way I can describe it is that, well, the President is like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people. There is no discernible connection.”
A second, more damning aspect of Bush’s mind-set is that he doesn’t want to know anything in detail, however important. Since college, he has spilled with contempt for knowledge, equating learning with snobbery and making a joke of his own anti-intellectualism. (“[William F. Buckley] wrote a book at Yale; I read one,” he quipped at a black-tie event.) By O’Neill’s account, Bush could sit through an hourlong presentation about the state of the economy without asking a single question. (“I was bored as hell,” the president shot back, ostensibly in jest.)
Closely related to this aggressive ignorance is a third feature of Bush’s mentality: laziness. Again, this is a lifelong trait. Bush’s college grades were mostly Cs (including a 73 in Introduction to the American Political System). At the start of one term, the star of the Yale football team spotted him in the back row during the shopping period for courses. “Hey! George Bush is in this class!” Calvin Hill shouted to his teammates. “This is the one for us!” As governor of Texas, Bush would take a long break in the middle of his short workday for a run followed by a stretch of video golf or computer solitaire.
A fourth and final quality of Bush’s mind is that it does not think. The president can’t tolerate debate about issues. Offered an option, he makes up his mind quickly and never reconsiders. At an elementary school, a child once asked him whether it was hard to make decisions as president. “Most of the decisions come pretty easily for me, to be frank with you.” By leaping to conclusions based on what he “believes,” Bush avoids contemplating even the most obvious basic contradictions: between his policy of tax cuts and reducing the deficit; between his call for a humble foreign policy based on alliances and his unilateral assertion of American power; between his support for in-vitro fertilization (which destroys embryos) and his opposition to fetal stem-cell research (because it destroys embryos).
Why would someone capable of being smart choose to be stupid? To understand, you have to look at W.’s relationship with father. This filial bond involves more tension than meets the eye. Dad was away for much of his oldest son’s childhood. Little George grew up closer to his acid-tongued mother and acted out against the absent parent—through adolescent misbehavior, academic failure, dissipation, and basically not accomplishing anything at all until well into his 40s.
Dubya’s youthful screw-ups and smart-aleck attitude reflect some combination of protest, plea for attention, and flailing attempt to compete. Until a decade ago, his résumé read like a send-up of his dad’s. Bush senior was a star student at Andover and Phi Beta Kappa at Yale, where he was also captain of the baseball team; Junior struggled through with gentleman’s C’s and, though he loved baseball, couldn’t make the college lineup. Père was a bomber pilot in the Pacific; fils sat out ‘Nam in the Texas Air National Guard, where he lost flying privileges by not showing up. Dad drove to Texas in 1947 to get rich in the oil business and actually did; Son tried the same in 1975 and drilled dry holes for a decade. Bush the elder got elected to Congress in 1966; Shrub ran in 1978, didn’t know what he was talking about, and got clobbered.
Through all this incompetent emulation runs an undercurrent of hostility. In an oft-told anecdote circa 1973, GWB—after getting wasted at a party and driving over a neighbor’s trash can in Houston—challenged his dad. “I hear you’re lookin’ for me,” W. told the chairman of the Republican National Committee. “You want to go mano a mano right here?” Some years later at a state dinner, he told the Queen of England he was being seated far away because he was the black sheep of the family.
After half a lifetime of this kind of frustration, Bush decided to straighten up. Nursing a hangover at a 40th-birthday weekend, he gave up Wild Turkey, cold turkey. With the help of Billy Graham, he put himself in the hands of a higher power and began going to church. He became obsessed with punctuality and developed a rigid routine. Thus did Prince Hal molt into an evangelical King Henry. And it worked! Putting together a deal to buy the Texas Rangers, the ne’er-do-well finally tasted success. With success, he grew closer to his father, taking on the role of family avenger. This culminated in his 1994 challenge to Texas Gov. Ann Richards, who had twitted dad at the 1988 Democratic convention*.
Curiously, this late arrival at adulthood did not involve Bush becoming in any way thoughtful. Having chosen stupidity as rebellion, he stuck with it out of conformity. The promise-keeper, reformed-alkie path he chose not only drastically curtailed personal choices he no longer wanted, it also supplied an all-encompassing order, offered guidance on policy, and prevented the need for much actual information. Bush’s old answer to hard questions was, “I don’t know and, who cares.” His new answer was, “Wait a second while I check with Jesus.”
A remaining bit of poignancy was his unresolved struggle with his father. “All I ask,” he implored a reporter while running for governor in 1994, “is that for once you guys stop seeing me as the son of George Bush.” In his campaigns, W. has kept his dad offstage. (In an exceptional appearance on the eve of the 2000 New Hampshire primary, 41 came onstage and called his son “this boy.”) While some describe the second Bush presidency as a restoration, it is in at least equal measure a repudiation. The son’s harder-edged conservatism explicitly rejects the old man’s approach to such issues as abortion, taxes, and relations with Israel.
This Oedipally induced ignorance expresses itself most dangerously in Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq. Dubya polished off his old man’s greatest enemy, Saddam, but only by lampooning 41′s accomplishment of coalition-building in the first Gulf War. Bush led the country to war on false pretenses and neglected to plan the occupation that would inevitably follow. A more knowledgeable and engaged president might have questioned the quality of the evidence about Iraq’s supposed weapons programs. One who preferred to be intelligent might have asked about the possibility of an unfriendly reception. Instead, Bush rolled the dice. His budget-busting tax cuts exemplify a similar phenomenon, driven by an alternate set of ideologues.
As the president says, we misunderestimate him. He was not born stupid. He chose stupidity. Bush may look like a well-meaning dolt. On consideration, he’s something far more dangerous: a dedicated fool
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