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Bush's serenity wasn't that of the ignorant or aloof.
It was that of the faithful, and as subsequent events would show, it didn't
On the one hand I wouldn't wish it on anyone, but on the other, I believe that America would be well-served if every citizen worked, at least once in their life, on a political campaign. The rituals and requirements of a candidacy are so odd and so distasteful, especially when viewed from outside, that it is all too easy to become cynical about the men who participate, instead of placing the blame where it belongs, on the press and the voters who demand and ultimately dictate the shape of the process. Among other things : the limitations on campaign financing require the candidate to prostrate himself before innumerable donors and engage in a strange minuet where he conveys his undying and unlimited gratitude for the contribution, while also making it clear that the contributor should expect nothing in return; the paltry American attention span requires campaigns to repeat the same simplistic message over and over and over, ad nauseum, like barkers at a carnival; the mythology of democracy requires candidates to engage in high stakes debates, which shed far more heat than light; and the adversarial nature and "gotcha!" attitude of the press makes it nearly impossible for a candidate to take any risks, because misstatements and mistakes are turned into far more significant stories than they warrant. In effect, our campaigns require candidates to divide themselves into a real person, who hides behind a curtain, and a political persona who performs in public. With this enforced schizophrenia, it's no wonder we distrust the sincerity of politicians. We more or less demand that they be insincere.
Once you've been through a campaign and gotten a glimpse of this process in action, you realize something important about candidates : what is really revealing is not the persona they present, but the real person's relation to that persona. To take a few examples from recent history : Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton melded the two most seamlessly, Reagan because, as an actor, he had been trained to play roles and was completely comfortable with this stagy persona, Clinton because he could apparently fool even himself into believing he was whoever he pretended to be at any given moment; meanwhile, men like Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, and Bob Dole have been so contemptuous of the required persona that their loathing has been visible and off-putting to voters; and Al Gore scared us by the fanaticism with which he could adopt various personae, making us wonder if the real person even existed. What Frank Bruni provides in this account of George W. Bush's campaign for the presidency is the engaging spectacle of a candidate who was adept enough at putting on the required mask, but self-aware and playful enough to want us all to know that he didn't take his own performance too seriously, basically combining some of the best aspects of Bill Clinton (the ability to connect with voters) and Bob Dole (the ability to see the humor in it all).
Oddly enough then, it was this quintessential conservative and cultural square (Mr. Bruni takes great delight in how few touchstones of pop culture Mr. Bush is familiar with, most famously thinking that an interviewer who inquired if he'd ever watched Sex in the City was getting out of line) who became our first successful post-modern candidate, with even his public persona essentially commenting on its own artificiality. Thus, when he'd pronounce a difficult word or the tortuous name of a foreign leader, particularly one he'd previously butchered, he'd emphasize it to a ridiculous degree, not treating it smoothly and casually as if he wanted us to forget the past, but inviting us to share in his glee at performing well and at confounding expectations while making it clear that he understood his own faults. What's particularly canny about this method, whether intentional or not, is that it enabled Mr. Bush to say to voters : Look, I'm a regular guy just like you, with no idea who the leader of Sri Lanka is, but I'm also able to learn who he is if that's what's important to y'all. Those who like him believe, though those who hate him would disagree, that it takes someone who is extraordinarily well-grounded and confident to be able to engage in this kind of tacit self-criticism and to invite others, particularly voters, to share in this self-directed irony.
Early in the book Mr. Bruni gives an assessment of George W. Bush as a candidate and of Mr. Bush's relationship to his own campaign that is bang on :
If the whole process looked...silly from a reporter's
vantage point, it probably looked equally so from a candidate's, and that
That last point resurfaces throughout, as Mr. Bruni makes the compelling argument that George W. Bush, in order to be comfortable dealing with a situation, molds it to a form that suits his own style and philosophy. This analysis seems particularly insightful as applied to the events of September 11th, when President Bush in a series of private meetings and public speeches (including the National Prayer Service and the address to Congress) in effect shaped the entire nation's (and much of the world's) understanding of what had happened and what was at stake, turning it into (whether it was or not) a simple clash between good and evil. Because viewing the attack through this very elementary filter comported with both his religious worldview and his desire to reduce things to their essence, Mr. Bush was able to rally the nation to a starkly defined crusade (though he quickly abandoned the loaded term) and to make the rest of the world choose sides. This is not to say that no other leader could have led the nation effectively during this time, in fact I personally think Al Gore would have acquitted himself fairly well in the end, but imagine the dithering that a Bill Clinton would have gone through, a man so prone to seeing every issue from all sides that he frequently seems to forget which side he's supposed to be on. And the most interesting thing about all of this is that, although George W. Bush has proved to be the right man at the right time, it seems fair to suppose that had this time come during the campaign he almost certainly would not have been elected to the position.
As Mr. Bruni writes, the crisis that was thrust upon Mr. Bush forced him to focus far more fiercely than he was accustomed to on a fairly complex set of issues. Had a Bill Clinton an Al Gore or a Richard Nixon been in office, they'd unquestionably have been far better prepared--at least in so far as having an in-depth knowledge of all the issues--at the moment the attacks the occurred. This does not mean they'd have handled things better, in fact one suspects these men, with their complex minds, would have overthought things and made their own jobs more difficult and the American response more hesitant. But they'd eventually have arrived at the right course of action and, more importantly, intellectual elites, the press and probably even the public would have had greater confidence in their ability to handle the crisis, because of their superior preparation. The presidency of George W. Bush--let's be honest about it--was made possible by the fact that so little seemed to be at stake in the 2000 election. He could get away with taking his own candidacy lightly because it seemed like a time when a lightweight, particularly a likable one, could amply fulfill the rather minimal duties of the post-Cold War, bull market, surplus-era presidency, and because a lighter touch was welcome after the Sturm and Drang and scandal of the Clinton years.
How did it happen then that George W. Bush, for all his good nature and lack of pretense, became such a polarizing figure in even such a meaningless election? The answer seems to lie precisely in his lack of seriousness--which appeals to some but appalls many. It is sometimes said that to a liberal life is a tragedy, to a conservative it's a comedy. Conservatives, believing government to be basically incapable of doing much good, have far less emotional and intellectual investment in the idea that governing is an important and serious business. This has arguably been one of the reasons that Republicans have fielded so many inferior political candidates over the years. If you are a liberal there can be no higher calling than politics; the quest for public office gets their best and their brightest. If you're a conservative there are few lower; all the smart ones are in the business world, doing honest work. The truest moments in the campaign came when George W. Bush would talk about how he'd be disappointed if he lost but it wouldn't be the end of the world and Al Gore, to the contrary, would talk about how losing would kill him. How could liberals help but hate George W. Bush when he could so easily dismiss the prospect of wielding the power that they believe will cure all ills and save the world? He was effectively renouncing their Messiah. And, of course, that only made him all the more attractive to conservatives, who are congenitally skeptical about government and distrust anyone who lusts after power.
One interesting result of these dichotomies is that Mr. Bruni's book has become something of a Rorschach blot. Liberals look at the George W. Bush he writes about and see all the reasons that they hate him. Conservatives read and see all the reasons they love him. But there is only one, relatively unchanging, George W. Bush between the covers; it is the political philosophies of the readers that differ, making it possible for the two sides to draw opposite conclusions about an identical set of facts. That Mr. Bruni has managed to capture this truth makes the book an invaluable resource for understanding Mr. Bush and for understanding the very different reactions to him by folks depending on where they fall on the political spectrum.
Equally impressive is the honesty with which Mr. Bruni assesses the performance of himself and his colleagues in the press during the campaign. He acknowledges, first of all, how insular is the world of the journalist covering a campaign; how uncomfortable travel may effect the mood of coverage; how boredom with hearing the same speech over and over may cause them to pounce on insignificant variations and inflate them into major policy changes; and, maybe most importantly, the dubious tendency of pressmen to manufacture news themselves. This last happens most often in one of two ways. The first comes when a reporter takes something one candidate said then either confronts another candidate with it or confronts the candidate himself, then writes a story about how the original candidate had to spend the day responding to questions about a remark he'd made. While technically true, the storyline conveniently ignores the fact that the reporter was the one prompting or asking the questions. The second, and maybe more insidious, method requires just one reporter to decide that a campaign is either losing steam or gaining steam. After he files such a story, other editors start asking their correspondents why they haven't written a piece on this dramatic change in the campaign. Soon, as everyone rushes to cover their own butt, what may well have started as just a way of standing out from the reportorial pack has become the accepted wisdom about a candidate and his candidacy. Whether these disturbing behaviors are caused by competitive pressures in the industry or mere desire to break up the tedium of one's own coverage, they are unprofessional, dishonest, and antidemocratic. And it's bad enough that they occur during the campaign, but as you read about them, you can see how the very same thing happens once one candidate becomes president. So we get the random story about how the war on terrorism is in trouble; then within a few days that's the received knowledge in the media; then a few days later some victory occurs that puts paid to the original story; and we can see that it was nothing but an exercise in journalistic one-upmanship in the first place. This has to be unhealthy both for the press, which diminishes its own credibility, and for the political process, which falls prey to the whims of reporters.
One of Mr. Bruni's other important criticisms, and it's very much a self-criticism, is that the members of the press generally fail to understand the role of religious faith in George W. Bush's life :
Bush's spirituality was perhaps crucial to his ability
to handle himself so well in public--and by all accounts, in private--after
This is a pretty shocking admission. It's almost impossible to imagine that the NY Times or any other major media outlet would put someone with racial prejudices on a story about race, or a person with little understanding of Russian culture on the Russia beat, yet they see no problem in having reporters with religious prejudices, or no understanding of religion at any rate, cover a subject where religion is a key component of the story. Mustn't this effect how the story is reported? It's great that Mr. Bruni recognizes the centrality of religious belief in Mr. Bush's life now, but how different might his reportage during the campaign have been if he'd realized it in 1999?
Mr. Bruni's admissions of press weaknesses are admirable, but because of this honesty his dual stories do sometimes seem at odds with one another. It is hard in places to tell whether he's describing a genuine flaw in George W. Bush's character or whether the vagaries of the press coverage are at work. Likewise, in explaining the ups and downs of the race and the early days of his presidency (into late 2001) one wonders which were the genuine downs and which were merely created by the press itself. The overarching question becomes : having acknowledged the degree to which the press creates its own stories and that he, and others, fundamentally misunderstood Mr. Bush until September 11th, 2001, how trustworthy should we consider a reporter's account of the 2000 campaign? I think the answer is, necessarily, that one has to read the campaign coverage through the filter of the press critique. Mr. Bruni in some ways teaches us to distrust his own account of the campaign. But both stories are quite fascinating and the book is wonderfully readable. Better books may come, but for now I think it's the best we have on George W. Bush and one of the better, at least in recent years, on the press.
-EXCERPT : Chapter One of Ambling into History
-ESSAY : Am I My Brother's Keeper? (Frank Bruni, 5/12/02, NY Times Magazine)
-ARTICLE : Bush Insists to Voters His Blood Is Red, Not Blue (FRANK BRUNI, April 24, 2000, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of Blinded by the Right by David Brock (Frank Bruni, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Vulgar Favors : Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History. By Maureen Orth (Frank Bruni, NY Times Book Review)
-SPEECH : Frank Bruni (National Press Club, April 14, 2002)
-INTERVIEW : Terence Smith talks to New York Times reporter Frank Bruni about his new book, Ambling Into History, which charts President Bush's rise to power. (Online Newshour, March 13, 2002)
-INTERVIEW : Frank Bruni & Terry Moran (March 2, 2001, Nightline)
-INTERVIEW : Condit Courts the Grey Lady (WNYC : On the Media, 2/16/02))
-ESSAY : The Howler epilogue: Et tu, Bruni? : Valentineís Week has come to an end. So has one scribeís love for Bush (The Daily Howler, 18 February 2000)
-ESSAY : An Honest Reporter on Bush (FrontPageMagazine.com | March 14, 2002)
-REVIEW : of Ambling Into History : The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush by Frank Bruni (Ben Macintyre , NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Ambling Into History (Noemie Emery, Weekly Standard)
-REVIEW : of Ambling into History (Steve Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
-REVIEW : of Ambling into History (Peter W. Schramm, On Principle)
-REVIEW : of Ambling into History (Elizabeth Bennett, Houston Chronicle)
-REVIEW : of Ambling (Noam Scheiber, Salon)
-REVIEW : of Ambling (Molly Ivins, NY Observer)
-REVIEW : of Ambling (Bruce Fretts, Entertainment Weekly)
-REVIEW : of Ambling (Alexandra Starr, Business Week)
-REVIEW : of Ambling (CAROLYN BARTA, The Dallas Morning News )
Book-related and General Links:
GEORGE W. BUSH :
State of the Union (George W. Bush, 1/28/03)
-ESSAY: The Bush Doctrine: The moral vision that launched the Iraq war has been quietly growing in the President's inner circle. (Tony Carnes, 04/25/2003, Christianity Today)
Reagan's Son (BILL KELLER, January 26, 2003, NY Times)
-ESSAY: With God on His Side (GARRY WILLS, March 30, 2003, NY Times Magazine)
-PROFILE: Defining George W. Bush (Anne E. Kornblut, 5/4/2003. Boston Globe Magazine)
The United States is in the grip of a certainty crisis: Bush's waffle-free directness alarms the fashionably doubtful commentariat (David Brooks, March 07, 2003, Times of London)
Providence and the President George W. Bush's theory of history (James W. Ceaser, 03/10/2003, Weekly Standard)
From king klutz to superwarrior: The transformation of George W Bush: He may have seemed a joke in the early days of his presidency ... but no one is laughing now. Trevor Royle profiles a man born into politics, moulded by oil money, family values and old-time religion, traumatised by the tragedy of the Twin Towers ... and poised to lead a reluctant world into war (Trevor Royle, 09 March 2003, Sunday Herald)
The Bush Manifesto (Joshua Muravchik, December 2002, Commentary)
-ESSAY: Imperial? No, Presidential: Bush is no "Caesar." (SAM TANENHAUS, December 27, 2002, Wall Street Journal) -ESSAY: Providence and the President George W. Bush's theory of history (James W. Ceaser, 03/10/2003, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY: At Crisis Time, a Motherlode of Bush Traits President Shows Instinct To Act, Speak Bluntly (Dana Milbank, September 6, 2002, Washington Post)
Profile: George W Bush: He means what he says (William Hague, 06/10/2002, Daily Telegraph)
-ESSAY: The private faith of a public man: How religion shapes this presidency (Francine Kiefer, September 06, 2002, The Christian Science Monitor)
-ESSAY: The battle for American science: Creationists, pro-lifers and conservatives now pose a serious threat to research and science teaching in the US. (Oliver Burkeman and Alok Jha, April 10, 2003, The Guardian)
-ESSAY : George W. Bush, Movie Star : A private screening of Alexandra Pelosi's forthcoming documentary. (Matt Labash, 03/04/2002, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY : Presumed Ignorant (Jonathan Chait,4/24/01, New Republic)
-ESSAY : Party Animals : is GWB our JFK (Andrew Sullivan, 12/02/99, New Republic)
-ESSAY : What Kind of Leader is George W. Bush? : September 11 Was Easy Compared To The Issues Now Facing The President (Richard Blow, 4/09/02, TomPaine.com)
-ARTICLE : America's Chaotic Road to War : Bush's Global Strategy Began to Take Shape in First Frantic Hours After Attack (Dan Balz and Bob Woodward, January 27, 2002, Washington Post)
-SPECIAL REPORT : National Missile Defense (Washington Post)
-The Bush files - Observer special
-ESSAY : Waiting on the prez : After dinner, after the dignitaries had left, a guy in a blue suit came back to the kitchen -- a Texan named George. (Cullen Thomas, Dec. 5, 2001, Salon)
-ARTICLE : Revealed: what really went on during Bush's 'missing hours' : Three months after the attacks on the Twin Towers there remains a mystery as to what happened to the President that day. William Langley pieces together the vital moments in the transformation of a presidency. (William Langley, 16/12/2001)
-ESSAY : Hey, I'm doing my best : President George Bush is a year old today. Surprisingly, our low expectations of him have been confounded by his strong leadership (Christopher Hitchens, January 20, 2002, The Observer)
-ANALYSIS : Popular Bush remains an enigma : President's first year in office surprises many observers (Marc Sandalow, January 20, 2002, San Francisco Chronicle)
-ESSAY : A Day to Speak of Anger and Grief : After Bush's Pivotal Speech and New York Visit, Time to Decide Strategy (Dan Balz and Bob Woodward, Washington Post Staff Writers, January 30, 2002)
-PROFILE : Conflicting Image of Bush Emerges : Bush Makes Political Investments, but Will They Make Him? (John F. Harris and Dan Balz, April 29, 2001, Washington Post)
-ESSAY : Jews in Bush’s Cabinet? Don’t Hold Your Breath (Philip Weiss , December 2001, NY Observer)
-ESSAY : Waiting on the prez : After dinner, after the dignitaries had left, a guy in a blue suit came back to the kitchen -- a Texan named George. (Cullen Thomas, Dec. 5, 2001, Salon)
-ESSAY : The President's Very Favorite Book : In defense of George W. Bush's literary taste. (Andrew Ferguson, August 2001, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY : Bush's Exercise Guru : Will our next surgeon general make us all fit as fiddles? (Andrew Ferguson, May 2001, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY : Bush's Stealth Budget Strategy : The budget director's plan to shrink government. (Fred Barnes, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY : A Good Week's Work . . . (Robert Kagan, June 18 2001, Washington Post)
Monday, June 18, 2001
-ARTICLE : First Impressions : Wary Europeans Await Bush on Whirlwind Tour (ABC News)
-ESSAY : Is George just dumb enough to be great? (WILLIAM REES-MOGG, JULY 30 2001, Times of London)
-REVIEW : of The Bush Dyslexicon by Mark Crispin Miller (MICHAEL ERARD, Texas Observer)
-REVIEW : of First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty by Bill Minutaglio (David Broder, Washington Monthly)
-REVIEW : of Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose's new book Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush (Myra MacPherson, Washington Monthly)
-REVIEW : of Fuzzy Math : The Essential Guide to the Bush Tax Plan by Paul Krugman (Walter Shapiro, Washington Monthly)
-ESSAY : Kooks 'R' U.S. : By going its own way on biological weapons, Kyoto, missile defense and a growing list of global issues, the Bush administration is turning the United States into a pariah. (Ian Williams, July 2001, Salon)
-REVIEW : of First Son George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty. By Bill Minutaglio (David Brooks, NY Times Book Review)
-PROFILE : The Queen Mother : For years Barbara Bush took pains to project a benign, maternal persona. Those days are over (Martha Brant and Weston Kosova, NEWSWEEK)
Unlikely Allies Influenced Bush To Shift Course On AIDS Relief (Mike Allen and Paul Blustein, January 30, 2003, Washington Post)
How Bush got wise to world AIDS crisis (STEPHANIE NOLEN, January 30, 2003, Globe & Mail)
Bush's Moral Rectitude Is a Tough Sell in Old Europe (TODD S. PURDUM, January 30, 2003, NY Times)
The President rides out: George Bush's foes see him as an inarticulate bully. Friends say that evangelical faith underpins his every action. (Ed Vulliamy, January 26, 2003, The Observer)