There have been, and apparently will be, personnel changes in the administration. The charmless and much-abused Scott McClellan is out; the focus of Karl Rove’s portfolio has shifted back to hardball politics; Rob Portman to the Office of Management and Budget, etc. These shifts are not precisely cosmetic, but they do not signal Big Change. Whoever takes Mr. McClellan’s place will put a new face on the news but will not change the news. Other things are needed for that.
To an extraordinary degree this is George W. Bush’s presidency. Its strengths are his strengths and its weaknesses his weakness. This White House is him. The decisions it makes are him.
This is true to some degree in all presidencies—all presidents set direction or, at the very least, a certain mood, certain administration tendencies. But I’ve never seen a president who controlled the facts and personality of his White House as Mr. Bush has.
He is not, like Jimmy Carter, a man who seeks to gain a sense of control by focusing on details. He would not, as Mr. Carter did at Desert One, instruct the leaders of a high-risk military rescue mission not to shoot on any Teheran crowds if they move against the mission. (See Mark Bowden’s recounting of that failed endeavor in this month’s Atlantic.)
But Mr. Bush’s feelings, assumptions and convictions set theme, direction and mood. All decisions as to declared destination go to him. He seeks a sense of control by making and sticking to the decision. When he won’t budge, the White House won’t budge. When it clings to an idea beyond evidence and history, it is Mr. Bush who is doing the clinging. When he stands firm, it stands firm.
And this is true of this president to an unusual degree, and makes him different from his recent predecessors.
We all like a president who says “The buck stops here.” Mr. Bush never ducks the buck. But he puts severe limits on the number and kind of people who can hand it to him. He picks them, receives their passionate and by definition limited recommendations, makes his decision, and sticks. All very Trumanesque, except Truman could tolerate argument and dissent. They didn’t pass the buck to little Harry, they threw it at his head. Clark Clifford was in in the morning telling him he had to recognize Israel, and George Marshall was there in the afternoon telling him he’d step down as secretary of state if he did.
It was a mess. Messes aren’t all bad.
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Bill Clinton didn’t govern by personal conviction, in part because he doesn’t seem to have known what his convictions were. They were unknown even to his cabinet members. His first labor secretary, Robert Reich, later said he thought Mr. Clinton liked late-night bull sessions where every problem was looked at from every angle and decisions ultimately deferred because talking gave Clinton the impression that he believed in something beyond his career.
Ronald Reagan’s convictions were clear to everyone around him. The destination was clear to everyone around him. But the route was not. That was always up for grabs. Reagan presided over a White House that fought every day over what exactly to do and how to do it. There were liberals, moderates and conservatives around him, and they brutalized each other. He allowed it. But at the end of each day there was a plan, and in the end it worked out pretty well. Reagan could tolerate dissent and ambiguity. He could even tolerate disrespect, which is what some within occasionally showed him. He didn’t really care. His ego wasn’t delicate.
FDR could tolerate tension and dissent too, and in fact loved setting his aides against each other. There was in his management style a certain sadism—he enjoyed watching Harry Hopkins torpedo Harold Ickes at lunch—but there was a method to his meanness. He thought the aide armed with the better plan would kill off the man with the lesser plan. As for personal loyalty, he doesn’t seem to have bothered much about it. He had a job to do. Loyalty can be a nice word for self-indulgence.
George W. Bush, on the other hand, does not tolerate dissent, argument, bitter internal battles. He is the decider. He decides, and the White House carries through. He is loyal to his aides, who carry out his wishes. (It is unclear whether this is a loyalty born of emotional connection or one born of calculation: Do it my way and the tong protects you.) His loyalty means they will most likely not be fired or leaked against, no matter what heat they take from the outside. And so his aides move forward with the sharpness and edge of those who know their livelihoods and status are secure. Bruce Bartlett has written of how, as a conservative economist, he was treated with courtesy by the Clinton White House, which occasionally sought out his views. But once he’d offered mild criticisms of the Bush White House he was shut out, and rudely, by Bush staffers. Why would they be like that? Because they believe that as a conservative, Mr. Bartlett owes his loyalty to the president. He thought his loyalty was to principles.
There are many stories like this, from many others. It leaves friends on the outside having to self-censor or accept designation as The Enemy. It leaves a distinguished former government official and prominent Republican saying, in conversation, “Those people aren’t drinking the Kool-Aid, they’re sucking it from a spigot!”
* * *
Because this White House rises and falls with the president, personnel changes, even seemingly interesting ones, seem ultimately irrelevant. If there is a new Treasury secretary it will look big, but in order to explain what it means in terms of policy, reporters will have to determine what John Snow’s policy was. And there was no Snow economic policy. There was Bush’s economic policy. (It is his triumph. But so snake-bit is he that no one credits him with it.)
John Snow, a bright and accomplished man, might as well, as Treasury secretary in the Bush administration, have been what Woody Allen said he saw when, years into his psychotherapy, he finally turned from his couch and looked to see who he was talking to, only to find his therapist was actually a melon on top of a baseball bat.
If this White House is all George Bush, nothing changes or shifts, nothing hits refresh unless he does. He is a tough and stubborn man, a brave one too, and he leads with his heart. These are virtues, or can be. The presidency can break you—we’ve seen it break presidents—and he does not intend to be broken. But one senses he fears to bend because if he bends, he breaks.
The odd thing is sometimes the bravest thing is to question yourself, question the wisdom around you, reach out, tolerate a hellacious argument, or series of arguments. Yes there is a feeling of safety in decisiveness, but if it’s the wrong decision, the safety doesn’t last. And safety isn’t the point in any case. Governing well is. That involves arguments. It means considering you may be wrong about some things. This isn’t weak—it’s humble. It’s not breaking, it’s bending, tacking, steadying yourself in a wind.
* * *
The greatest criticism of the president’s governing style and White House is that they are uncalibrated.
It’s not enough they commit themselves, they must commit future presidencies. It is not enough they do their job, they must announce “the concentrated work of generations.” It’s not enough they hit Afghanistan, they must hit Iraq; it’s not enough they improve, they must remake. It’s not enough they must fight a war, they must reform America’s most important social welfare program at the same time. It was not enough that Don Rumsfeld manage a war, he must at the same time modernize and revolutionize the military. It’s not enough to allow spending to rise or raise it modestly, you must back the biggest growth in government since the Great Society. It’s not enough to call for liberty, stand for liberty and assist the spread of liberty; you have to insist on it, now, or you are not America’s friend. It’s not enough to do A and B and C, you have to do Z too. It is all so uncalibrated.
Inside the White House they say, “We think big.” Maybe. But maybe they’re not thinking. They say, “We’re bold.” But maybe they’re just unknowing, which is not the same thing. The bold weigh the price and pay it, get the lay of the land and move within it. The dreamy just spurt along on emotions.
It’s as if Bush doesn’t understand the concept of danger. He understands sin, redemption, practicalities (every man has to make his living, life is competition, etc.). But danger? Does he understand how dangerous life is? It’s not cowardly to know this, and factor it in. It is in fact strange not to.
I sometimes think about people who ski. It has seemed to me that people who ski don’t know how dangerous life is. Life hasn’t taught them. So they look for danger on their vacations. They strap pieces of wood on their feet and propel themselves down high mountains full of snow and trees, drops and turns.
They consider this invigorating. The rest of us consider it perplexing. The rest of us are trying to take a holiday from danger. We are all shaped by experience. Lately I think the president could have used a time in his life when his father couldn’t pay the rent. Such experiences tend to leave you unwilling to count on good luck coming, or staying.
Sometimes Mr. Bush acts as if he doesn’t know you don’t have to look for trouble, it will find you. When you are the American president, it knows your address by heart.
I know that on some level he knows this. The president has taken, those around him say, great comfort in biographies of previous presidents. All presidents do this. They all take comfort in the fact that former presidents now seen as great were, in their time, derided, misunderstood, underestimated. No one took the measure of their greatness until later. This is all very moving, but: Message to all biography-reading presidents, past present and future: Just because they call you a jackass doesn’t mean you’re Lincoln.
* * *
In the end it doesn’t matter if White House staffers suddenly listen to critics, to non-pre-vetted policy intellectuals, to questioners, complainers, whiners, Wise Men, if you can find them, and people who actually have something to say. But it does matter if George Bush does.
It matters that he becomes his broadest self and comes to tolerate dissent, argument, ambiguity. That actually would be daring. It would mark not the appearance of change but change, not the appearance of progress but the thing itself.