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Political Psychology: The Bush Bubble Myth

By Stanley Renshon

The latest trend in Bush Administration criticism is the reemergence of the Bush bubble myth. This myth, originating in the earliest stereotypes of Mr. Bush, views the president passing his days in a comfortable womb of like-minded people cut off from and uninterested in the world at large, going about his imperious ways with no clue or concern with the suffering his policies are causing.

Dick Polman of the Philadelphia Inquirer writes, "We have seen this phenomenon before - a cloistered president, fixed in his views and averse to compromise, often at odds with political reality." Evan Thomas and Richard Wolfe write in Newsweek that "Bush may be the most isolated president in modern history, at least since the late-stage Richard Nixon." David Ignatius bluntly asserts, "Bush and Cheney are in the bunker."

The din of conventional wisdom echoing the media became so strong that NBC's Brian Williams used precious time in an interview with the President at the end of last year to ask about it:

WILLIAMS: I brought some visual aids. I have Newsweek and Time. Cover of Newsweek, look what they've done to you. "Bush's World: The isolated president, can he change?" And inside Time, it says "Bush's search for his new groove." Time magazine says you're out there talking to people. Newsweek says you're in here not talking to people. So what is truth, Mr. President?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I'm talking to you. You're a person.

WILLIAMS: This says you're in a bubble. You have a very small circle of advisors now. Is that true? Do you feel in a bubble?

PRESIDENT BUSH: No, I don't feel in a bubble. I mean, you feel in a bubble in the sense that I can't go walking out the front gate and, you know, go shopping, like I'd love to do for my wife...I feel like I'm getting really good advice from very capable people and that people from all walks of life have informed me and informed those who advise me. And I feel very comfortable that I'm very aware of what's going on.

Mr. Williams seems like a decent person, but this is truly an inane question. What does he expect Mr. Bush to say: Yes, I'm in a bubble just like these magazines say. Yes, I have a very small circle of advisors who tell only what I want to hear. Yes, I don't care how my policies are really doing in the real world so long as Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and maybe Donald Rumsfeld assure me that I'm right.

Anyone who has spent more than a moment examining Mr. Bush's presidency and psychology would know how far from reality these characterizations are. Like most caricatures, they provide a mental detour around the need to consider facts, thus allowing effortless conformation of biases.

Tellingly, Bush critics point to different evidence as proof of the bubble. Some evidence put forward in defense of this argument is simply silly. The normally sensible Fareed Zakaria was moved to write of an "Imperial Presidency." Why? Because, "Bush's travel schedule seems calculated to involve as little contact as possible with the country he is in." Presumably, if Mr. Bush spends more time on touring and less on substantive discussions his presidency will revert to acceptable size.

A possible more serious and widespread criticism is raised by Ruth Marcus writing in the Washington Post who says "the notion that this is an insular White House headed by an incurious president isn't exactly administration-bites-dog news." Her view, seconded by many critics, is that in the Bush administration there is too much agreement and too little debate, a recipe for groupthink.

Those who persist in repeating this view overlook or ignore a great deal of evidence to the contrary. During the 2000 presidential campaign a number of reporters including Frank Bruni and Eric Schmidt looked into Mr. Bush's decision-making style. They wrote in a November 19, 1999 article entitled "Bush Rehearsing for the World Stage," that in getting information, Bush prefers "discussions to in-depth reading, although he has been known to needle his advisors when something they say diverges from something they wrote." Hardly the humor of an uniformed man. Elizabeth Mitchell, who wrote a badly titled, but informative biographical book about Mr. Bush's development, wrote, (p.333) "he likes to hear different views on the same policy problems." During his 1990 campaign for governor, "George W. took great glee in assembling the most diverse group he could find and then let the discussion fly for several hours. He would ask hundreds of specific questions, demonstrating the same intense curiosity he displayed on the back roads of Texas."

Has this style carried over to his presidency? The evidence is that it has. Bob Woodward's look inside the debates that began after 9/11 within the administration makes this clear.

Don't believe Woodward? Is he to close to Bush? Ok, then how about Washington Post reporters Peter Baker and Robin Wright who wrote that a, "powerful debate was raging, officials now acknowledge, among the president's top advisers over postponing the Jan. 30 interim election in hopes of first tamping down the flaring insurgency and bringing disaffected factions to the table."

Supporters of Mr. Bush's policies have every reason to be concerned about the state of his presidency. But they will help neither the president or his policies by buying into the ill-considered and erroneous view that Mr. Bush's comfortable cocoon must be breached, if his presidency is to be saved. Appearing this week on Fox News Sunday, Ken Duberstein had this to say:

WALLACE: And, finally, Mr. Duberstein, how unvarnished was the message that you were able to give to Ronald Reagan in 1987-88, and what does Bolten need to do with Bush?

DUBERSTEIN: I think Josh Bolten is well equipped to be a reality therapist to President Bush the same way walking into the Oval Office I had to tell the president not what he wanted to hear, but what he needed to hear.

The implication of this is quite clear. Mr. Duberstein thinks Mr. Bush needs some "reality therapy," because no one is telling him what he "needs to hear," as opposed to what he "wanted to hear."

Contrary to his critics, Mr. Bush is quite able to discern the difference between reality and hype. It was Mr. Bush who framed the 9/11 attack as an act of war and not an attack requiring a limited response, a UN resolution, or better police work. It was Mr. Bush who said of Yasser Arafat, publicly, "He can't close the front door of his prisons and let prisoners out the back...Arafat criticized us. He urged us to put more pressure on Israel. Who is he kidding?," or "here's a man who says he's signed on to Oslo, that he was going to fight off terrorism. We thought a couple of month ago that we thought we had an agreement. The next thing we know he's ordering a shipment of arms from Iran." And it was a skeptical Mr. Bush who responded to George Tenet's presentation about Iraqi WMDs "Is that all you've got?"

No, Mr. Bush is a clear-eyed realist when it comes to his circumstances, and ours. He is not in political trouble because he inhabits a bubble. He is on trouble because he has undertaken a difficult war against a relentless enemy and is determined to see it though despite the public's fatigue and doubt. He is in trouble because from the start of his administration he has faced relentless domestic political enemies who are determined to cripple and, if possible, ruin his presidency. And he is in trouble because some allies he should be able to count upon appear to have adopted the fallacious arguments of his enemies or in the case of Congress are afraid to directly address them.

Stanley Renshon is a professor of Political Science at the City University of New York Graduate Center and a psychoanalyst. His analysis and commentary can be found at: politicalpsychology.blogspot.com/

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