George W. Bush is actually one of the most educated of American presidents, believe it or not.
That statement depends, of course, on a couple of whopping assumptions. Like defining education formally, in terms of degrees received, and also on ignoring what happened (and especially what didn’t) along the way to the sheepskins. But if you put aside those two monster caveats, Bush is actually in the top tier of America’s 43 presidents. Only a handful of them had advanced degrees, and quite a few (up through as recently as Harry Truman) had no college at all.
But, of course, the assumptions turn out to be crucial, and they illuminate as clearly as one could ever imagine the difference between being smart and being educated (or, better yet, being educated and having letters after your name). By all accounts, including his own, Bush was both a lousy student, and an arrogant smart-ass to boot. It’s hard to imagine how he could have received his Yale bachelor’s degree or his Harvard MBA in the absence of his name, his money or his legacy. Indeed, both schools must be contemplating whether they can do the reverse of an honorary degree, and take one back for disgracing the institution by association. Bush, who has pushed so many boundaries these last seven years, may now also have pioneered a new phenomenon in higher education: the dishonorary degree (or, The Dis, for short). Given the size of federal grants involved, though, probably Harvard and Yale wait another 17 months before they hand theirs out.
Anyhow, there’s Bush with his master’s degree, ‘more educated’ than Franklin Roosevelt, and way ahead of either Washington or Lincoln (and not a few others), who did not go to college. And yet he is widely perceived as one of the dumbest presidents in history. Go figguh, eh?
There is some contention on this point. Is Bush really so dim, or does he just play at it for political marketing purposes? I’ve read a number of accounts from those who have met with him personally and argue that he is smarter than he comes off in public, though of course, that’s a bit like saying that Hitler was not such a bad fellow because he didn’t murder as many people as Stalin.
Obviously, though, smarter (even if it’s true) does not necessarily mean smart. It’s nearly impossible to imagine how any accounting of this president could render him as smart. I say that, moreover, even resting the definition of the term on the ridiculously narrow parameters of Bush achieving Bush’s personal goals. In other words, we can forget entirely about any semblance of the national interest, which this administration has wrecked entirely, and without question. But even if we just ask whether Bush has been smart in terms of taking care of Bush, it would still be extraordinarily hard to answer in the affirmative.
True, he does have the ‘honor’ and the ‘glory’ of an eight year joyride as president. That’s a whole lot of attention for a guy who’s spent a lifetime seeking it. But who wants that if it’s incredibly negative attention, if you become a laughingstock, the village idiot, the worst president ever, the guy who wrecked his party entirely, the Bush who ruined a family name two-plus centuries in the making? Moreover, Bush has probably got a lot of good years left in him which could well yet be spent at a nice comfy prison in Danbury or perhaps The Hague if his history is ever allowed to catch up to him. And something tells me that President Hillary will not be in much of a pardoning mood. Perhaps he could pray to Karla Faye Tucker to put in a good word with Jesus for him. Oh, wait… Never mind. He will certainly grow more hated over time, as the bills for his presidency increasingly come due, and no amount of Camelot or Nancyalot post-hoc repackaging will ever be able to paste a shine on this stinking turd of a presidency. All this considered, wouldn’t it have been better to just remain down in Texas, growing ever richer mooching off Daddy’s connections and slurping Piñas by the pool, flipping through 1970s editions of Playboy, rolled-up hundred dollar bill hanging out of his nose?
The biggest irony of all is that it didn’t have to turn out this way. Indeed, with 9/11, Bush might even have achieved the true kleptocratic goals of his presidency and still come out ahead of the game, perhaps even considered by history as one of the better presidents. But they gambled it all in Iraq on what they thought would be a cakewalk. It was an all-in, swing-for-the-fence, do-or-die, bet, and at one level there was a certain logic to it. The American people are so insecure, so lazy about history and politics, so callous and so casual about spilling other people’s blood, that they would indeed have adored him had it all gone smoothly and quickly. He would have been a big-shot soothsayer tough-guy, his poll ratings would have soared, and he would have marched on yet again, probably into Iran or Syria.
At another level though, there was some serious myopia to even this tragic but unfortunately semi-insightful logic. Only two presidents, to my knowledge, have ever hit the 90 percent mark since opinion polling began a half century ago. One was Bush, right after 9/11. The other was another guy named Bush, after the Gulf War (not coincidentally, a short little blow-out in Mesopotamia). Did Rove and W really forget that a year and a half after Poppy did that, this same incumbent president couldn’t win an election against a freakin’ governor from Arkansas, a state whose prior claim to fame was as the butt of jokes about inbreeding? And, what is more, a guy with more skeletons than Halloween in suburbia continually popping out of more closets than in the Palace of Versailles? And, just for good measure, with an irritating wife to boot? What were they thinking?
After 9/11, Bush and Cheney could have had damn near anything they ever wanted, less perhaps a few monster multi-billion dollar no-bid Halliburton contracts in Iraq (and even those could probably have been steered to Kabul, or some hidden base in Madagascar or a pipeline project in central Uzbekistan, for chrissakes). And they could even have come out of it all shining, or at least semi-clean looking. Instead, they unnecessarily coupled their atrocious politics with a massive dose of arrogance and incompetence. It’s quite amazing, really, and we progressives need to be incredibly thankful for this rather lucky break, the essential equivalent in terms of historical blunders of Hitler invading the Soviet Union. At every opportunity where they could rub it somebody’s face and make an enemy, they did. At every chance to choose between a good policy and a bad one, they elected the latter. Often at no benefit to their nefarious agenda, either. It’s highly fortunate that they did so, because had they not, Bush might be sitting at a 50 or 60 percent job approval right now, rather than 30, and the Republican Party might be alive and well, in control of Congress, and legitimately optimistic about 2008.
This guy, in short, has made a lot of really, really dumb choices, even if all we’re concerned about is his own personal welfare, not the nation’s. That should hardly be a shock when we’re talking about someone who, as a candidate in 2000 offered the fact that he beat a forty-year booze binge as a major qualification to be president, or a guy who crashed so many business opportunities in Texas that he finally even named one Arbusto. Sheesh.
And yet still to this day, Ol’ W loves to brag that he governs from the gut, and lots of ‘Muricans continue to dig that about him. But why? If it has gotten him in so much trouble, why does he continue to make these amazingly uneducated choices, which amount to simply believing that, “because it has to”, the die will turn up a six, without even realizing that the odds are five to one against.
I suspect there are a handful of basic reasons why Bush governs from the gut. Not that he’s ever sat down and sussed it all out, of course, though Rove no doubt did as he was putting together his manuscript, “Son of Machiavelli: Return of the Prince”. (Movie rights were supposed to be auctioned off right about now, but it appears nobody is bidding. Worse still, they can’t find any actors to play the key parts. Mel Gibson turned down the title role as too ugly, racist and homophobic for him to be associated with, and they can’t even get Charlton Heston to play the Rove character.)
So why does Bush govern from the gut, even with the spectacular failures his entrails have so far brought him? First, because it’s a whole lot easier, and nothing appeals to this supremely lazy president quite as much as easy. Not even obsequiousness, mass violence, or vindication over those (like Mom and Dad) who have called him a failure all his life.
It turns out that doing public policy right is actually pretty hard work. It demands substantial information collection, sustained effort, intricate analysis, thoughtful discussion, careful engineering, extensive political negotiation, and skilled, detail-obsessed and relentless management before, during and after implementation. Boring! At least it’s boring as hell if you happen to be the eight-year-old inhabiting the body of George W. Bush. Policy wonks like Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton really get off on this sort of stuff, but of course they are evil people, even if the reasons for that aren’t quite clear, so that model can be dismissed out of hand. Why does Bush govern from the gut? The first reason is that being on vacation more than any other president in history and making speeches in front of adoring preselected crowds is so much more fun than the hard work of policymaking. So why not just consult your gut, get it over with, and leave yourself plenty of time to party down?
A second good reason for this policy-by-viscera practice is that it allows you to come to any conclusion you want to, including those which would otherwise be inconvenient if based on factual analysis. And, boy, are some of them inconvenient for these guys. For example, let’s imagine that you’re George Bush and you’ve got yourself a really bad jones to invade some foreign country say, Iraq, just as a random choice but absolutely no rationale whatsoever to justify such a completely unwarranted attack. What do you do? That’s easy. Forget real world rationales those are for sissies! Govern from the gut. Make it up preferably something scary and all Hollywood, like WMD or al Qaeda connections. Ditto global warming, stem cell research, budget busting tax cuts, Bill of Rights shredding or just about any policy the Bush administration comes near. Facts don’t help, they hurt. Bad. Ah, but if you’re governing from the gut facts are irrelevant all that matters is what the president’s gut says. When you govern from the gut, you can do anything you want.
There is a third reason that Bush likes to make decisions in this style. Looking at the guy in operation, it’s hard to imagine a more insecure individual, let alone president, a more frightened person desperately seeking the reassurances of solid walls wherever they can be found, even if it’s only in his imagination. The real world, of course, doesn’t come in two flavors right/wrong, up/down, black/white the real world is messy, complicated, and therefore aggravating when not outright terrifying. But scary has to be avoided at all costs when you’re as frightened as George W. Bush, and therefore the gut once again comes in handy. There are no complexities, no nuances, no aggravating shades of gray lurking about in leather jackets with dangling cigarettes, waiting to stir up trouble in this president’s belly. Instead, there are simply two choices, a reassuring dichotomy between whatever happens to be Bush’s preference and that other alternative, a.k.a. Evil. Given that neatly constructed reality, that’s always a real easy decision to make. One might even describe it as a “slam dunk” (and one might then even receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom for doing so).
But George Bush is not the only frightened American running around these days, and a fourth reason for Bush to govern from the gut is that it allows the administration to project a sense of powerful assurance that many in this country have been badly craving, particularly in the post-9/11 period, and particularly as Bush and Cheney and Rove have taken every imaginable opportunity to amplify those fears wherever possible, and as much as possible. Again, the real world is almost always highly nuanced, multidimensional, complicated and contingent. Frightened people don’t want that, though. They want tough, aggressive leadership pursuing a clear, and clearly superior, agenda that provides reassurance by virtue of its emphatic insistence, and sometimes little more (and, lately, almost always a helluva lot less).
Where do you find good stuff like that? In the real world, it does occasionally show up, say on December 8, 1941, when the course of national action becomes uncontested and singular in form. Maybe there were three people in the entire country back then who wanted to send some nicely groomed State Department suits to Tokyo to try working things out with those very polite but badly misunderstood Japanese who had just wiped out 3,000 people in a surprise attack on the American Navy. Maybe three. But not more than that, and quite possibly less. Pearl Harbors are rare, though. Far more often, any true rendering of existing policymaking conditions would portray difficult choices with multiple ramifications, both good and bad, associated with each. Not in George Bush’s gut, though. There, people can find the surety and therefore the reassurance many of them crave at almost any cost, including cost of the truth, and sometimes even the consumption of their very sons and daughters as well. Such public insecurities may be enormously expensive (not least for the rest of us), but that doesn’t make them any less real. Nor, unfortunately, is having a sad sack like George W. Bush as president lacking in reality, but is instead the desperate product of a deeply frightened country acting on its anxieties.
So, why does George W. Bush insist on governing from the gut? Because, as we’ve seen, it’s easier, because it allows him to do whatever he wants to do, because it helps him to feel secure in his own little frightened world, and because it scores points for him with American voters furiously seeking escape from their own nasty demons. Those are lots of good reasons, and would seem alone to be plenty enough explanation for Bush’s decision-making style.
But, of course, there is one other very good reason to add to the list. George Bush also governs from the gut because it’s all he’s got. Being a lovable rogue, a class clown, a party-down-lampshade-wearing-beer-spilling frat boy drunk and a family screw-up certainly make for one particular set of life experiences, and far be it from me to sit in judgment of any given individual who chooses those paths for themselves.
There’s just one problem, though, in this particular case. This individual happens to be president of the United States. This individual has his finger on a trigger which could annihilate the planet. This individual is commander-in-chief of the most fearsome military apparatus ever to exist. This person makes decisions which dramatically affect people’s lives, here and abroad, including how long those lives actually last. This person chooses policies that will likely still be impacting what happens in the world generations from now.
But this individual is woefully unprepared to shoulder such awesome responsibility. This individual hasn’t done his homework over the five decades he had to prepare for office. His brain isn’t up to the task, and his heart wouldn’t know empathy even if they were formally introduced to each other in a Baghdad emergency operating room.
So there is one more reason that George W. Bush governs from the gut. He has to. There is so very little else north of there to draw upon.
DAVID MICHAEL GREEN is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.