The Loneliest President

Photo-illustration by Michael ElinsPhoto: Corbis

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.

For Collins, who like 20 other Senate GOP incumbents is up for reelection in 2008, the solution is relatively simple: Run as fast and as far away from the president as her pumps will carry her. Infinitely more complicated—and more perilous—are the calculations facing the crop of Republican presidential wannabes. All recognize that getting nominated by an overwhelmingly conservative primary electorate more or less requires sticking with the president. Yet all realize that being implicated further in the greatest foreign-policy calamity in a generation could doom them in a general election. The horns of this dilemma are jabbing with particularly violent force into the side of John McCain, who six months ago was widely viewed by the political class as our likeliest next president—but whose position now, with the body count in Baghdad destined to rise instead of fall for at least another year, seems conspicuously more tenuous.

Meanwhile, Bush’s gambit has only strengthened and emboldened the Democrats. By consensus, newly minted Virginia senator Jim Webb’s brisk and forceful State of the Union response was the best such Democratic riposte in years; more to the point, it signaled that the party, long cowed by the fear of being portrayed as McGovernite pansies on matters of national security, may at last see political advantage in adopting a more assertive voice. At the same time, by doubling down on a losing hand, Bush has only buttressed the appeal of putative anti-warriors John Edwards and Barack Obama. He’s even provided Hillary Clinton what she’s long been craving: a way of plausibly positioning herself as standing athwart his plans for Iraq despite having voted to authorize them at the start.

Maybe it’s true what many Republicans suspect: Bush doesn’t care a whit anymore about the future of the party. But you’d think that, if he really wishes not merely “to warm the seat,” he would care about his capacity to chalk up a few domestic wins before the clock runs out. Yet Bush seems to believe that the pursuit of such victories won’t be terminally impeded by the furor without end over Iraq. To which the only reply must be: Fat chance, bub.

To any impartial observer, the conclusion here is fairly inescapable: We are looking at a presidency that is, for all practical political purposes, finished—except to the extent that Bush can wreak more havoc by means of his monomania. The cynical interpretation of his recent moves is that he is stalling, trying to buy himself a few more months of time, praying that something, anything, will happen in Iraq that will let him claim a kind of victory, however trifling or evanescent. But I don’t quite buy that theory. The more convincing explanation is that Bush believes he is playing for history now—hence his obsessive focus on the single issue that he believes, rightly, will define his legacy. Where we see a failed president in Bush, he looks in the mirror and sees himself as a leader who pursued a burdensome, painful path and whose vindication will be meted out long after he has left office. As a righteous man who forged ahead in the face of weak-willed and wrongheaded opposition, in particular the impulse toward appeasement. As Harry Truman. As Winston Churchill.

Pathological narcissism? Delusions of grandeur? Res ipsa loquitur. There have been other presidents, of course, who could readily be described as suffering from these same maladies. (All of them, you could argue.) But not since Richard Nixon has Washington seen a case so severe—or so tragic. Today, Bush’s poll numbers are mired at Nixonian levels circa Watergate. He is similarly isolated, similarly aggrieved, similarly blinded to his own faults and follies. Similarly out to lunch, that is. (Though he hasn’t yet invited Dick Cheney to pray with him in the Oval Office—at least as far as we know.) And he is also similarly unloved and unlamented by the very pols who so recently fetishized and fawned over him.

How unloved? How unlamented? After the State of the Union, ABC’s political director, Mark Halperin, speculated that, if a secret ballot were held in Congress to end the Bush presidency, it would pass “by a margin of, oh, 500 to 35.” In a week of shopping that hypothetical on the Hill, I found not a single person ready to dispute it.

The Loneliest President