Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Depressing Inadequacy of Bush's "Scruffy Charms"

The following paragraph from Salon's interview with Bush biographer Robert Draper is getting a lot of pickup around the blogosphere:

And it's amazing to me that people refuse to acknowledge that [George W. Bush] 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.
I have no doubt that Bush has a certain degree of personal charm. (As some blog commenter wrote, guys who are both charismatic and nasty aren't that rare--in high school they are known as "bullies.") But I would also remind people (including Mr. Draper) about the strong psychological and emotional appeal that fame, wealth, and power exert.

There are plenty of journalists--including women--who seem to think that men like Henry Kissinger and Fred Thompson are "sexy." And in my work as a business writer I have encountered my share of CEOs who were frankly neither very talented, smart, nor good-hearted and yet were surrounded by devoted followers. When every good thing you enjoy in life, including a generous income, is granted to you based on the whims of a powerful man, it's surprisingly easy to find that man charming--especially if that is how he wants to be perceived.

Let's not forget that Stalin, Hitler, and--yes--Saddam Hussein were loved by their closest associates, too. Bush isn't equivalent to those tyrants . . . but judging a leader by the devotion of his retainers strikes me as a very doubtful enterprise.

There's a second observation Draper makes that I find interesting. He is discussing Bush's well-documented unwillingess to ever admit a mistake:
I think in a way he's like a baseball umpire who feels like if you call a ball a strike, you've got to stick to that. Otherwise people will question you. They will think that your equivocation is a sign of a lack of certainty.
This strikes me as intuitively just right, not least because Bush is a big baseball fan. And it's actually true that baseball umpires are explicitly trained to be forceful and decisive when making a call, especially when the call is a close one. There's even a name for it--"selling the call." The idea is that is you look certain, people will believe you are certain, and they will be more inclined to accept your judgment.

This is a fine psychological tactic when used by baseball umpires. Unfortunately, the job of a president is rather different. The baseball umpire has to make arbitrary, split-second calls and then make them stick, so that the game can continue rather than breaking down into inconclusive squabbling (like the sandlot games we played as kids without an umpire). And, of course, nothing of great moment actually rides on the rightness or wrongness of an umpire's decisions. (Not that I feel that way when a blown call costs my Mets a game.)

By contrast, a president can take his time about making decisions--and when the decisions are crucial, he certainly should. Unlike an umpire, he can consult with advisors and experts before deciding. He can temporize, make tentative choices, and reverse course when events demand--none of which an umpire can do. And because a president is operating in the flow of history, he can learn from mistakes and take steps to rectify any damage he has caused, whereas an umpire who mistakenly calls a runner out can't mend matters by calling the next runner safe.

So for an umpire calling balls and strikes, hiding uncertainty under a mask of self-assurance is a valuable skill. For a president making life-and-death decisions, it's of minimal value--on a par with looking good in a jeans jacket. But since it happens to be one of Bush's most notable talents, it's what he relies on--unhappily for us.

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