I’m not sure, but I think President Bush just admitted that when somebody briefs him, he consciously prefers what he wants to hear to what the truth happens to be. As do we all, I suppose. But I see no evidence of irony, let alone self-criticism, in what Bush said. The subject was the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, from which, as Slate’s Fred Kaplan noted yesterday, Bush has been distancing himself in private conversations with foreign leaders. Here’s what Bush said today:
I was making it clear it was an independent judgment, because what they basically came to the conclusion of, is that he’s trying—you know, this is a way to make sure that all options aren’t on the table. So I defended our intelligence services, but made it clear that they’re an independent agency; that they come to conclusions separate from what I may or may not want [italics mine].
Note that Bush didn’t say the intelligence services sometimes come to conclusions separate from what he may or may not believe. It would be bad form for Bush to say that out loud, because it would undermine part of his own executive branch. But it would be defensible intellectually. Of course presidents are going to disagree now and then with conclusions reached by the intelligence agencies. One would hope that, in doing so, they give careful consideration to the known facts. But Bush wasn’t saying that. He was saying that the intelligence services sometimes come to conclusions separate from what he may or may not want. In affirming this, he seemed totally unself-conscious. There is absolutely no evidence that Bush was describing the necessary mental challenge of rising above what he wants to hear so that he can take in new information that might alter his understanding of reality. Indeed, Bush’s statement suggested that he suffers from a sort of executive learning disability that leaves him unwilling or unable even to grasp that what he wants to hear isn’t always going to be the same thing as what he needs to hear.
According to The Bush Tragedy, a new book by Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, Bush suffers from a similar inability to distinguish between what he wants to see and what is there to be seen. This is nicely captured in an anecdote about a painting (that’s it to the left of this text; click to enlarge) that Bush put up in his office when he was governor of Texas. Weisberg writes:
In an April 1995 memo, Bush invited his staff to come to his office to look at a painting. … The picture is a Western scene of a cowboy riding up a craggy hill, with two other riders following behind him. Bush told visitors—who often noted his resemblance to the rider in front—that it was called A Charge To Keep and that it was based on his favorite Methodist hymn of that title, written in the eighteenth century by Charles Wesley. As Bush noted in the memo, which he quoted in his autobiography of the same title: “I thought I would share with you a recent bit of Texas history which epitomizes our mission. When you come into my office, please take a look at the beautiful painting of a horseman determinedly charging up what appears to be a steep and rough trail. This is us. What adds complete life to the painting for me is the message of Charles Wesley that we serve One greater than ourselves.” Bush identified with the lead rider, whom he took to be a kind of Christian cowboy, an embodiment of indomitable vigor, courage, and moral clarity.
He came to believe that the picture depicted the circuit-riders who spread Methodism across the Alleghenies in the nineteenth century. In other words, the cowboy who looked like Bush was a missionary of his own denomination.Only that is not the title, message, or meaning of the painting. The artist, W.H.D. Koerner, executed it to illustrate a Western short story entitled “The Slipper Tongue,” published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1916. The story is about a smooth-talking horse thief who is caught, and then escapes a lynch mob in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. The illustration depicts the thief fleeing his captors. In the magazine, the illustration bears the caption: “Had His Start Been Fifteen Minutes Longer He Would Not Have Been Caught.”
The painting was subsequently recycled by the Saturday Evening Post to illustrate a nonfiction story. The caption that time was, “Bandits Move About From Town to Town, Pillaging Whatever They Can Find.” Koerner published the illustration a third and final time in a magazine called the Country Gentleman. On this go-round, it was indeed used to illustrate a short story that related to Wesley’s hymn. But the story’s moral was a little off-message. According to Weisberg, it was “about a son who receives a legacy from his father—a beautiful forest in the Northeast and a plea to protect it from rapacious timber barons.” Apparently nobody ever got around to notifying Bush’s Interior Department.
To summarize, the president of the United States is both deaf and blind. I have already stated, and continue to stand by, my nuanced judgment as to whether he’s dumb. I propose that we outfit the Oval Office with a pinball machine.