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The Will to Believe

Decision Points
By George W. Bush
(Crown, 497 pp., $35)

The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment
Edited by Julian E. Zelizer
(Princeton University Press, 386 pp., $29.95)

George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream: A Psychological Portrait
By Dan P. McAdams
(Oxford University Press, 274 pp., $29.95)

It’s worth listening to the audiobook version of Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father, because not so long ago Obama had both the time and the inclination to spend many hours voicing the recording himself. His regular speaking voice is by now in all our heads, but in the spoken version of the book we also get something that has had to be put away from public display: Obama’s uncanny gift for mimicry. Again and again he will encounter a character and deliver the material that appears within quotation marks on the printed page in the character’s voice. He can do men and women, old and young, foreign accents and street slang.

To pull this off requires not just vocal ability but an intensity of observation of other people—a quality of attention, of absorption—so fierce it’s as if one’s life depended on it. And there is a sense, in the case of Obama, in which his life did depend on it, sociologically and psychologically. He had to imagine his way into the center of American society from a very unusual point on the periphery, to invent an identity for himself that felt comfortable, to find a way to love parents whom one would more naturally resent for having been so often absent. There is no more vivid imitation in the book than the one of his father, whom he barely knew—big, lilting, funny, dominating, elusive. How hard Obama must have strained to drink in every drop of his father’s presence during the rare moments when he had it—but how little effort was required for him to figure out where his father ended and he began.

One of the zillions of differences between Obama and George W. Bush is that it is impossible to imagine Bush inhabiting another person in the way that Obama can. Yes, he prides himself, like many politicians, on his ability to “read people,” as he puts it in his memoir. Yes, he comes up with reasonably apt nicknames. But these are aspects of the exercise of power, not of empathetic understanding. Bush finds ways to extend his force field to encompass other people—but he doesn’t go to them, as Obama, at least when he was young, did. In his second book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama spends a page or two tossing off a perfect little drypoint sketch of Bush, on the basis of a brief encounter at a White House event; whereas in Decision Points, everybody but Bush exists, characterologically, as a figure in the drama of Bush, not as an independent figure under observation. Here’s a brief Bush-Obama encounter (just after the November 2008 election), as rendered by Bush, the opposite of vivid and more about Bush than Obama: “Barack was gracious and confident. It seemed he felt the same sense of wonderment I had eight years earlier when Bill Clinton welcomed me to the Oval Office as president-elect. I could also see the sense of responsibility start to envelop him.”

Anyone subject to even occasional moments of frustration with Obama’s detachment, his perpetually calm and measured tone, his need always to find the middle course, need look no further than Bush for an example of another way to be president. (Indeed, in Decision Points we get confirmation from the horse’s mouth that all stereotypes of Bush, positive and negative, are justified.) In the fall of his first year in office, Obama spent weeks—it seemed like months—publicly trying to make up his mind about how many American troops to deploy to Afghanistan. Bush describes devoting a single meeting, during his first fall as president, to the far larger question of where and how to intervene militarily in the Middle East in response to the attacks of September 11, where he listened to disagreements within a confined range of opinion from a handful of his closest and most familiar aides. “I wasn’t going to make a decision on the spot,” he reports, with a detectable competitive-with-Obama smirk. “That would come the next day.”

Bush also lets us know that later it was he who devised the Afghanistan troop surge, in response to the deteriorating situation there as he was leaving office: he conducted a crisp policy review, saw the need for more boots on the ground, and quietly passed his conclusions to the Obama transition team, because “I decided the new strategy would have a better chance of success if we gave the new team an opportunity to revise it as they saw fit and then adopt it as their own.” No doubt he feels the same way about his tax cuts, “No Child Left Behind,” and the Troubled Asset Recovery Plan. If Bush were to invent for himself a post-presidential career as ambitious as Clinton’s, perhaps it could be as a snappy maker of big and difficult decisions for other world leaders—a roving Decider.

Ten years ago the newly inaugurated Bush still seemed like an amiable, moderate, not especially ambitious figure—no genius, maybe, but hard (even after Bush v. Gore) to dislike. That was not how he was thought of as he was leaving office. Setting aside the substance of his presidency for a moment, it is noteworthy that Bush wound up setting off a great rethinking of the concept of presidential power, and even of the question of whether individuals can bend the course of history. An interesting collection of essays assembled by the political scientist Julian E. Zelizer, billed as “a first historical assessment” of Bush, touches again and again on the theme of Bush’s maximalist use of power. The master example is the Iraq war: it is hard to imagine another president seeing it as the natural response to September 11, or being forceful enough to push it through. But there were also the big tax cuts, the expansion of the federal role in education, the wholesale change in energy and environmental policy, the invention of a major new federal entitlement program in the prescription-drug benefit for senior citizens, the turn against civil liberties, and the failed attempt to remake Social Security wholesale. What can account for the man whom many people thought of as a feckless fraternity boy turning out to have such capacious appetites for power and its use, and to be so adept at satisfying them?

Bush would not like Dan P. McAdams’s book, which tries to armchairpsychoanalyze him from a liberal frame of reference. McAdams uses Bush as an exemplar of a template of personality formation that he and other psychologists had already developed, and in that sense he is fitting Bush into a Procrustean bed. His information about Bush is all from public sources and is often presented in a patronizing tone. But at least one of McAdams’s main points—that Bush displays “sky-high extraversion and rock-bottom openness to experience”—feels right, and Bush himself would agree with McAdams’s view that September 11 instantly felt to him like the moment of destiny that his whole life had been leading up to. Where McAdams lost me was in his hypothesis that Bush invaded Iraq in the unconscious hope of recreating, halfway across the world, the Midland, Texas of his youth, which he remembers as a small-town Eden. Still, had McAdams waited until after the publication of Decision Points to write his book, he would hardly have been forced to admit that Bush is a straightforward man who has gone through life responding in a simple, rational manner to every situation that presents itself. In his own account of himself, Bush offers up as much juicy material to future amateur headshrinkers as have any of the journalists and the academics who have written books about him.

Way at the top of the list is his relationship with his father, and more broadly with the extended Bush family. You may recall Bush’s having once been asked by Bob Woodward whether he had wanted his father’s advice about invading Iraq, and insisting that he had not, because he preferred to consult with “a higher power.” That is true in the literal sense—at no point in his book does Bush show himself talking to his father before making one of his famous decisions; but it utterly fails to capture the situation. Perhaps their relationship is especially striking because Bush was bracketed by a series of presidents who had grown up essentially fatherless (Reagan, Clinton, Obama), but the constancy of his father’s presence in his mind seems, well, unusual.

Bush took office in his mid-fifties and left it in his early sixties. At every important turn in the story, his father—often closely followed by his mother and other family members—pops up. Bush frames issue after issue as a replay of something that happened to his father. His tough re-election campaign is like Dad’s tough re-election campaign; Hurricane Katrina is like Hurricane Andrew; and so on. The regularly repeated plot is not Bush seeking his father’s pre-decision counsel, but Bush needing his father’s post-decision approval. It is the denouement of every narrative.


Granted, the resentment or competitiveness with his father that many have detected from afar is nowhere to be found in Decision Points, but this should not obscure that there is still news in the revelation of how much of George W.’s mindshare is devoted to George H.W. During a backyard game of catch when Bush was eleven, his father announced that he could now handle a grown-up fastball—and not only does Bush still remember this, it is “one of the proudest moments of my young life.” A few pages later, he sums up his feelings for his father this way: “The simple truth is that I adore him.”

Bush tells us that he probably would not have run for governor of Texas in 1994, and therefore would not have become president, if his father had not lost his presidential re-election campaign in 1992. Moments after Bush enters the Oval Office as president for the first time, Dad enters from the Rose Garden (how did he get there?) and addresses him as “Mr. President.” And in office Bush surrounds himself with people who have some prior connection to his father: Karl Rove, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney. The morning of September 11 finds Mother and Dad staying at the White House, and they have to be quietly spirited away; Bush’s first public statement after the attack, he realizes, is a near-repeat of his father’s first words after learning that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait. Upon invading Iraq, Bush reflects that “there was one man who understood what I was feeling,” and scrawls a letter to be faxed to Dad. Soon a reply comes endorsing the decision, which ends with a quote from Robin Bush, the president’s sister who died of leukemia at the age of three, back in 1953: “I love you more than tongue can tell.” The wheel seems to turn again in 2004, when Bush’s daughter Jenna writes him to report a vivid nightmare in which he had lost his re-election campaign. “I hate hearing lies about you,” Bush proudly reports Jenna’s writing him. “I hate when people criticize you.” So she decides to enter the family business and campaign for him.

Bush is surprisingly candid about what kind of shape he was in before he resolved to stop drinking on his fortieth birthday. He says he has a “habitual personality,” that he “craved alcohol” when he went on the wagon, and that he “can’t say for sure” whether or not he is an alcoholic. It is also obvious that he is not the complete doofus of liberal caricature: throughout Decision Points he displays a crisp ability to absorb and to replay the main political and policy outlines of an issue. Post-drinking, he obviously works hard and takes himself seriously. Still, to get from being where Bush was at thirty-nine to the presidency fourteen years later would have been impossible without the immense advantages conferred by the dynastic aspect of the Bush family. At every turn in his political and business life, there is a network of family connections to help. Even the unpretentious, ordinary-guy quality of which Bush is so proud rests on a baronial base (during his brief, backyard-barbecue courtship with Laura Welch in Midland, there was time for a weekend trip to a vast South Texas ranch owned by family friends to play polo with Prince Charles).

But no one, especially not a man as proud as Bush, wants to think of himself as not having unusual and sterling qualities of his own. To Bush’s mind, his main quality is decisiveness—and, secondarily, the linked qualities of leadership and thinking big. These are not contradictory to McAdams’s “sky-high extraversion,” but they state the matter far more grandly and more in terms of the exercise of power than of simple companionability. In accordance with Bush’s interpretation of himself, he constructs a theory of political leadership that valorizes decisiveness and by implication downgrades all other qualities one might want a head of state to possess. It’s a crown prince’s version of what constitutes virtue.

Over and over in his memoir, beginning with the title that he selected for the book, Bush presents himself as (indeed, congratulates himself for) being decisive—facing the big problems foursquare, devising maximal solutions, making his mind up quickly and firmly. Advisers urge him to be more careful, to avoid physically dangerous travel, to compromise; again and again he brushes them away. Always hovering in the background of Decision Points is the spectral presence of some hypothetical alternate president who would not have operated this way, with disastrous consequences. In the few instances where Bush expresses regret for something he did as president, it’s often for not coming to a decision even more quickly than he did.

Decision-making in the Bush mode is almost always based on insufficient information. His decisiveness is the impatient and even impetuous kind. Bush in these pages keeps most discussions of his options within a very tight circle of people whom he permits to disagree but expects to be just as decisive as he is. (He does not let it escape tart mention that one member of the circle, Colin Powell, had the capability of changing his mind about something important.) He adores loyalty. He tells us proudly that Joshua Bolten, his final White House chief of staff, greeted him every morning with the words, “Mr. President, thank you for the privilege of serving.” He forms crucial alliances based on the instant impressions he trusts so completely, often melting over a display of unpretentiousness (Tony and Cherie Blair laughing their way through Meet the Parents), religiosity (Vladimir Putin confessing that he keeps a cross at his dacha), or physical courage (Hamid Karzai walking across an airport tarmac in Afghanistan alone, without guards).

Anecdote and emotion consistently trump analysis. On the occasions when he seeks opinions from outsiders, such as on stem-cell research and the troop surge in Iraq, they tend to be people known to be on his side and assembled by his staff. Like most politicians, he is intensely aware of criticism and deeply hurt by it—the memoir is full of evidence that, though he doesn’t say so directly, Bush is a regular reader of The New York Times, or in some other way has access to all the particulars of the liberal critique of him, because otherwise he wouldn’t know so well what charges he has to spend time answering. But one has to train oneself to ignore critique and stay on course, not to listen to it and adjust. (In a sense, Obama’s critics on the left want him to be more Bush-like.)

One of the constants of civilization is that the people surrounding a holder of high state power try to shape what he knows by telling him what he wants to hear and keeping inconvenient ideas out of sight; but Bush, clinging tightly to the overconfidence that he conceives as his core asset, displays no wariness that this might ever happen to him. He is actively suspicious of the intellectual process as practiced by liberal intellectuals and academics. In explaining his decisionmaking process on stem-cell research—practically the only case where he publicly made a point of having a hard time making up his mind—he presents as the main prospect that horrified him not the destruction of embryos, but the use of scientific research to custom-engineer brainy humans in labs, à la Brave New World. At one point, musing over the embarrassing failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he remarks, “I decided early on that I would not criticize the hardworking patriots at the CIA for their faulty intelligence on Iraq”—meaning of course that he was privately furious. He may think the lesson is that you cannot trust professional career intelligence analysts (Bush doesn’t do epistemology), but isn’t it more plausible that he got the intelligence that he made it clear he wanted?

The best example of the Bush approach working well was the troop surge in Iraq, which did not quite rise to a Churchillian level of determination but did require ignoring conventional wisdom and deciding to throw in America’s lot with another leader, Nouri Al Maliki, just because he liked the cut of his jib. A more revealing case of the nature and consequences of Bush’s style of decision-making was his response to Hurricane Katrina, which takes up a chapter in his book. Bush knows that, partly because it coincided with things turning sour in Iraq, this was a big reputational disaster for him. His chapter on it is pure Bush: defensive, but not to the point of unrealism; quite canny in describing the essence of the situation and what he was thinking at each step; and raw unprocessed emotion in reacting to the charge that he played his hand the way he did partly out of racial prejudice.

By far the most pro-Bush chapter in the volume edited by Zelizer is the one by Gary Gerstle about Bush and race. Bush is intensely proud that he has consistently eschewed the playing of race cards, as so many other Republicans have done, but it is typical of him that he oversimplifies what it means to not be racist in America. (It’s poignant how completely unavailable to Obama is the clean categorical division of the world into people who are racist and people who are not racist.) The key mistake that he made after Hurricane Katrina, as he forthrightly admits in the book, was in not immediately sending a large deployment of federal troops to rescue stranded, desperate people and to restore order. He did not do so because the governor of Louisiana would not request it, and the reason he refused to ignore or override her (imagine if she’d been the United Nations!) was a Reconstruction-era law meant to keep federal troops from enforcing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments in the South. So Bush’s reluctance to send troops was certainly not racist, but as a historical and legal matter the decision was all about race. It’s very Bush not to have seen this because it did not map onto his own personal intentions.

All specific cases of the Bush method at work must bow before the mother of all cases, the Iraq War. It is important to recall first how much fundamental force Bush displayed in the eighteen-month run-up to the war. Politicians usually pluck their ideas out of the atmosphere, but invading and occupying Iraq was not in the air, even after September 11. The idea that if Saddam Hussein had “WMD,” the United States should of course unseat him militarily—the only question at hand, therefore, was whether the widespread suspicion that he had the weapons was true—was a Bush creation. By virtue of being consistently one notch to the left of Dick Cheney—who at one point, Bush reports, asked him over lunch, “Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?”—Bush was able to enlist Congress, Tony Blair, Colin Powell, and for a moment even the United Nations as allies in the progression to war. It is unusual, even for an American president after September 11, to be able to shape the global conversation to this extent.

It is also typical of Bush that he seems to have persuaded himself that he decided to go to war only reluctantly, having been given no choice by Saddam. Everybody in Washington but Bush, it seemed, knew as far as a year in advance that the administration had made up its mind to use force in Iraq. It was abundantly clear that no weapons-inspection regime could be set up that would satisfy Bush, and that he was willing to consult with allies only if they agreed with him.

Even now, it is hard to understand exactly why Bush did what he did. In Decision Points, characteristically certain that he was right and characteristically testy, he presents a great grab-bag of rationales. Saddam was pro-terrorist. Saddam tried to kill Dad. Saddam praised the September 11 attacks. Saddam had invaded his neighbors. Saddam was brutal. Saddam used poison gas. Iraq should become a democracy. Saddam might one day choose to attack the United States. But none of these reasons rises to the level of a conventional decision by one country to invade another, and it is striking how consistently Bush personalizes the decision to go to war. It was him versus Saddam, who was evil. (He kept Saddam’s pistol in a glass box in his office because it “always reminded me that a brutal dictator, responsible for so much death and suffering, had surrendered to our troops while cowering in a hole.”) In the end he is absolutely sure that the war was necessary to keep America safe, and that it has in fact made Americans safer. For Bush, the war was the ultimate non-falsifiable hypothesis.

During the 2000 campaign, when asked to name his favorite philosopher, Bush said Jesus Christ—a politically brilliant answer (Al Gore might have said Husserl) but one much mocked. If he is ever asked again, he should instead offer up William James and “The Will to Believe,” whose line of argument about the leap-like character of belief and action roughly tracks with the view of the world that Bush presents in Decision Pointsthough it would be hard to imagine two more different personalities or writing tones. Trying to clear space for religious faith against the encroachments of science, James is eloquently skeptical of the all-powerfulness of facts and knowledge, and of the need to postpone belief and action until all prior empirical evidence has been assembled and reviewed. Instead he makes a brief for instinct in action: “if we believe that no bell in us tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp, then it seems a piece of idle fantasticality to preach so solemnly our duty of waiting for the bell.”

It isn’t as if nobody these days except Bush believes this sort of thing. Jamesian pragmatism and instinctive decision-making are much in vogue, and, after all, what political leader ever has the luxury of being able to act on complete information? But Bush’s example ought to demonstrate the virtues of pushing the needle in the other direction. Decisions ought to rest on evidence. Information ought to be collected and reviewed and thoroughly subjected to a critical skepticism, not so that it can be ignored but so that it can be improved. And deliberation is nothing to be ashamed of.

Nicholas Lemann is dean of Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism and a staff writer for The New Yorker. This article ran in the February 17, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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