Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


The Bush Tragedy by Jacob Weisberg




(Highly Recommended)




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Jacob Weisberg presents an amateur psychological profile of George W. Bush in his new book, The Bush Tragedy. Weisberg uses a Shakespearean quote to begin each chapter. While it remains early for history to weigh in on this presidency, Weisberg, editor of Slate, abandons the humor he’s used in the past (Bushisms), and attempts to take Bush seriously and reflect on what we’ve learned about him. We read about overconfidence paired with insecurity. We recognize the weight of his relationship with his father on much of his life, and the ways in which his Walker family genes provide a context for much of his behavior. Here’s an excerpt, from the end of Chapter 3, “The Gospel of George,” pp. 104-107:


It is tempting to seek such theological threads in Bush's com­ments. All this talk of God and guidance, this biblical imagery, must, we imagine, mean something, perhaps tempered to accommodate the strictures of secular leadership. But in theological, as opposed to po­litical and personal, terms, it doesn't—it's mostly resonant speech-writing. Bush's idea of divine providence had no larger significance in terms of his Methodist faith, which rejects the Calvinist concept of predestination. In his book Heroic Conservatism, Gerson assures us that Bush did not believe that God was guiding his actions in any explicit way. Eventually, the missionary found a mission and began spreading the good news of democracy with evangelical fervor--a turn I'll ex­amine in Chapter 6. But to look for a theological motivation for this idea is to fall into the fallacy of thinking that Bush's oratory is packed with more meaning than it seems to be, when it usually contains less. To understand Bush's view of the world as driven by religion, as op­posed to dressed up in religion, is to commit the same error. The re­ligious aura of Bush's presidency is mostly atmospherics. Faith may give him comfort, but it does not provide him with instructions.

A higher power did not guide Bush's response to September ii in any way that mattered. The president's biggest decisions followed more closely the advice of a lesser power, his vice president. Religion couldn't guide his response because Bush's faith was a constructed persona, the projection of a chosen identity rather than a framework for looking at the world. The more inadequate he felt to events, the more deeply he delved into the only religious tradition he had access to, the paltry spirituality of the recovery movement. The Christian cowboy reached into his saddlebag and found a painting of himself charging up a hill. There were few resources in his intellectually shallow, self-help faith to guide the immense decisions he had to make.

With no theological grounding or genuine framework of belief, Bush returned from his soul-searching with ecumenical bromides that sounded like they might mean something, but mostly didn't. After September ii, Bush sounded at moments like a religious zealot. But this was entirely misleading. The president did not see the con­flict in terms of a clash of civilizations, but rather as one in which all well-meaning believers were on the same side. On occasion after oc­casion, he praised Islam as a "peaceful religion." And while it was his biblical and bellicose comments that got attention, most of what Bush said in those days was striking in its banality. Love your neigh­bor. Good will triumph in the end. Have faith—any faith. Pray for whatever. God bless you all. He was zealously proclaiming the mes­sage inside a fortune cookie.

If Bush's new language was liturgical in cadence and occasionally in reference, it was mostly political in inspiration. One of his favorite points to make was that he wanted to be a "consequential" leader. Left unstated was the opposition between this and the transitional, incon­sequential leader he thought his father was. Sounding religious helped him reframe his presidency in grander, historical terms; he needed faith to be a "war president." The first book Bush read after the attacks was about Lincoln during the Civil War. He seemed to see himself as part Lincoln and part Reagan—the last president he viewed as conse­quential. His language reflected his notion, and that of his speech-writers, of how Reagan had spoken to the nation as he led the country in a great moral conflict. Reagan's single most famous comment was his calling America's Cold War enemy the "Evil Empire." Applying the analogy to the War on Terror, Bush now spoke a kind of evangel­ical Reaganese.

In personal terms, religious language expressed how Bush thought he had to appear to the country. Like Henry V, he seemed to think that whatever doubts he might feel in private, he needed to play the part of the fearless leader to family, staff, and nation. He wanted everyone to know that God was guiding him. But this was a hollow certainty and a hollow confidence. As with his conversion by Billy Graham and his decision to run for president, this faith narrative was a conscious autobiographical construction. In this sense, Bush's projection of religious assurance after September II is entirely com­patible with the premeditation evident in his earlier turn to God.

To say that Bush's religious persona is a calculated projection does not mean it is fraudulent. For practiced politicians, the question of whether any behavior is genuine can seldom be answered. For them, calculation and sincerity are not opposites. The skillful leader harmo­nizes them, coming to truly believe in what he thinks he needs to do to succeed. Piety, like any other political mask, tends to become a gen­uine face over time.

The secular misunderstanding of Bush is that his relationship with God has turned him into a harsh man, driven by moral certainty, and attempting to foist his evangelical views onto others. Many of those who know Bush best see the religious influence in, his life cut­ting in precisely the opposite direction. As one of the evangelical staff members in the White House told me over lunch in the summer of 2007, Bush's religion has made him more genuinely humble and less absolutist in the way he defends his views. Believing that he too is a lowly sinner, Bush learned to be more tolerant of the faults of others. Faith has helped him repress Smirk #1, the one that expresses con­tempt. And it has hardly made him into a zealot. When it comes to spreading his religious views, Bush hasn't bothered trying to persuade his own daughters, or his closest adviser, Karl Rove.

But if his eternal perspective improves Bush's personality, it dimin­ishes any ability he might otherwise have to take in ambiguity and complexity. Early in his presidency, Bush told Senator Joe Biden, "I don't do nuance." That line was probably spoken with self-deprecating irony (Smirk #2), but it captures a truth about the intellectually con­stricting lens of his faith. Bush rejects nuance not because he's men­tally incapable of engaging with it, but because he has chosen to disavow it. Applying a crude religious lens that clarifies all decisions as moral choices rather than complicated trade-offs helps him fend off the deliberation and uncertainty he identifies with his father.

But closing one's mind to complexity isn't mere intellectual lazi­ness; it's a fundamental evasion of freedom, God-given or otherwise. When Henry V shakes off Falstaff, he repudiates immorality, but at the cost of embracing narrowness. A simple faith frees George W from the kind of agonizing and struggle his father went through in handling the largest questions of his presidency, and helps him cope with the heavy burden of the job. But it comes at a tragic cost. A too crude religious understanding has limited Bush's ability to compre­hend the world. The habit of pious simplification has undermined the Decider's decision-making.


Whether you’re a supporter of George W. Bush or would like to forget him quickly, reading The Bush Tragedy will lead you think a bit more about the man and what he has been doing. Weisberg writes some great paragraphs in this book, as noted in the excerpt, and for those alone it’s worth reading this book.


Steve Hopkins, April 21, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the May 2008 issue of Executive Times


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