Conventional wisdom says that George W. Bush flip-flopped (you might say) in the debates from petulance in Miami to belligerence in St. Louis to grins in Tempe. True enough, but the consensus story line of Bush's inconsistency masks the more significant invariant pattern: The president's idea of resolve is to repeat slogans.
This is, as Republicans like to say, a matter of character.
On stage without the props, the panoply, and the absolute control that fall to the president of the United States, Bush, for once, showed glimpses of -- who else? -- Bush. The first debate revealed, as “an administration official, speaking anonymously” told The New York Times' Adam Nagourney, “Mr. Bush repeatedly display[ing] on television a disdainful look that was familiar to people who work with him in the White House.”
Replaying his phrases (“hard work,” “30 countries,” “he voted to increase taxes 98 times”), Bush revealed that what he suffers from is not a speaking deficiency but a thinking deficiency. When confronted by pesky facts and annoying objections, Bush can only repeat the ready-made phrases lodged in his mind. His face reverts to the startled look of a bully unfamiliar with counterarguments.
During his nearly four years in power, Bush has shielded himself from contrary opinion. Uncongenial media amount to a “filter.” Objectivity reaches him directly through his employees, “the most objective sources I have … people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world.”
About Bush's deep, unruffled incuriousness we have the words of former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who told reporter Ron Suskind (as quoted in Suskind's invaluable book The Price of Loyalty): “O'Neill had been made to understand by various colleagues in the White House that the President should not be expected to read reports. In his personal experience, the President didn't even appear to have read the short memos he sent over. That made it especially troubling that Bush did not ask any questions … .”
O'Neill served with Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, each of whom, O'Neill says, expected to hear advisers hash out alternatives from which he could pick and choose. O'Neill expected the same from Bush. Funny thing, though: Bush showed no interest in contrary opinions. Bush was not, in other words, disposed to reason himself toward conclusions. He trusted his gut. He ruled.
Suskind, you will recall, concluded that Bush “was caught in an echo chamber of his own making, cut off from everyone other than a circle around him that's tiny and getting smaller and in concert on everything … .” Bush's Environmental Protection Agency chief, Christine Todd Whitman, said she had to make “blind stabs at deducing the mind of the President.” He didn't “offer explanations, even to his most senior aides … .” “Whitman had never heard the President analyze a complex issue, parse opposing positions, and settle on a judicious path. In fact, no one -- inside or outside the government, here or across the globe -- had heard him do that to any significant degree.”
This is the Bush who was on display in all three debates, the Bush of brute repetition. His sloganeering was, I want to suggest, more than a tactical move to overcome noise. It was more than an advertising method. His rigidity is the shell of his thoughtlessness. Dogma protects him from the perplexity that he finds deeply disturbing. He pumps himself up with bluster. Recycling slogans is only incidentally a stratagem; it is the mind of the man.
There are moments when Bush leaks this truth about himself, a truth to which no witness, friend or foe, has yet mustered contrary evidence. During the second debate, “I'm not telling” was his response when asked whom he had in mind as a Supreme Court nominee in a second term, and followed it up by failing to name his mistakes. One of his more striking statements during four years in office is this remark to Bob Woodward in 2002: “I'm the commander. See, I don't have to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”
I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation. Not Paul O'Neill, not Paul Bremer, not Christine Todd Whitman, not Richard Clarke. Not America. Like it or lump it, America. Love me or leave me.
This mental arthritis explains many things about Bush's administration: ignoring warnings that al-Qaeda was planning an attack on the United States, insisting that Saddam Hussein was buddied up with al-Qaeda and building weapons of mass destruction, refusing to plan for postwar Iraq, blowing off budget deficits, declaring that the economy is making splendid progress, piling tax cuts on tax cuts while reasons toss with the wind, closing the administration to press scrutiny.
Karl Rove has been known to say that if you have to explain, you're losing. So he found himself a candidate who wouldn't know how to explain if he wanted to. No wonder he and Bush are a matched pair.
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of Letters to a Young Activist.