The Bush Tragedy by Jacob Weisberg (Review)
George W. Bush is a Churchill wannabe with the soul of Inspector Clouseau. That, in a nutshell, is the disheartening conclusion I draw from Jacob Weisberg’s illuminating character study of our forty-third president, The Bush Tragedy.
The goal of tragic drama, Aristotle, believed, is to elicit pity and dread as a means of achieving catharsis. After seven years of Bush’s catastrophic misjudgments and squandered opportunities, which certainly invite pity and dread given the stakes for the United States, our country is looking for catharsis. But has America learned anything from watching the tragic spectacle of the Bush administration? The answer to that question may depend on the outcome of the next election. However, as Weisberg’s book makes clear, the lack of introspection, particularly an inability to comprehend one’s hidden motives and correct mistakes, is a fatal flaw, both in a leader and a country.
Weisberg approaches his subject matter from a Shakespearean point of view. That is, he recognizes (in a way that George W. Bush cannot) that life, individuals, and current events are inexhaustibly complex, suffused with contradictions, and utterly resistant to simplistic synopses. Indeed, even George W. Bush eludes any easy categorization, such as historical buffoon.
It is precisely because Weisberg can approach Bush sympathetically that his critical conclusions are so devastating. Bush, is fond of asserting that historians will be unable to get a grip on his presidency for decades. But Bush’s preemptive dismissal of all early-draft evaluations of tenure seems both shallow and self-serving when considered next to Weisberg’s meticulous, studious, and historically informed examination of the administration’s record.
The Bushes are notoriously averse to psychoanalysis. However, Weisberg convincingly demonstrates the Oedipal dimension that is at the heart of the unraveling of forty-three’s presidency and ultimately the Bush dynasty. Put simply, the younger Bush has defined himself in opposition to his father, the forty-first president, to a virtually pathological degree. Whereas the elder Bush was patient, prudent, and civil to a fault the younger Bush cultivated the opposite qualities; he would be brash, impetuous, and confrontational.
Bush Jr. has been haunted by the specter of his successful father for most of his adult life. However, Bush the younger was convinced that his father was a failed president because he failed to capitalize on his success in the Gulf War, failed to finish off Saddam, and failed to be reelected to a second term. Finishing the job his father started but didn’t complete – ousting Saddam for good – would paradoxically allow George Jr. to slay his father’s enemy and thereby exceed his father as well. Bush may not have been cognizant of such dynamics, but advisors like Dick Cheney certainly exploited them.
Weisberg also explores Bush’s extraordinary overconfidence, which he contends masks a deep insecurity. Bush, Weisberg argues, nurtures a deep resentment against intellectuals and liberal elites because of his experience of being ridiculed as a mediocre student at Andover, Yale, and Harvard. Indeed, that same resentment was palpable with both Karl Rove (a self-described "ultimate nerd") and the taciturn Dick Cheney.
All of this goes a long way to explaining why this administration was so determined to brush aside the advice and input of experts of every stripe. Put simply, an axis-of-ignoramuses despised the bureaucratic know-it-alls, be they experts on global warming, analysts at the CIA, or foreign policy gurus associated with first Bush or Clinton administrations. Who needs experts, after all, when the president has his famous gut instinct?
As a result, the normal decision making procedures were subverted. Political hacks that parroted the president’s ideological outlook were brought into replace competent bureaucrats. And Constitutional principles were eviscerated on the dubious (and certainly undemocratic) theory that only an unchecked, unfettered, and essentially monarchical chief executive could protect the United States against it enemies. The results speak for themselves: the WMD fiasco, Katrina, and Abu Ghraib to name just a few of the administration’s spectacular self-inflicted failures.
Weisberg effectively lays to rest any notion that Bush will someday be vindicated by posterity. Perhaps his successors will manage to mitigate the still grim situation in Iraq, but the magnitude of Bush’s mismanagement and misjudgments virtually insure that future historians will compare him to the arrogant and incompetent Andrew Johnson, rather than Harry Truman. Ironically, Bush himself probably believes that he will join the ranks of great wartime leaders such as Lincoln, F.D.R. and his hero Winston Churchill. Tragically, Bush believes stirring rhetoric, eternal optimism, and unbending will are alone sufficient to insure success. Bush has many shortcomings, but his inability to match means and ends is arguably his greatest fault.
Churchill instinctively knew this in a way that Bush does not. The Old Lion once said that a democratic people could face any adversity, provided they believed their leaders were leveling with them and not living in a fool’s paradise. Reading Weisberg it’s easy to come a way with the feeling that Bush has too many tragic flaws to enumerate. But I think one can argue that Bush’s greatest failing is that he lost the confidence of the American people because he lacked the wherewithal not only to tell the truth, but to even recognize it.