Year-end media wrap-ups solidified the cliché that George W. Bush has grown remarkably in his job since Sept. 11. In this interpretation, tragedy transformed Bush from a callow, smirking, and arguably unelected president into a dignified and capable wartime leader. Some of these tributes reached to prove their point. A front-page story in the New York Times, for instance, began with a lengthy anecdote about Bush “taking command” by deciding that he and not his Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill should publicly announce the administration’s financial attack on the al-Qaida terrorist organization. In other words, Bush rose to the historical occasion by demanding his full share of PR.
Such unconvincing spin notwithstanding, Bush has been a largely effective wartime president—much more so than we had any reason to expect. This is not merely a matter of people rallying around their leader, any leader, in time of distress. It’s also a matter of his performance. Bush has defined ambitious but sensible war aims and communicated them clearly. He has approached the problem of wartime alliances shrewdly, taking advantage of them where they are helpful but not being excessively limited by multilateralism in the way his father was during the Gulf War. The military campaign in Afghanistan has left little room for plausible improvement. Bush has also found a side of his personality that is entirely appropriate to the circumstances. In public, he comes across as resolute and purposeful but also personally engaged and compassionate in a way that is—dare I say it?—Clinton-esque.
What explains Bush’s unexpected feat? Because of my fondness for Bushisms (still suspended until further notice, sorry), people sometimes ask me if I think the president is any brighter than he was in late August. Somewhat inexplicably, Bush does actually seem to have grown a bit more articulate. His intellectual limitations, however, remain firmly in place. Bush continues to exhibit the same lack of curiosity, thoughtfulness, and engagement with ideas that made him a C student. Nuance, complexity, subtlety, and contradiction are not part of the mental universe he inhabits. And curiously enough, it is these very qualities of mind—or lack thereof—that seem to be making him such a good war president.
Dedicated readers may recall that I made something that sounded like the opposite case a couple of years ago in an article titled “Do Dim Bulbs Make Better Presidents?” My argument was that while a president with other abilities may be able to overcome a lack of intelligence, lacking smarts is a net negative. I still think that’s true, but there’s a wartime codicil. In wartime, certain qualities sometimes associated with high intelligence—fascination with detail, a tendency to self-reliance, an awareness of ambiguity—become greater obstacles to effective leadership. And the contrary qualities often associated with mediocre intelligence—oversimplification, an eagerness to delegate authority, moral certainty—can be pronounced advantages.
In Bush’s case, it is the latter set of qualities that seems to be doing the trick. Being smart clearly doesn’t stop someone from being a great president, either in peace or in war. Lincoln and FDR were bright or brilliant men whose thoughtfulness didn’t prevent them from making timely decisions, delegating necessary authority, or proclaiming a just cause with force and clarity. But less brilliant men, such as Truman and Reagan, were also effective commanders in chief (giving Reagan his due for his role in the Cold War). There are revisionist arguments that both these men were far brighter than their contemporaries gave them credit for. Perhaps so, but I’d argue that both were effective in their martial capacities because of the simplistic way they saw the world. Neither questioned the virtue of his own position. Neither doubted the wickedness of America’s enemies—Reagan famously described the Soviet Union as “the evil empire.” Neither appeared to give a second thought to the moral costs of victory—Truman claimed he never lost any sleep over Hiroshima.
I’m sure some revisionist historian will one day argue that Bush, too, was a clandestinely intelligent president. But it seems to me that he has been effective in his wartime role because of Truman-esque or Reagan-esque qualities that are not intellectual, even if some well-concealed intellectual qualities are also present. This is most apparent in respect to Bush’s public role as leader of a nation at war. Bush speaks, perforce, from the heart. He knows who’s right, he knows who is wrong, and he’s ready to fight for what he believes without hesitation. There was a certain amount of high-end sniggering about Bush’s OK Corral approach to Osama Bin Laden—repetitively calling him “evil” and saying that we want him “dead or alive.” But like Regan’s evil empire remark, such comments constitute a plain-spoken version of beliefs that most of us share. The president’s clumsy way of expressing himself endears him to the nation as one of us.
Where moral complications do in fact exist—as in our alliance with terrorist-supporting governments in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, our about-face on Russia’s war on Chechnya, or the civilian deaths caused by U.S. bombs in Afghanistan—Bush gives little hint of caring about them. This, too, strengthens his effectiveness as a public leader. The truth is that when America is attacked, most Americans do not want a president who stays up nights worrying about whether our retaliation might harm some innocent civilian—as Bill Clinton said he did when deciding to hit back at Osama Bin Laden by flattening what may or may not have been a chemical weapons plant in Sudan. We prefer someone like Truman or Reagan or Bush, who won’t agonize about defending our interests.
Bush’s intellectual limitations also appear to be serving him well in terms of his less public role as manager of the war effort. An excellent inside-the-sit-room story in the current issue of Time depicts Bush’s m.o. The president makes the big decisions, sets broad goals, and is relentless about pursuing them. He leaves the “how” questions to his highly competent team of military and foreign policy advisers. To function effectively in this way, a president must delegate to competent subordinates. And in Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice, Bush clearly has them.
The weakness of Bush’s weakness is that sometimes he delegates to systems or to people that aren’t so effective. Despite Bush’s bogus complaints about Clinton hollowing out the military, the Pentagon was entirely fight-ready. The president gave the word, and the great machine kicked into gear. There was nothing comparable when it came to dealing with bioterrorism or domestic security, which left the Bush largely at sea in terms of managing the anthrax crisis. Where his Cabinet choices have been inferior, Bush is now paying the price in terms of weak policy design, advocacy, and implementation.
On the other hand, detachment from the details can preserve a president from blame in the case of failure—although it shouldn’t. When the Reagan administration screwed up, as with the budget deficit or Iran-Contra, no one really believed the president himself bore much responsibility. It must have been those people he delegated authority to. When finding fault with the first Bush administration, by contrast, everyone looked to the guy who was obviously in charge. Bush 43’s hands-off management style may in part reflect his awareness of this phenomenon. If so, he’s smarter than we thought.