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The Bad CEO Gets Religion

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 [2002] 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.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on October 17, 2004 | Permalink


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There's another piece of the analysis that's missing from the "bad CEO" and the "Messianic American Calvinist" critriques which is a fundamental feature of his personality - Bush doesn't pay attention (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder??) Adding that to the mix explains some of the bad decisions. I would love to get this idea into the Kerry campaign:

Premise #1: Undecided voters and voters in the middle do not think George Bush is a bad person. He seems like a nice enough guy, someone you might like to hang out with. His faith is an example of his humanity. Voters in the middle can dismiss rhetoric about lying as mean-spirited and campaign exaggeration.
Premise #2: But there is something else that's very troubling about George Bush that is hard to put a finger on. It is related to his not reading anything, his history of trouble in school, his distractibility, history of compulsive behavior, drugs, in and out of trouble as a young man, erratic National Guard performance, etc.

George Bush doesn’t pay attention.

This frame provides a device for identifying his worrisome personality and an interpretation of his shaky past and distractible character without having to actually say Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which is what most people suspect, if they think about it. Saying he deceived and misled gives him too much credit. This frame also explains virtually all of the outrages of his presidency, outrages that the messianic leader theory doesn't explain:
• Bush didn’t pay attention in 2001, before 9-11, when Kim Dae Jung came to Washington seeking support for support for North Korean energy support in exchange for North Korea giving up nuclear weapons programs. Now North Korean is moving forward with its nuclear weapons program.
• Bush didn’t pay attention to warnings in August of 2001 about “terrorists determined to attack inside the United States.”
• Bush didn’t pay attention to Osama Bin Laden and let him go in the Toro Bora mountains.
• Bush didn’t pay attention to the United Nations weapons inspectors who did not find weapons of mass destruction.
• Bush didn’t pay attention when advisors told him that the evidence of WMD was shaky.
• Bush didn’t pay attention to what was needed to win secure the peace in Iraq and wasn’t prepared for the vast looting, the insurgency and the challenge of protection our own troops.
• Bush didn’t pay attention to securing nuclear materials in Iraq and so they were stolen by ... no one knows.
• Bush didn’t pay attention to the radical right wing neocons in the Pentagon who have hijacked our foreign policy.
• Bush didn’t pay attention when John Kerry said he would never give veto power to other countries and the United Nations.
• Bush didn’t pay attention to what Kerry has actually said about the Iraq war.
• Bush didn’t pay attention to the economy as jobs disappeared.
• Bush didn’t pay attention as the United States deficit grew to a shocking $7.4 trillion, requiring the U.S. Treasure to resort to accounting tricks because the deficit has hit the debt ceiling.
• Bush doesn’t understand John Kerry’s health care plan because he didn’t pay attention to Kerry’s detailed explanation of it.
Etc ...

Posted by: Meg in Massachusetts | Oct 17, 2004 2:25:40 PM

I am from the Midwest. I live now in Chicago, but I grew up on a farm in Indiana. I grew up among small churches, the kind with one oil heater and an aging rural congregation that believed in the 2nd Coming and The Rapture.

I went to a family reunion about ten years ago and a discussion sparked up around the fire about the need for home schooling so that children could be taught about Creationism and not evolution as it was apostasy. I was curious and amused by the passions involved in the discussion, but too detached to comment.

I went back a couple of years ago to sing at a church service. A lay minister gave a sermon that he had built a small reputation around, having given it in seven states to dozens of congregations. It involved the usual suspects of gays, abortion, evil elitists out to crush the old ways. And it ended with a vivid portrayal of the nature of the conflict being played out in the stark light of prophecy. The President was portrayed as using devine power that God has bestowed on our country in this hour to defeat forces of Satan to bring about the end times.

My ears were hot, my legs twitched. I was incredulous. Afterwards the lay minister came and shook my hand, since I had warmed up the crowd with a tune or two. I was too stunned to speak. And to think that people left this intellectual crime scene somehow edified was mystifying to me. I grew up with these people; I have known them all my life. My elementary school has literally been turned into a jail. The small churches are gone now, replaced by "Wal-Mart" churches. Aluminum clad industrial buildings with massive PA systems and huge lighting rigs. What happened here? Why did I not notice this event sweeping the land over the last twenty years? Where do I call home?

In my opinion, this is bigger than George Bush's unsteady reach for greatness. The forces that swept away some of what was familiar to me in Central Indiana tapped George Bush on the shoulder and told him he has an obligation; told the National Guard man who had a wife pregnant with quintuplets he had an obligation, so that when the babies were born he was laying critically injured on a battlefield.

The forces are not Satanic. They are just cruelly manipulative and breathtakingly singleminded. They seek world dominion as an historical birthright. The Global Village somehow called for a Global Village Chieftan to honor with tribute. Supply-side economics would ensure that the tribute flowed down to every capillary of the populace and they would be grateful.

Oh, but it is messy...and fascist.

Posted by: obelus | Oct 17, 2004 11:37:20 PM

Required reading for everyone:

George Orwell’s ‘Notes on Nationalism’

Francis Schaeffer’s ‘A Christian Manifesto’

All on the web.

Mark, I posted this on Political Animal and I thought it would help illuminate this discussion.

I cannot comment on George Bush himself but the people that seem to be allied with him are part of an emergent Christian Nationalism. I have suspected there was a paticular ideology behind the seeming irrationalism, resentment and belligerence but Suskind has given evidence. When Pat Robertson says ‘"We have enough votes to run the country. And when the people say, 'We've had enough,' we are going to take over."’ he is being perfectly frank about the intentions of this movement.

Francis Schaeffer is a neo-Calvinist who deeply influenced the Evangelical Revival of the 1970’s particularly in terms of views on abortion. In his essay ‘Escape from Reason’ he laments the fall of a Christian worldview based on Grace. “Grace, The Higher: God the Creator; Heaven and Heavenly Things; The unseen and its Influence on the Earth; Man’s Soul; Unity.” Below this is Nature: “The Created; Earth and Earthly Things; The Visible and What Nature and Man do on Earth; Man’s Body.”

For Schaeffer and his followers the world of the lower (secular humanism, which begins with the Renaissance) is the world of arrogant autonomy from God. It is a world consumed with the notion of free will and liberty, a will that ‘eats up’ grace. He invokes Calvin’s solution for true knowledge: ‘Scripture Alone’ and ‘Faith Alone’.

He goes on to say, “What the Reformation (Calvin) tells us, therefore, is that God has spoken Scriptures concerning both the ‘upstairs’ and the ‘downstairs’. He spoke in a true revelation concerning Himself-heavenly things- and He spoke in a true revelation concerning nature-the cosmos and man. Therefore, they had a real unity in knowledge. They simply did not have the Renaissance problem of nature and grace!

These people are not rebelling against the liberal 60’s or the welfare state of the 20th Century or even the Enlightenment (that is another story). All these have been a long march from the true unity. Because you do not understand the unity of grace and nature you are bound to fail. You live in the reality-based community, which has been nothing but a disaster. It is not empiricism you need to solve crime or Aids or the war in Iraq. It is the reality-based community that is in ignorance. It is a totally logical worldview.
They do make common cause with libertarians and corporatists but what they want is something entirely different.

Calvinism has also influenced another worldview that has had terrible consequences when taken to far.

German Romanticism and Nationalism arose from the a reaction against the universalizing principles of the Enlightenment. Enthusiasm (later Evangelism) has also been described as a reaction against the notion that an ideal order could be brought about by reason and the study of nature. These movements raged against sterile logic, intellectuals and institutions. They dream of authentic expression, sensation, feeling and burning emotion. Both have a prophet in Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was an enemy of civilization and civil society; he believes that to be coerced by other men is to be enslaved.

Briefly, Rousseau believed that if a man was coerced he ceased to be a man. This is in opposition to the great liberal tradition, were we should have so much justice, so much liberty, so much equity. For Rousseau there is no such negotiation, man must have perfect liberty. This is an absolute value. But Rousseau also valued the distinction between right and wrong (he grew up in Calvin’s earthly seat of Geneva). For him the regulations of life that should guide society were not man-made rules but sacred truths. Like the value of liberty, they are absolute and eternal.

His reconciles absolute liberty with absolute law by saying they do not conflict. If I realize my true unperverted self I will have recognized true natural laws. So what of society? He says that if all men are truly free they will have realized the general will. At first his idea of society was a kind of voluntary cooperative but then, mystically, he begins to argue for a kind of embodied will. This will is a species of collective consciousness (or unconsciousness) like a Church.

Now if I realize my true self, I through the general will (now ‘the law’) also realize your true self. If you are acting contrary to your true unperverted self I can identify it and meter out some sort of reform or punishment. I, in essence, can force you to be happy. This is the beginning of all totalitarian regimes from the French Revolution to Communism and Fascism.

From this foundation emerges the notion that a free man is not driven by external powers but is himself the driver. What drives him is both subjective and universal. The universal guides his hand. It is the will to power. You are a fascist when you believe your self is mystically bound to cosmic national destiny and this unity is beyond good and evil.

Posted by: bellumregio | Oct 17, 2004 11:49:02 PM

A point that you miss is that the overarching ideology of the Southern Republican party is fundamentally flawed. The theories of minimalist government are based on false view of American individualism and the denial of the primary role of the national government in developing our country. Much of the economic policy is based on the plantation economy of the 1800s. The foreign policy is fundamentally flawed placing too much emphasis on foreign state and not enough attention on issues of justice and fairness. The Pentagon civilians understand the capabilities of small forces to do great things, but are clueless about the need for a political victory to follow a military one.

A manager with a more predictive model of how the world works would not make nearly as many errors in judgement as this administration. If the problem were just the management style of Mr Bush, then his staff would carefully backfill, hold their own working meetings and hammer out fully developed policies that would be agreeable to the president. However, because the ideology is so fundamentally flawed, the policy options given the president for action are flawed. It is not clear that given more discussion or attention to detail that Mr Bush would arrive at fundamentally better decisions. No amount of good decision making can compensate for policies that are developed through a flawed ideological model.

Posted by: bakho | Oct 18, 2004 1:22:11 AM

I think the article lays too much of Bush's management problems at the feet of his religiosity. As was pointed out on another blog, many of the figures in the administration whose thinking has been the most cut off from the disciplining influence of reality -- e.g., Cheney and Rummy -- are not themselves particularly religious, and certainly not religious in the way Bush is (or professes to be).

I think that the key thing here is that each of these people, and Bush as well, employs a character-centered view of proper decision-making. They believe that their decisions are correct, not because they fit the facts or have been empirically tested, but because, as straight-talking, tough-guys, their guts (or instincts) are themselves right-making. I think that explains the administration's weird fetishization of the trappings of decision-making, not the results. They defend their policies by talking about the resolute and unwavering they arrived at their decisions, not the basis for, or results of, the decisions themselves. My favorite bit of evidence for this theory is Bush's remark that he admires Churchill so much that he kind of thinks of him as a fellow Texan. If Churchill was a great leader, it could only be because he was, in character terms, cut from the exact same cloth as Bush. I think it also explains their pathologically reliance on using the "what wouldn't Clinton do?" standard to guide their decisions. Because Clinton was not "their kind of guy," no policies he implemented could have been the right ones, despite factual evidence to the contrary.

Posted by: pjs | Oct 18, 2004 1:22:58 PM

Jeff Sharlet has a piece in 'The Revealer’ that touches on some of influences I discussed above. He does me one better by pointing out that Bush is not a fundamentalist but a New Age gnostic. I entirely agree with this assessment. Most of the people who call themselves evangelicals are not interested in the doctrinal points of fundamentalism although they are influenced by them. They also don’t rigorously read the Bible
As spiritual romantics they look for a knowing that is beyond even the Bible. There is a form of belief that is beyond faith and revelation. The book to read is Harold Bloom’s ‘The American Religion’.


Posted by: bellumregio | Oct 18, 2004 3:22:32 PM

We need to get those people in Indiana a copy of "What's the Matter with Kansas?" As a westerner in a very conservative state, I would say that that book is spot on in understanding our present predicament and I plug it every chance I get. Mr. Frank's ought to pay me an advertising fee.

Posted by: la | Oct 18, 2004 4:16:47 PM

I think Bu$h's religious belief goes something like this. "God help me I'm way over my head."

Posted by: Glenn | Oct 19, 2004 8:51:25 AM

Bellumregio -

I read the Sharlett piece and posted this reply:

"To me, it's clear that Bush holds more or less traditional Christian beliefs. A lot of what he says and does bears this out.

But Bush also reminds me of a Christian Scientist in the way (and I hope I get this right-I'm hardly an expert) they more or less embrace prayer in lieu of modern medicine. Likewise, Bush seems to embrace prayer (or perhaps a prayerful disposition, a heart open to God's voice) in lieu of study and analysis, and the statement that "I believe" could refer to the process of prayer as much as anything else. Viewed from this perspective, one can unite the traditional Christian and gnostic aspects that Bush displays."

To the extent that this characterization is accurate, the certainty to which Mark refers is in the process of prayer, from who it draws upon and what it can accomplish. I think this process may be what Bush means when he refers to his "instincts."

Posted by: Jon | Oct 19, 2004 1:17:28 PM

I seem to have become somewhat obsessed with this Ron Suskind article particularly with what the unnamed aide meant by “reality-based community”. Before I said that I thought it was a Romantic expression of fundamentalist doctrine. You can imagine Pat Robertson saying something like this. But even to the faithful he would have to qualify it by saying “They are the reality-based community. We are the faith-based community. Faith is our reality”. Certainly fundamentalists have this vision and imagine America to be one with it but this is not the most parsimonious explanation of “reality-based community”. I suspect Suskind is wrong.

This was a statement about the power of Public Relations. We know that everything in the White House is run from the political arm. We know that the Iraq war was prosecuted on entirely false premises. We know that Fox News is a three-ring circus. We know about Clear Channel and Sinclair. What you have is public relations. This is the new world order. This is the heart of the empire.

In 1929 George Washington Hill of the American Tobacco Company wrote to the PR man Edward Bernays: ‘How can we get women to smoke on the street? They’re smoking indoors. But, damn it, if they spend half the time outdoors and we can get ‘em to smoke outdoors, we’ll damn near double our female market. Do something. Act!” Bernays decided to sell cigarettes by attaching smoking to the feminist movement. He decided to have a parade called “torches of freedom” on Easter Sunday down Fifth Avenue. He sent a letter signed by way his secretary Bertha Hunt to prominent New York debutants that said “In the interests of equality of the sexes and to fight another sex taboo I and other young women will light another torch of freedom by smoking cigarettes while strolling on Fifth Avenue Easter Sunday’ “We are doing this to combat the silly prejudice that the cigarette is suitable for the home, the restaurant, the taxi cab, the theater lobby but never, no, never for the sidewalk” A similar appeal was made in papers signed by the feminist Ruth Hale. The script was laid out in detail; it explained how to generate “stories that for the first time women have smoked openly on the street. These will take care of themselves, as legitimate news, if the staging is rightly done. Undoubtedly after these stories and pictures have appeared, there will be protests from non-smokers and believers in ‘Heaven, home and mother’. These should be watched for and answered in the same papers”

It was one of the most brilliant public relations campaigns in history. “We’ve come a long way baby”.

Later Bernays wrote:

“Age old customs, I learned, could be broken down by a dramatic appeal, disseminated by the network of media. “Of course the taboo was not destroyed completely. But a beginning had been made”

This story is in the book ‘Father of Spin’ by Larry Tye.

The Republicans, following the admonishment of the Powell Memo, have used corporate public relation techniques to create a political environment in which they can succeed. They have done it in classic Bernays fashion. His biographer calls it Big Think. “Big Think meant more than just refusing to be constrained by convention; Bernays consciously defied convention. He was convinced that ordinary rules didn’t apply to him, and he repeatedly proved that he could reshape reality. He also took clients to places they had never dreamed of going, places that scared them at first but thrilled them when, as often happened, the public rallied, as he’d predicted.”

The Republicans have run on a war agenda since the 1950’s. The decline of communism gave them a problem. The War on Terror is a scripted “reality” we all live in. This does not mean that there is no threat; what it means is that the threat is used to further other goals. It is used to invade countries and to get votes at home. An 'Axis of Evil' becomes the enemy. Korea and bin Laden are one. The gay marriage controversy is also a scripted event. They make it up just like schlock films were made. Interest in Sputnik and nuclear bombs queued the B-film makers into making films about mutant aliens. A gay marriage somewhere or a gay bishop is used to spin a huge narrative. So now the stale, but still important “issue” of abortion is reinvigorated with “the battle against gay marriage”. We are part of the script. Every gay person standing on the steps of City Hall in San Francisco is 100 ‘conservative’ votes in Ohio. Every war protester gets 50 ‘conservatives’ to the polls in Missouri. Every time John Kerry address gay marriage he is part of the script. When you write the history of womem's liberation you will remember that they liberated themselves from the patriarchs.

Jacques Barzun said that Jean Jacques Rousseau was more brilliant than all the philosophes of the 18th century because he realized people did not want to know reality; they wanted to be free to live in their dreams.

Posted by: bellumregio | Oct 19, 2004 4:10:00 PM


While I acknowledge that the Republicans are actively trying to create a narrative such as you describe, it's important to recognize that they've co-opted a narrative that's been gaining traction in the evangelical Christian culture for a long time. The eCc has long promoted an "us against them" culture, though for many years the "them" was broadly defined as "the world," or those who had not embraced Christ. As I experienced it, it was presented with a sense of sadness, a sadness that there were so many poor souls wandering around in the world who hadn't embraced Christ.

As time passed, I think that changed. Anger replaced sadness, and the poor wandering souls were replaced by puporseful agents of evil. Pro-choice folks, gays and lesbians, they all had an anti-Christian agenda, and it was our job to oppose that agenda. That's the narrative that resonates now, and it's the one to which you refer. But it wasn't created out of whole cloth by Republicans. It's a story with a long history.

Posted by: Jon | Oct 19, 2004 4:36:45 PM

Sorry if I suggested the Republicans were masters of the universe. The world is too hurly-burly for that kind of thing. They are tapping into a ‘resentment’ that is as old as the Republic and running with it. Bernays tapped into feminist ‘resentment’. Since the time of Cotton Mather America has been thought of as a new Israel. Jefferson was branded an atheist by his enemies.

I agree with the thesis that the monotheistic religions are fighting a battle for God against the secular world. Iran has had a fundamentalist revolution and other Muslim countries could follow. Israel is similarly marked by a secular/religious struggle.

It is a failure of leadership not to recognize the legitimate demand for respect of religion in public life. Particularly in a secular society. Post-war America cannot find a basis for tolerance. We are a winner take all society. That is a long way off from our founding. E pluribus unum.

Posted by: bellumregio | Oct 19, 2004 6:39:42 PM

Does anybody foresee a hostile take-over in January?

Posted by: Sark Han | Oct 19, 2004 9:51:11 PM

"It is a failure of leadership not to recognize the legitimate demand for respect of religion in public life. Particularly in a secular society. Post-war America cannot find a basis for tolerance. We are a winner take all society. That is a long way off from our founding. E pluribus unum."

You hit on a key point, the definition of "respect of religion." Many religious folks have one definition, and it differs greatly from the prevailing definition over the past several decades. We've seen this fact played out in Afghanistan and Iran, and we're seeing it played out in our country. Reconciling the differences throughout the world and in the US will be the key dynamic of this century and possibly beyond. Does respect mean aligning public policy w/ religious doctrine a la the pro-life, anti-gay positions? Does it mean religious leaders attaining political position and governmental power as in Iran? Is it something in between?

It used to be the evangelizing meant bringing people to Christ (in the parlance of the movement). This involved changing the hearts of people primarily, and politics didn't enter into it. That has changed now, and evangelism has mutated into an effort to legislate a world view. That is how many define respect for religion now, whether or not the law of the land reflects religious doctrine in every respect.

Posted by: Jon | Oct 20, 2004 8:32:48 AM