Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Incurious George

Ezra Klein links to an interview with Robert Draper, who has recently compiled information and extracted from years of interviews in order to pen Dead Certain (of which, I'm sure most of you have heard bits and pieces here and there). From the interview:
[I]t's amazing to me that people refuse to acknowledge that he has any gifts at all. But those who are in a room can feel it. And among them is that Bush has a very pungent personality. He has these scruffy charms about him. He doesn't really put on airs. The guy you see is the guy he is, pretty much. Sure, he has a variety of shortcomings, and they've hamstrung his presidency in a variety of ways. But one thing that became meaningful to me in doing that book is that I interviewed people who have been working for Bush over the years -- they love this guy. I don't just mean that they admire him. I don't just mean they are in awe of him. I mean they really love him and would take a bullet for him. I've spent a lot of time now with a lot of elected officials and the people who work for them, and you can't always say that about them.

But beyond the fact that Bush is charming and there's this incredible loyalty that is cultivated between him and his subordinates, he has a surprising intellect. A guy who reads Cormac McCarthy isn't a dummy. And a guy who can listen to an economist talk about a tax scheme and just eviscerate the guy because he doesn't seem to really understand what he is talking about and there's a loose thread in his argument cannot be intellectually lazy. I think that what's difficult to reconcile is this man's brightness with his capacity for incuriosity. I think where the rubber meets the road there is that Bush, for all of his talk about him being so comfortable in his own skin, possesses insecurities like the rest of us. And Bush, due to his insecurities, really doesn't like to be challenged.

It says a lot that this man, at the age of 61, stills feels the need to differentiate himself from his father, and there are examples of that throughout the book. And that this man, at the age of 61, having received the best education that money can buy from Yale and Harvard, still feels the need to run down the elite Ivy Leaguers. That this man, after being a very successful governor, felt like he had to select as his No. 2 guy a man who had no interest in the No. 1 spot. Clinton, for all his shortcomings, was not in any way threatened by having as his vice president a guy with clear designs on the presidency. He still found he could get a lot out of Al Gore and trust Al Gore while dealing with Gore's ambitions. Bush couldn't do that.

This is a guy who really possesses a lot of insecurities, and I think that's why he evinces this sort of incuriosity. There are only certain kinds of challenges that he can deal with. What is admirable about Bush is also part of his insecurity. I think because his insecurity drives him to want to be relevant and want to do big things, he's willing to throw the ball long. And I think that because of that, history is not going to judge this man with indifference. They are not going to judge him as Franklin Pierce. He is either going to go down in history as a disastrous flop or a really monumental president. [emphasis added]
One of my closest friends (let's call him Q) has had the rare opportunity to participate in and around high level meetings and the like at the White House. Q's interactions with the White House (including the POTUS) have included detailed briefings and other estoterica regarding a variety of foreign policy issues.

Some time back, Q told me that one of the biggest misconceptions that the public held about Bush is that he is stupid. On the contrary, Q assured me, Bush consistently displays a surprising level of knowledge about many of the issues discussed, and the ability to quickly come up to speed on the rest (at least when his interest was piqued). This admonition from someone whose judgment I generally trust has always bothered me a bit, though, since there has been so much seemingly conflicting evidence.

Draper does a good job of reconciling the two strands. Myopia born out of incuriosity to those issues not on Bush's radar and denial about negative trends, mixed with a potent blend of stubbornness and insecurity, is a better diagnosis of Bush than coarse stupidity. It's not entirely clear that this version of events should instill any greater confidence in Bush's leadership abilities (wanting to do "big" things out of some oedipal insecurities is a pretty reckless starting point, for example).

Still, make of it what you will.

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