Judging George: A Mid-Term Assessment
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 administrations 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.
Bushs 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 nations 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 Bushs 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, Hes 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 Bushs associates that played poorly outside of the United States.
Effectiveness as a Public Communicator. Public communication is the realm in which Bushs 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 Bushs 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 Woodwards Bush at War suggests two respects in which they may be less than ideal. One is that Bushs 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 Bushs 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 ones 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.