Dubya’s Genius Moment

Blink and you may miss it.

George W. Bush and his political Svengali, Karl Rove, are sharing a genius moment. Everyone in politics gets one, and this is theirs. It began right after Trent Lott stepped down as majority leader, with a Dec. 22 piece by Adam Nagourney in the New York Times headlined, “Shift of Power to White House Reshapes Political Landscape.” Nagourney quoted former Democratic Party Chairman Robert Strauss saying that Bush “and several talented people around him have made the White House a power center in ways that I haven’t seen in a long, long time—all the way back to Lyndon Johnson.” The wave of national unity following Sept. 11, the Republican gains in Congress and the statehouses on Election Day, and the installation of Bill Frist as Senate majority leader were all cited by Nagourney as evidence of Bush’s consummate political skill. Former speechwriter David “Axis of Hate” Frum followed suit Jan. 5 with a New York Times op-ed previewing his forthcoming book, The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush. “Mr. Bush is more than a strong president,” wrote Frum. “He dominates his own party in a way that few modern presidents ever have.”

It hardly seems worth pointing out that credit for national unity and the Republicans’ Election Day victories probably sits more plausibly with Osama Bin Laden than with Bush or Rove and that Lott’s departure (after he endorsed segregationism) was inevitable once the right-wing press started calling for his head. The times demand that Bush be called a political genius, just as surely as the times will demand at some future date—possibly when Bush’s tax cuts for the rich send the budget deficit spiraling out of control—that Bush be called a political incompetent. (Everyone in politics gets a moron moment, too.) Bush pere and his brainy chief of staff, John Sununu, were political geniuses in March 1990; ”This is one of the smartest administrations we’ve seen in a long time,” Mario Cuomo told USA Today’s Richard Benedetto, “and John Sununu is at its center.” Sununu’s political genius would be a distant memory one year later, when Sununu’s use of military aircraft for personal travel ended his Washington sojourn. Bush’s genius was killed off by the recession that followed his Gulf War triumph.

Years from now, when we look back and puzzle over Dubya’s genius moment, a key historical document will be The Leadership Genius of George W. Bush: 10 Commonsense Lessons From the Commander in Chief, by business consultants Carolyn B. Thompson and James W. Ware. The just-published book’s strategy is to redefine Bush’s vices as virtues that the corporate world ought to emulate. “Much has been said about Bush’s deficiencies in foreign policy, lack of attention to detail, and big-picture orientation,” Thompson and Ware write. But “part of the leadership genius of George W. Bush is just that, knowing that no one can know everything.” Bush’s ignorance renders him unself-conscious about hiring “people who are smarter than he is.” From this, Thompson and Ware derive the lesson, “Check your ego at the door, and then get on with the recruiting!” Once Bush hired these smart people, did he boss them around? Did he show off by asking them complicated questions? Hell, no! That’s because Bush “also has the common sense and discipline to leave them alone to do their jobs.”

On some occasions, of course, Bush must make an actual decision himself. On such occasions, does he study up so he can understand the arguments on all sides? Hell, no! Naturally, this invites some criticism:

Many of Bush’s critics claim that he is not well-read. They say he does not spend enough time reading policy statements and studying long briefs. … [But] Bush’s honesty about intelligence and learning is downright refreshing. Rather than faking understanding, he will unashamedly admit that he isn’t following. At one large conference, Bush turned to New Mexico Governor George Johnson and said, “What are they talking about?”“I don’t know,” Johnson replied.“You don’t know a thing, do you?” Bush shot back.“Not one thing,” said Johnson.“Neither do I,” said Bush, and the two high-fived each other.”

Here, Thompson and Ware employ the very technique they praise by not bothering to check the name of New Mexico’s former governor, which is Gary, not George. One obstacle they may face in marketing their book is that remaining ignorant about what’s done in your name (or at least pretending to) is a strategy already in place in most of the nation’s boardrooms, as the recent corporate accounting scandals amply demonstrated. What’s new in TheLeadership Genius of George W. Bush is the insight that feigned shallowness is a poor substitute for the real thing.