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The Loneliest President

What’s going on in George Bush’s mind? A psychopolitical survey.

Photo-illustration by Michael Elins  

Back in the Fall of 1994, when he was running for the governorship of Texas, I spent the better part of a week on a bus with George W. Bush. And all the stories you’ve heard are true: Up close and personal, avant le deluge, Bush was a winning figure. He was charming, savvy, and not half as dumb or allergic to policy as I’d been given to believe; he seemed inclined to a mode of moderate conservatism not that different from his father’s; he had even demonstrated a brand of political courage—resisting the demonization of illegal immigrants—rare in the GOP. Like a lot of people who first encountered Bush in those days, I came away impressed. And, also like a lot of people, I have spent a fair amount of the past six years wondering what the hell became of that guy.

And so I was intrigued this past November, when a number of old Bush hands averred that the Republicans’ drubbing at the polls might compel a resurrection of Bush’s pre-presidential persona—and thus might actually be good for him. “It creates a real opportunity where potentially he could get more things done with a Democratic Congress,” one Bush confidant told me. “He is very pragmatic. He’s said he doesn’t want to warm the seat. He wants to get things done. So it could be a very interesting couple of years.”

Today, of course, it’s screamingly obvious how naïve—nay, fantastical—such notions were. Sure, Bush’s State of the Union was littered with halfhearted nods to bipartisanship. Yet on the central, seminal question of Iraq, he has adopted a course no less bloody-minded (literally) and confrontational than his approach for the past four years. By ordering a new infusion of troops, he has not only extended a defiant middle finger to the Democratic congressional majority and the American public. He has gravely imperiled his own party’s future, rendering himself a pariah among all but his most lunatic supporters—and his non-Iraq agenda DOA.

All of which raises a pair of pressing and intertwined questions. Whatever else one thinks of Bush and his lieutenants, their political acumen has always been estimable—last year’s rout notwithstanding. But now they seem to be pursuing their aims in a manner clueless, reckless, and hopeless. Has Bush simply lost touch with political reality? Or has he actually lost his mind?

Among veterans of prior administrations, the consensus is that Bush is almost certainly as untethered as he appears—and that the condition is far from unprecedented. “By the second half of a second term,” said one of Bill Clinton’s Cabinet secretaries, “even a halfway intelligent president has (1) scraped the bottom of the barrel of the talent pool, so the aides and advisers are third-rate at best; (2) adopted a bunker mentality that disregards and disdains all criticism; and (3) basically stopped giving a shit about what anyone outside his inner circle thinks. For a quarter-way intelligent president, like Bush, these impediments are far more serious, because the only sources of true thought lie beyond the periphery of his bunker.”

Yet it’s worth considering the possibility that Bush’s madman-at-the-wheel métier owes as much to psychological factors as to structural ones. For some time now, armchair psychiatrists have argued that Bush suffers from a classic case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, citing his sense of grandiosity (“I’m the decider”), his arrogance and lack of empathy, and his tendency to surround himself with sycophants as evidence. Certainly, Bush seems to be in the grip of something close to a bona fide delusion (“a false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes,” says the DSM-IV) about the situation in Iraq—and in a state of near-clinical denial about the likelihood that his policy there has irretrievably failed.

How else to explain his rejection of the proposals put forward by the Iraq Study Group? Utterly unexpected, baffling on its face, Bush’s decision may well be judged the most pivotal of his last two years in office—and the 2008 election cycle. For here the president and his party were handed an exit strategy on a silver salver: a set of recommendations leading to a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops that most Democrats would have swallowed hard and signed onto. Not that Iraq would then have magically vanished as an issue. But it would no longer have been an exclusively Republican responsibility—or an exclusively Republican nightmare.

By giving the back of his hand to the ISG, therefore, Bush smacked his party upside the head, too—and then administered an even crueler blow by ordering the surge. That Republicans, by and large, believe that Bush’s behavior demonstrates that he no longer gives a good Goddamn about their electoral fortunes was manifestly clear last week on Capitol Hill. And it will be even clearer in the week ahead, when any number of GOP players agree to one or another of the symbolic votes registering disapproval of Bush’s war-management policy. As one of the most prominent dissenters, Maine senator Susan Collins, put it succinctly at a breakfast the morning after the State of the Union, Iraq is “not a very happy subject” for congressional Republicans.