Judging George: A Mid-Term Assessment

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Mr. Greenstein is a professor of politics at Princeton.

In his last book, The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton, Mr. Greenstein provided certain criteria by which presidents should be judged. He ended with Bill Clinton. At a conference at Princeton in April, Mr. Greenstein extended his analysis to George W. Bush. Mr. Greenstein's conclusions appear below. The professor's full lecture can be accessed by clicking here.

Emotional Intelligence. A reasonably high level of emotional intelligence is – or ought to be -- a requirement for the custodian of the most potentially lethal arsenal in human experience. To be emotionally intelligent a chief executive need not be a paragon of mental health. It is only necessary that his (and someday her) public actions not be distorted by uncontrolled emotions. By the litmus of emotional intelligence, the young George W. Bush was unqualified for the presidency, because his drinking had a disruptive effect on his everyday life.*

It would not be surprising if someone who abused alcohol until the age of 40 and then abruptly went on the wagon proved to be an emotional tinder box. That appears not to be the case of Bush. After he stopped drinking, his business and political careers were free of emotional excesses. He bore up well in the prolonged campaign that brought him to the White House, rebounded after his defeat in the New Hampshire primary, and weathered the post- Election Day stalemate with seeming equanimity. He also was measured and patient while his associates negotiated the release of the reconnaissance plane crew detained by China in the first national security crisis of his presidency.

More important, of course, is his comportment in his administration’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whatever the merits of those actions, they do not appear to have been driven by out-of-control emotions on the part of the commander in chief. On this score it is instructive to consider a lengthy interview that Bush granted to NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw at the conclusion of the major military action in Iraq. It revealed a president who was serious, thoughtful, and neither defensive nor boastfulness. It was very much the manner of a man at peace with himself.

Bush’s demeanor was strikingly different from that of the emotionally challenged Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon in similar circumstances. Johnson became obsessed by the war in Vietnam, absorbing himself in its details, interrupting his sleep to check on military developments, and experiencing recurrent nightmares. Nixon presided over the removal of American combat forces from Southeast Asia, but was needlessly confrontational in doing so. In April 1970, Nixon decided to strengthen South Vietnamese by attacking a communist sanctuary in Cambodia. Rejecting advice that the incursion be reported as a mater of military routine, he chose to announce it himself on nationwide television, triggering an explosion of protest that complicated his effort to extricate American forces from Vietnam.

Cognitive Style. Late-night television humor not withstanding, George W. Bush does not lack native intelligence. For much of his life, however, he has not been marked by intellectual curiosity or drawn to the play of ideas. Moreover, as the nation’s first MBA chief executive, he favors a corporate leadership model in which he relies on his subordinates to structure his options. As we have seen, he was often remote from specifics as governor of Texas and seemed ill-informed in the early months of his presidency.

After September 11, however, there was a quantum leap in Bush’s mastery of policy specifics. The impression that there had been a sharp increase in his mastery of the issues of the day was confirmed by the legwork of Knight Ridder White House correspondent Steven Thomma, who interviewed members of Congress who are in regular contact with Bush. As one of them put it, “He’s as smart as he wants to be."

Political Skill. The congenitally gregarious George W. Bush resembles his fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson in his aptitude for personal politics and his readiness to seek support on both sides of the aisle. In the aftermath of September 11, Bush employed the same face-to-face political skills that marked his governorship and the earlier months of his presidency, reinforcing his bonds with members of the policy-making community, including key Democrats. In this he was helped by the experienced professionals in his administration. Bush and his associates were far sure-footed the lead-up to intervention in Iraq than they had been in the aftermath of September 11. They relied on shifting arguments and failed to a persuasive case for the necessity of immediate military action against Iraq. There was a lack of suppleness to their efforts to get support for a second Security Council resolution and an abruptness to the communications of some of Bush’s associates that played poorly outside of the United States.

Effectiveness as a Public Communicator. Public communication is the realm in which Bush’s political style has been most conspicuously transformed during his time in office. In a manner reminiscent of the early Harry S. Truman, he began his presidency with a less-than-fluent approach to public communication. After September 11, he made a series of public addresses and unscripted statements that were powerful and effective. As time went on, however, his formal presentations sometimes lapsed into the singsong mode of delivery that marked his inaugural address. It remained evident, however, that he can give an effective address when he invests the effort to do so. That was very much the case of his address to the United Nations in September 2002. However, he was strangely remote in the early period of the war in Iraq, and he compared unfavorably with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, when the two men appeared at a “press availability” on March 27, 2003. Whereas Blair was detailed and analytic in his answers, Bush was laconic and informative, confining himself to such statements as the war would last “however long it takes to achieve our objective.”

Organizational Capacity. Team leadership is one of Bush’s strengths. He has chosen strong associates; he is a natural when it comes to rallying subordinates, and he tolerates and encourages diversity of advice. Because avoiding public disagreement is a watchword of the Bush presidency, the precise dynamics of his deliberative processes are not well documented, but. Bob Woodward’s Bush at War suggests two respects in which they may be less than ideal. One is that Bush’s practices seem to lend themselves to bureaucratic maneuvering. In August 2002, for example, when Colin Powell wanted to stress the importance of addressing the problem of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq through the UN, he arranged for a private meeting with Bush and national security advisor Rice.

A second is that they may shield Bush from potentially valuable give and take, since debate in meetings Bush did not attend (the so- called principals’ meetings) was sometimes sharper than in meetings at which he was present. These are practices that would have been anathema to the modern president who was most gifted at organizational leadership, former supreme commander Dwight Eisenhower. “I know of only one way in which you can be sure you have done your best to make a wise decision,” Eisenhower once remarked. “That is to get all of the responsible policy makers with their different viewpoints in front of you, and listen to them debate. I do not believe in bringing them in one at a time, and than the therefore being more impressed by the most recent one you hear earlier ones.”**

Policy Vision. I reserve policy vision for last because considering it permits an instructive comparison between George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush. The senior Bush was famously indifferent to “the vision thing.” The younger Bush has faulted his father for failing to enunciate clear goals for his presidency and not building on the momentum of victory in the Gulf War in 1991 to rack up domestic accomplishments on which to campaign for re-election. George W. Bush does have the “vision thing,” not because he is an aficionado of policy in and of itself as Bill Clinton was. Rather, he holds that if a leader does not set his own goals, others will define them for him. Having seen his father fail to amass a record on which to win reelection, his practice is to campaign and govern on the basis explicit objectives. Therein lies a potential irony. Bush 41 may have failed to win re-election in 1992 because he lacked vision. If the aftermath of war in Iraq or Bush’s quest for a supply-side remedy for a halting economy go wrong, Bush 43 may be undone because of his policy vision.

*“Emotional intelligence” is more a term of art than science. It was popularized by the science writer Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam, 1995), and it provides a convenient catchall for summarizing the many specific ways in which emotional flaws can impede the performance of one’s responsibilities.

**Dwight D. Eisenhower, Columbia University Oral History Interview, July 20, 1967, uncorrected transcript. The last sentence of the quotation was unaccountably omitted in the corrected final transcript. The classical discussion of the importance of rigorous debate in presidential advisor systems is Alexander L. George, “The Case for Multiple Advocacy in Making Foreign Policy,” American Political Science Review 66 (1972), 751-85.

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Derek Catsam - 5/18/2003

Perhaps. Though Greenstein's work on Eisenhower and on Presidential Power generally reveals him to be an astute student of political history that breaks down disciplinary walls between political science and history. Disagree with what he says. But when someone implies that Greenstein is not a worthwhile intellectualk voice, that his opinion on matters of the presidency are irrelevent or misinformed, it reveqals the ignorance of the accuser and does not seriously dent Professor Greenstein's status in the field. So argue against the point, don't try to slander the writer. Unless you want to appear like a complete ignoramus.

David Foster - 5/18/2003

There's one other important characteristic of an effective executive, in either government or business. That is the willingness to hire strong subordinates and let them have public visibility--as opposed to hogging the limelight yourself.

On this measure, President Bush comes off very well. He clearly is not afraid of strong subordinates.

Josh Greenland - 5/17/2003

"What does this prove? After all, I a truly liberal regular reader of this site that I know describes Josh Greenland's posts as the rantings of a small intellect obsessed with the use of small samples to make specious points."

Just that you're a hateful little troll who's only truly liberal in his use of insults. Gee, and if you're such a regular, how come no one's seen you around before?

John - 5/17/2003

Mr Greenland, you posted the following.
"A truly moderate (votes as easily Republican as Democrat) Texas resident that I know describes George W. Bush as someone who lies all the time, about everything."

What does this prove? After all, I a truly liberal regular reader of this site that I know describes Josh Greenland's posts as the rantings of a small intellect obsessed with the use of small samples to make specious points.

Josh Greenland - 5/16/2003

I don't know the reasons, but Greenstein seems to be big into softening the hard edges of reality so he doesn't end up saying anything too "negative." Either he's a Bush partisan, or he is trying to kiss up to somebody for some reason, or both. If he is trying to kiss up, I don't know to whom or why.

Josh Greenland - 5/16/2003

This article is either filled with euphemisms to make it politically palletable [sp?] to the powerful, or it is a pro-Bush partisan document.

A truly moderate (votes as easily Republican as Democrat) Texas resident that I know describes George W. Bush as someone who lies all the time, about everything. If Greenstein found this to be true of any president, would he be able to admit it?

Evan Davidson - 5/16/2003

Unless this excerpt is wildly unrepresentative of his other works,
Greenstein's credentials as professor of POLITICS quite apparently do not prevent him being unable to clearly and objectively judge recent HISTORY. George W. Bush is not in the top 1000 Washingtonians when it comes to "policy vision" and any informed non-partisan observer knows that well, and would never try to claim otherwise.

Ken Melvin - 5/15/2003

I find it puzzling that no mention is made of the role personal likes and dislikes e.g., loathing Kim Jong Il, Arafat, and Saddam while swooning over Putin and Sharon, play in Bush's foreign policy. I don't recall other presidents making such negative comments regard leaders to the public and am surprised and disappointed at the lack of media comment. This that may play well in Waco makes many another here and abroad cringe.

Derek Catsam - 5/15/2003

John Quepublic should be embarrassed by his ignorance. Anyone who has read even a scintilla of the presidential scholarship of the last 50 years knows greenstein's status in the field. his books on presidential power and on Eisenhower have transformed the field. It's one thing to dispute someone's interpretation. It is quite another to make basel;ess claims that clearly reveal one's own ignorance. What a jackass.

Evan Davidson - 5/15/2003

John Q has nailed it. You can credit President Bush II with being a successfully recovering alcoholic, a dedicated father, a loyal husband, and a skilled political opportunist with clever election campaign managers. One might even claim that he really does care about America's security and truly wants to make the world a better place. As an alumnus of the same national fraternity as the current president, I’ve met a number of Americans who share a number of such traits with him.

On the other hand, to couple the words "George W. Bush" and "policy vision" makes about as much sense as associating Trent Lott with black pride, Rick Santorum with gay rights, or Bill Clinton with marital fidelity. It's not a question of terrorism, McCarthyism or Republican versus Democrat, it’s a simple matter of confusing long term vision with short term tactics.

Backsight Forethought - 5/14/2003

Mr. John Quepublique seems to forget that there was a very significant event which transpired between President Bush's campaign during the 2000 election cycle and today, viz. Sept. 11. Many people believed that America could concentrate on itself, and let the international community and the UN deal with whatever trouble arose internationally. Tax cuts were not outside of the pale or beyond discussion as they appear to be now. As for "no-nothing isolationism", I believe that point has been put moot.
As for the Florida tourist troubles (from when, the early 1990s??) and the terrorists, that appears to be apples and oranges. Criminals in Florida were targeting tourists in rental cars secure in the knowledge that the occupants would have cash and be unarmed and insecure. Terrorists are targeting Americans (and Westerers in general) where-ever and when-ever they can conduct an operation, with the life expectancy of the terrorist a slim, or non-existent, consideration. I think some French and Germans would be pleased to see the sentences held forth from juries in Florida, as compared to what the felons would receive in Europe.
As for knowledge of geography, I haven't heard any of the heads of state complain over inattention in the last year. Hasn't Bush welcomed most of the V-7, Blair, Howard, etc. recently, and even pronounced the names correctly! I haven't heard a Bush joke about who was elected what-where recently. And yes, I include France, Germany and Belgium. They are all to aware that President Bush knows where they are.
And finally, I was a "Frat Boy" in college. It taught me many useful and necessary skills for life after school. Like engaging in debate, respecting individuals and their opinions, budgeting financial resources, and respecting the will of the majority. I also made friendships to last a lifetime amongst individuals who are polar opposites, politically, of me.
Hopefully, the folks at Princeton will neglect to indulge themselves in a "McCarthy" investigation of certain member of the faculty. Why, I thought that sort of thing was so.... Republican.... but then, maybe not.

John Quepublic - 5/13/2003

Dr. Greenstein's book is unfamiliar to me, but if this example is any indication, it is fit for the rubbish heap. Pres. Bush's "policy vision" ? What nonsense. This is a president who campaigned on tax cuts and non-nation building. A feeble recycling of voodoo economics and know-nothing isolationism. Small wonder that his cabinet of extremists and incompetents is ruining America at home and at abroad.

Today's stupidity from W is all too typical: The Saudi terrorists "will learn the meaning of America justice" !!! When was the last time a French or German tourist in Florida was killed and we were told that we will learn "the meaning" of French or German justice ? Does the White House frat-boy think he is president of Saudi Arabia ? He seems to know more about his family ties than about geography.

I wonder what Greenstein's colleagues at Princeton think of his professional qualifications. Will we ever hear from THEM on this website ?

Earl W. Wolfe - 5/13/2003

While reading this article is worthwhile, the full paper presented at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, as noted at the beginning of the article, may be downloaded and is well worth the trouble. Greenstein has done an excellent job of assessing Bush's leadership style and is to be commended for his thoughtful, lucid presentation.

Dave Tabaska - 5/13/2003

Wow. Now this is the kind of article that HNN should be posting more often. Very well thought out. Comparisons to historical events and people. The article's criticisms of Bush are certainly legitimate ones, without falling into the hypercritiques of, say, P.M. Carpenter.

Kudos to Fred Greenstein!!!!

Liz Rich - 5/12/2003

This is an interesting assessment, but the numerous and confusing typos should be corrected post haste. It is unforgivable to have so many typos that often reverse the meaning of what Greenstein obviously meant in this day and age of computers.