by Timothy Noah
January 15, 2008

from Slate Website


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.

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.

W.H.D. Koerner's

A Charge To Keep

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 (above image) 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.

Bush subsequently took the painting to Washington, hung it in the Oval Office, and continued to tell the painting's inspiring story, adding embellishments:

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.


Dubya: Smart? Or Dumb?
by Timothy Noah
March 13, 2001

Should journalists be avoiding the subject of George W. Bush's perceived mental deficiencies?


Lately, we've been hearing that they should. In the March 13 Washington Post, E.J. Dionne Jr. calls for "a moratorium on calling the president of the United States stupid."


In the March 7 Washington Post, Michael Kelly called Bush a "smart guy." But where is the evidence for this hidden intelligence? Dionne says that Bush has proved himself smart by conning most reporters into thinking he's a moderate. (In fact, Bush is a moderate as "moderate" is currently defined within an extremely conservative national Republican party.)


Kelly says that Bush's respect for his core conservative constituency's few nonnegotiable issues is smart because it leaves Bush room to compromise on many other issues that matter to swing voters. This is something every elected official must do, yet Kelly would never argue that every elected official is smart.

What's really going on? Chatterbox sees several forces at work.

In Kelly's case, the impetus to call Bush "smart" comes from Kelly's own conservatism and perhaps an urge to establish, after hurling Menckenesque invective at Bill Clinton for many years, that he isn't a blowhard. The counterintuitive quality to Kelly's thesis must also hold some appeal.

As a liberal, Dionne frets that if the "Bush is a dummy" perception remains in place for four years, Bush will evade responsibility for whatever stupid things he does.

"Before long," he writes, "we expect less of him than we do of the average city council member or county commissioner."

Borrowing from Bush's own rap on education standards, Bob Herbert of the New York Times has pegged this "the soft bigotry of low expectations."


Ronald Reagan benefited from a similar bigotry, most memorably when he presented his addled and self-contradictory explanation for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. The "I'm out to lunch" defense was not available to Bill Clinton when he explained his role in the Marc Rich pardon because the public knows that Clinton is not a stupid man. Nor was it available to another obviously smart man, Richard Nixon, during Watergate.

Another worry for Dionne is that the criticism casts the critic as an "elite mandarin." It is an odd feature of current political discourse in America that "equality" is considered a dirty word (unless embedded in the phrase "equality of opportunity") because it's too liberal, yet "dumb" is also considered a dirty word because it's inegalitarian.


But if the president really is dumb, don't journalists have a responsibility to say so, even if their readers don't want to hear it?

When Chatterbox uses the word "dumb," he is deliberately sidestepping the great sotto voce debate about Bush: Does he lack innate intelligence, or is he merely "incurious"? (Even Dionne concedes that Bush is "inattentive.") Chatterbox doesn't know, and he doesn't care. All that really matters is that Bush is functionally dumb in the sense that he is visibly ignorant about all sorts of things the president is supposed to know about.


David Sanger of the New York Times spotlighted an excellent recent example in a March 8 story about Bush's talks with South Korean president Kim Dae Jung:

Today Mr. Bush made it clear that he had little intention of following Mr. Clinton's path, at least not now. In a brief exchange with reporters after meeting Mr. Kim in the Oval Office, Mr. Bush said:

"We're not certain as to whether or not they're keeping all terms of all agreements."

But the United States has only one agreement with North Korea - the 1994 accord that froze North Korea's plutonium processing at a suspected nuclear weapons plant. And at a briefing this afternoon two senior administration officials, asked about the president's statement, said there was no evidence that North Korea is violating its terms.

Later, a White House spokesman said that Mr. Bush was referring to his concern about whether the North would comply with future accords, even though he did not use the future tense.

"That's how the president speaks," the official said.

If that doesn't persuade you, check out this transcript of Bush's first press conference, where Bush in effect accused a reporter of playing "gotcha" when he was simply trying to find out Bush's stance toward a proposed European rapid-reaction force:

Bush: Well, why don't we wait until after [Prime Minister Tony Blair] and I visit, so I don't have to give the same answer twice.

Reporter: But just on the whole outline of the question of the European defense capability...

Bush: You bet. I understand, you're trying to get me to tell you the answer twice. (Laughter.) Britain and the United States have got a special relationship; we'll keep it that way. I look forward to talking to the Prime Minister about the importance of NATO. It is... anyway, let me visit with him first. I promise to call upon you tomorrow. Nice try.

The following day, when Bush was asked the same question again, it was clear that Bush's answer - the force would defer to NATO and would probably inspire European nations to increase their defense budgets - needn't have depended on any special briefing from Blair. Bush had simply been unfamiliar with the subject.

The mere fact that journalists like Dionne and Kelly bother to argue that Bush isn't dumb is itself evidence that Bush is dumb.


After all, nobody ever bothered to argue that Jimmy Carter or John F. Kennedy wasn't dumb. Historians have argued, persuasively, that Dwight D. Eisenhower wasn't dumb, but this is something liberal intellectuals should have understood at the time. (How could a dummy have survived as Supreme Allied Commander during World War II?)


More typically, when David Broder and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post published a series (later a book) arguing that Dan Quayle wasn't quite as dumb as people said he was, it could be taken as confirmation that Quayle really was dumb. No politician is as dumb, or as smart, as the public believes him to be because the public lacks the means to acquire a nuanced familiarity with his mind.


But the public can usually form an opinion that's in the ballpark. As Franklin Foer points out in the March 19 New Republic, the much-maligned "conventional wisdom," though banal, is usually correct. Lately there's been a lot of revisionist thinking about Ronald Reagan's grasp of policy nuance based on a cache of recently unearthed radio commentaries and speeches.


These have been published in a book, Reagan In His Own Hand, which is being lauded by conservatives. What Chatterbox sees when he gazes into Reagan In His Own Hand, though, is the condescension of editor Martin Anderson, a longtime Reagan adviser, and of George Shultz, who wrote the foreword.


Here's Shultz:

I could tell dozens of stories about specific times when Ronald Reagan displayed detailed knowledge about policy issues, and when he took decisive action based on that knowledge - without the benefit of someone whispering in his ear or sliding a note into his hand. But so ingrained is the belief that he was an amiable man - not too bright, the willing captive of his aides - that it would probably not make much difference.

In his introduction, Anderson and his co-editors marvel that Reagan's radio broadcasts drew upon hundreds of sources, and his drafts contain thousands of facts and figures. Sometimes he lists his sources in accompanying documents. In one case, for an essay on oil, he appended them. At times he cites his sources in the text.

Now, let's be serious.


If Shultz and Anderson said these things about you, would you really feel flattered?


Or would you want to punch them in the nose?






George W. Bush - American Idiot



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