The Washington Post leads this morning with a must-read analytical piece by Peter Baker examining George W. Bush in the seventh year of his presidency. Never in modern American political history (and for these purposes, we can define “modernity” as the period following World War I when systematic public opinion polling was introduced) have Americans rejected a sitting president for such a long period, and so resoundingly. Bush has snatched from Richard Nixon the distinction of being the most unpopular president ever. And yet no one makes Bush out to be a King Lear. He lacks the intellectual depth for that.
Over sodas and sparkling water, he asks his questions: What is the nature of good and evil in the post-Sept. 11 world? What lessons does history have for a president facing the turmoil I’m facing? How will history judge what we’ve done? Why does the rest of the world seem to hate America? Or is it just me they hate?
These are the questions of a president who has endured the most drastic political collapse in a generation. Not generally known for intellectual curiosity, Bush is seeking out those who are, engaging in a philosophical exploration of the currents of history that have swept up his administration. For all the setbacks, he remains unflinching, rarely expressing doubt in his direction, yet trying to understand how he got off course.
For Bush, refusal to acknowledge making a mistake is a sign of strength. And sticking steadfastly to his closest buddies, Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzales, is the ultimate demonstration of strength of character. But at this point even most of Bush’s closest friends and advisors recognize that it is nothing of the sort. Instead, these tendencies betray poor analytical skills and a dangerous distance from reality:
The fabled loyalty of the Bush team, though, has frayed far more than might be apparent to him. The fight over whether Gonzales should remain attorney general has exposed a deep fault line. Bush remains convinced that his old friend did nothing wrong ethically in firing U.S. attorneys, and senior adviser Karl Rove angrily rejects what he sees as a Democratic witch hunt, according to White House officials. Yet beyond the inner circle, it is hard to find a current or former administration official who thinks Gonzales should stay.
“I don’t understand for the life of me why Al Gonzales is still there,” said one former top aide, who, like others, would speak only on the condition of anonymity. “It’s not about him. It’s about the office and who’s able to lead the department.” The ex-aide said that every time he runs into former Cabinet secretaries, “universally the first thing out of their mouths” is bafflement that Gonzales remains.
Some aides see it as Bush refusing to accept reality. “The president thinks cutting and running on his friends shows weakness,” said an exasperated senior official. “Change shows weakness. Doing what everyone knows has to be done shows weakness.” Another former aide said that no matter how many people Bush consults, he heeds only two or three.
Bush imagines himself as a contemporary Churchill. But the leading modern Churchill biographer took the time to author an op-ed in Sunday’s Post. He’s not like Churchill at all, she said. In fact, he’s rather like Churchill’s nemisis, Neville Chamberlain. Lynne Olson writes:
I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about Churchill while working on my book Troublesome Young Men, a history of the small group of Conservative members of Parliament who defied British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler, forced Chamberlain to resign in May 1940 and helped make Churchill his successor. I thought my audience would be largely limited to World War II buffs, so I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the president has been reading my book. He hasn’t let me know what he thinks about it, but it’s a safe bet that he’s identifying with the book’s portrayal of Churchill, not Chamberlain. But I think Bush’s hero would be bemused, to say the least, by the president’s wrapping himself in the Churchillian cloak. Indeed, the more you understand the historical record, the more the parallels leap out — but they’re between Bush and Chamberlain, not Bush and Churchill.
Now, in the seventh year of the Bush presidency, the curtain in which he has been enshrouded for so long is finally pulled back, and the public has gotten a good look at him – without any of the Rovian camera effects. And it doesn’t like what it sees. Vic Gold, the former speechwriter for Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, and the author of an official hagiography of George W. Bush that he now firmly wishes to retract, put it just right in a recent interview in which he talked about Dick Cheney. He quoted a famous passage from Madame de Staël: “Men do not change, they unmask themselves.” The unmasking is now nearly complete.