Friday, March 24, 2006

Bush: LBJ Without the Torment

In today's WaPo, the well-meaning David Ignatius diagnoses Bush's problem with Iraq as a communications failure: If only the president could figure out a better way to explain his policies to the American people, all would be well. The author's assumption that Bush has a sensible Iraq policy is one that the majority of American people abandoned several months ago--and with good reason.

But even more questionable is another assumption Ignatius makes, this one about the president's own psychology:

Bush has lacked the tragic sensibility found in many of our great presidents. He works so hard at his show of easy informality that you rarely sense the inner man and the anguish that must be there. . . . Bush works hard to disguise it, but one senses the same inner conflict that afflicted Johnson as Vietnam began to go bad. In "The Best and the Brightest," David Halberstam described LBJ's torment: "He was a good enough politician to know what had gone wrong and what he was in for and what it meant to his dreams, but he could not turn back, he could not admit that he had made a mistake. He could not lose and thus he had to plunge forward."

Actually, I don't read Bush this way at all. Nothing he says or does in public suggests any inner torment over Iraq or anything else. Neither does anything reported by the many insiders who have written or leaked accounts of the inner workings of the administration. Bush is universally described as serene, confident, incurious, and unconcerned. He thinks it's appropriate to make jokes about the failure to find WMDs. When Paul Bremer visits him to discuss the challenges of forming a new Iraqi government, the only question Bush asks is whether the new leaders will publicly express their gratitude to America. When a distinguished array of past secretaries of state visits the White House, Bush doesn't seize the opportunity to tap the wisdom they gleaned from past struggles such as Vietnam; instead he poses for photos and then gets the hell out of there lest he hear any unsolicited advice.

As Ignatius notes, Bush appears "tightly-wound" in his recent public appearances to defend his Iraq policy. But the flashes of emotion he shows when sharply questioned don't seem to reflect any profound personal anguish. Instead, they suggest the petulance of a man who resents being challenged, wishes he could exercise dictatorial powers, and is venturing outside his cocoon of yes-men (and yes-women) only because his advisors have pushed him to do so.

As I say, Ignatius is well-meaning. He wants to believe--maybe he needs to believe--that our president is a decent, open-hearted, caring human being who understands the pain his policies have caused and desperately wants to alleviate it. I'd like to believe it, too. Unfortunately, there's zero evidence that it's true.

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