A lot of things in Ron Suskind's article on Bush deserves a very close reading and will surely draw extensive, thoughtful commentary over the next week or two. It is amazing how Suskind has parlayed his access to just two marginalized figures from the Bush White House -- John d'Iulio and Paul O'Neill -- into the closest thing to a real inside view of the administration. Most attention will surely be paid to the sentences in which White House officials dismiss critics as representatives of "the reality-based community," and of course his promise to a mega-donor luncheon that he would privatize Social Security in a second term has already triggered the pre-written press releases from the Kerry campaign.
What interested me most about the article was that it resolved a puzzle about the administration that seems to have come up in a half-dozen conversations recently. I've tried to expand on the managerial argument for the profound domestic and international failures. Based on no knowledge at all except what I've read in Suskind, Woodward, etc, I have always imagined that the president is one of those bad managers who is so focused on making the decision ("I'm the one who decides") and on short, conclusive meetings that he doesn't allow a full airing of information to come out, or to hear disagreements. The meeting that in the Clinton White House would have stretched into two hours, blowing the entire day's schedule but ultimately leading to a smarter result, is in the Bush White House "resolved" when the CEO speaks, and everyone leaves the room, most of them a little doubtful about the choice but loyal to the commander-in-chief. A lot of people I've talked to think that managerial analysis is short-sighted: "It's religion. It's got something to do with religion and fundamentalism," they respond.
I always had my doubts about the it's-all-about-religion argument. It didn't seem to fit with Bush's conduct as governor, or what I knew of his life. And, as Amy Sullivan pointed out, if you're so darn religious, why do you never, ever seem to attend church? I know that there is an aspect of evangelical protestantism in which the church as the community of believers is far less important than one's individual faith, but still -- to never go to church, and yet to be considered the most profoundly religious of American presidents?
Suskind's article largely confirms my speculation about Bush's managerial style: Doesn't ask many direct or penetrating questions. Limits sharply the number of people who have access to him. Reaches decisions abruptly, and then treats doubts or alternative views as disloyalty, etc. And as a result, he has wound up way, way over his head. Here's the priceless paragraph:
Considering the trials that were soon to arrive, it is easy to overlook what a difficult time this must have been for George W. Bush. For nearly three decades, he had sat in classrooms, and then at mahogany tables in corporate suites, with little to contribute. Then, as governor of Texas, he was graced with a pliable enough bipartisan Legislature, and the Legislature is where the real work in that state's governance gets done. The Texas Legislature's tension of opposites offered the structure of point and counterpoint, which Bush could navigate effectively with his strong, improvisational skills.
But the mahogany tables were now in the Situation Room and in the large conference room adjacent to the Oval Office. He guided a ruling party. Every issue that entered that rarefied sanctum required a complex decision, demanding focus, thoroughness and analytical potency.
For the president, as Biden said, to be acutely aware of his weaknesses -- and to have to worry about revealing uncertainty or need or confusion, even to senior officials -- must have presented an untenable bind.
And the solution, in addition to tightening the circle even more, was the turn to religion. Suskind quotes the Jim Wallis of the liberal religious organization Sojourners (an odd source, but he seems to have had more interaction with Bush than one might expect): ''When I was first with Bush in Austin, what I saw was a self-help Methodist, very open, seeking,'' Wallis says now. ''What I started to see at this point  was the man that would emerge over the next year -- a messianic American Calvinist. He doesn't want to hear from anyone who doubts him.''
So that's the answer: It's the bad CEO, first, but his solution for the crisis he's created is a turn to an ever more absolutist religious certainty. Religious faith is not a constant anchor in his life, as it was for Jimmy Carter and to a lesser degree Clinton and I think also, based on his fascinating answer the other night, Kerry. Rather, it is a quick fix for an untenable situation, with one piece of religion -- Calvinist certainty -- pulled out of the whole and used to deal with a secular problem. I don't sleep better knowing that, but I'm a little less confused.