Presidency: Who Is George W. Bush?

News at Home

Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

For being such a seemingly simple guy, President Bush has proven to be almost inscrutable in his first twelve months in office. While he's a family man through and through, as advertised, and is as disciplined as he seemed to be during the campaign (though cynics have been guessing the president was actually drunk when he choked on his pretzel), in nearly all other ways he has confounded the predictions of both friends and enemies.

Twelve months into his presidency we still don't know who he is.

After he caved in to right-wing critics who opposed the nomination of Marc Racicot as attorney general and waffled on the education bill to satisfy Ted Kennedy's objections, Frank Rich in the New York Times concluded last July that"the real ideology that drives Mr. Bush" remains less that of a hard right winger than that of a man of"soft character, which is a product of a biography full of easy landings." But who today would advance the same argument? It now seems as misguided as the mischaracterization of his father, a genuine war hero, as a lapdog without guts.

Right-wingers like the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol were shocked last spring when Mr. Bush tried to conciliate the Chinese officials who held our spy plane crew rather than confront them. Our Chinese policy under Mr. Bush, Kristol complained, is no different than it was under Bill Clinton.

Since 9-11 Mr. Bush has seemingly adopted a simple clear identity, which the White House eagerly embraces at every turn. But his best friends insist he hasn't changed, which just confuses the picture again because he certainly seems to have changed.

What drives him isn't even clear. One biographer insists that it is a desire to fill the shoes of his father and there's an argument to be made for that. Like his father he went to Andover, joined Skull and Bones, and after graduating from Yale headed to Texas to make his fortune in the oil business. But there's plenty of evidence that he really was trying to win his mother's respect after Jeb came along and became the Bush child most likely to succeed. When George decided to run for governor of Texas his mother Barbara tried to discourage him. Jeb would be the family politican.

Maybe Bush is just a bundle of contradictions, the Walt Whitman of presidents. But nobody seems to notice. Ask almost anybody and they'll say Bush is a simple guy.

All presidents are more complicated than they appear. Generalizations cannot contain them. TR was more nuanced, Calvin Coolidge more talkative, Hoover more thoughtful and kind, FDR more devious, Ike more intelligent, Reagan more focused than the stereotypes allow. But no previous president contains the multitude of contradictions that Bush does.

Mr. Bush was known in the campaign of 2000 for his remarkable ineptitude with the English language. On September 20 he gave one of the greatest speeches in the history of the presidency.

He looked blank when a TV reporter asked him who the leader of Pakistan was and got angry that anyone would think a candidate running for president should know such a thing. He now regularly talks with whats-his-name and dozens of other leaders around the world with knowledge and insight.

He came into office determined to focus on domestic politics. He is now spending almost all of his time on foreign policy and doing quite well at it.

He said he could look into the eyes of Vladimir Putin and see his soul. He looked into the eyes of James Jeffords and somehow missed the fact that the senator was about to jump parties.

He came in preaching unilateralism. He has spent the last four months building a coalition against terrorism.

He said he detested the idea of nation-building. The secretary of state in his administration has now committed the United States to rebuilding the nation of Afghanistan.

And they say irony is dead. Mr. Bush, to be sure, employs a vocabulary that is so decidedly blunt his own wife has chided him from time to time, as she did when he declared that he wanted Osama bin Laden dead or alive. But even he must wonder in astonishment at the theme of irony that runs through his presidency.

Should the focus of the country shift back toward domestic affairs we are likely to see the return of the old Mr. Bush, the puppet of big corporate interests and religious right-wingers. But maybe he'll surprise us. He has done it before. The most consistent thing about Mr. Bush, after all, are his inconsistencies.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Jose Alfredo Bach - 1/27/2002

One may as well use ice cubes to weld steel, but here it goes by way of thanks for the Newsletter. And with all due respect:

Mr. Shenkman's often apt observations, especially those that exhibit Arbusto's ironic inconsistencies, are subject to other interpretations. The one I hold is this: Arbusto seems to be a good example of the type of character portrayed by Peter Sellers in the movie "Being There." He, like the Sellers character, never really says anything that contains information or that refers to any but the broadest of contexts; consequently, there is nothing in his speech that is arguable. In this way Arbusto manages to hide an average or below average mind that should be obvious by now to everyone, especially Texans. He has been hacking up impromptu speech with empty cant, malapropism, oxymoron and tautology, as well as mispronunciation, for years now. He exhibits the lack of curiosity and vision of the utterly conventional mind. There isn't the slightest spark of originality in the man. That is why he cannot lead, but lags. He is thus the archetypical politician of the Reagan age. Conservatism of Reagan's kind, is, after all, just an excuse for not thinking. To hear Arbusto speak we have a Texas lounge lizard for a president. When he lets someone write his speeches, no doubt they're OK.

Jose Alfredo Bach
San Marcos, TX

georgeberes - 1/23/2002

When George Bush spoke in Portland two weeks ago, his reference to "Not over my dead body" resulted in a paragraf explanation by the NY Times about "what he really meant." Funny? Maybe. But not when he commits the same gaffes while conversing with world leaders. I thot perhaps I misunderstood Mr. Shenkman when he disputed the belief Bush is "accustomed to soft landings." My worst fears were realized when Rick described the elder Bush as "a legitimate war hero." Irrelevant; but also inaccurate. And the Sept. 20 speech that is given the label "great"-- maybe the speechwriters are "great," or more likely, adept at borrowing from (surely not plagiarizing) Winston Churchill. But to suggest greatness in a Bush speech is an oxymoron. But enuf Bush-bashing. The danger is that as the public gets cynical about the inept front-man, the insidious ones behind the scenes continue to get away with murder. - George Beres

Gregor - 1/23/2002

Sure, Dubya is a deep, thoughtful, complex man.

Or he is a near-idiot whose motivation is to live as comfortable a life as possible, while still making mommy and daddy proud of him.

His motivation in foreign affairs: Do whatever the oil companies tell him to do.

His motivation in domestic affairs: Do whatever his real bosses (the people who bought his presidency) tell him to do.

Why is he sometimes an idiot and sometimes of almost normal intelligence level? Sometimes he has to talk without being rehearsed. Sometimes he gets to rehearse. Here's a news flash for the writer of this article: Modern presidents have speech writers; they don't necessarily create their own material.