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The Problem with Psychoanalyzing Bush

Like many people, I read Newsweek's mid-December, high-octane burn of Bush with more than a bit of wonder, and not a good "Christmasy" kind. Halfway through the article, encountering what must have been the twenty gigillionth unnamed source, I thought to myself, "This is what happens when a President plugs all the leaks. The stories don't stop -- they just become a reflection of the journalist's preconceived notions."

This Newsweek piece was the latest in an ongoing series of attempts to psychoanalyze this President. Here is Newsweek's take on the essence of the Dubya:

Bush may be the most isolated president in modern history, at least since the late-stage Richard Nixon. It's not that he is a socially awkward loner or a paranoid. He can charm and joke like the frat president he was. Still, beneath a hail-fellow manner, Bush has a defensive edge, a don't-tread-on-me prickliness.
OK -- fair enough. Quite plausible. I have seen people in my life who are like that. Next, important question -- putting aside the sexiness of your conclusion, what is your evidence?

They respond:

It shows in Bush's humor. When Reagan told a joke, it almost never was about someone in the room. Reagan's jokes may have been scatological or politically incorrect, but they were inclusive, intended to make everyone join in the laughter. Often, Bush's joking is personal-it is aimed at you. The teasing can be flattering (the president gave me a nickname!), but it is intended, however so subtly, to put the listener on the defensive. It is a towel-snap that invites a retort. How many people dare to snap back at a president?
Seriously? The way Bush jokes is the window into his soul? That is all you have?

But really, in the course of reading the article, you cannot help conclude that is pretty much all they have. It boils down to five cent psychoanalysis that would have made Peanut's Lucy proud: he's in a bubble, he will not listen to criticism, he is stubborn. Why? Here is, at least by my reading, the evidence they provide:

1. He has angered some congressmen. Now that is compelling, is it not? Who could envision members of Congress having the kind of self-conceit that they could get angry by being "slighted"? They are so humble, after all.

2. His jokes make the press corps twitchy and mildly offended. But, am I to really believe that the offended elements of the press can take any joke without being offended? Am I to believe that they are not full of themselves and the utter, deadly seriousness of their sacred, patriotic project to protect democracy, liberty and the First Amendment by reporting (cue dramatic music) the Truth? Did you see how Rather reacted to the National Guard fiasco?

3. All of these unnamed sources say something that the authors can interpret as being consistent with their theory.

4. He just will not admit that we are losing that damned war in Iraq.

Am I supposed to be compelled by this data set?

The Newsweek story is, at this point, no longer inducing chatter. But it gets to a broader trend in the media -- one that today's Washington Times piece by Bill Sammon tosses cold water upon. Consider again the metaphor that Newsweek chose to describe Bush -- a bubble. If you are in a bubble, nothing gets into you. But, importantly, nothing gets out as well. Throughout the Newsweek piece, you see the authors justify again and again the anonymity of their sources. A typical line reads, "A White House aide, who like virtually all White House officials (in this story and in general) refused to be identified for fear of antagonizing the president, says..." In other words, the fact that Bush does not show his hand is a piece of data that can be used to psychoanalyze him. He lets nobody leak because he likes a "tight circle of trust" that is inviolable. Accordingly, nothing gets through that circle, and nothing gets out. The "no leaking" is proof of that.

So to these four pieces of pseudo-evidence, we must add a fifth:

5. He and his associates will not share themselves to the press corps' satisfaction.

To use this as evidence is, however, to engage in a logically faulty program. The fact that this White House is very effective at preventing its officials from talking to the press is not a piece of data that one can use to psychoanalyze the President. It is, rather, a sign that this President cannot, currently, be psychoanalyzed. We have no data to do so. We really have little-to-nothing in terms of reliable information about how the man thinks. Why? Because he runs a tight ship. He does not suffer leakers. No leakers mean no inside scoops that are worth anything. It means that you get four junky pieces of data -- a few pissed off members of Congress, offended pressies, anonymous and vaguely agreeing sources, and a war "nobody" thinks we are winning -- to make an argument about the essence of a man. You do not salvage the value of this data, and you certainly do not strengthen your conclusion, by adding, "He won't tell us anything!"

There is a synonymous term for "arguments based on no quality data". It is: idle speculation.

This is why Sammon's piece is so compelling. It is not that Sammon demonstrates to letter certainty that the Newsweek account is incorrect. He largely relies upon unnamed sources as well. It is, rather, that, since this White House is so tight-lipped, you can get fundamentally competing accounts of Bush as a person from two reputable news sources in the course of 14 days. It shows that the whole project of psychoanalyzing Bush is illegitimate. (N.B. what makes the Sammon piece better journalism is that Sammon does not jump from the fact that Cheney is still close to Bush to any conclusions about Bush's psychological state).

The bottom line is the following. The desire to psychoanalyze a president is very strong among almost all serious observers of the White House. But a psychoanalytic conclusion must follow from a data set that has some empirical value. As the quality of that data set diminishes, so does the power of the conclusion. What is more, the conclusion will begin to look more and more like one's preconceived notion, as there is less and less data to test those initial impressions. That is exactly what I think happens in these "Bush's Mind" pieces. Bush has given us so little data that those who wish to figure him out are left rephrasing how they felt about him before they started researching, and bringing forth utterly absurd pieces of "evidence" to make their conclusions seem like something more than their initial impressions.

This is why, if I am asked what I think about Bush's mind, I will demur. I lack enough data to make a conclusion worth your while.

After all, who wants to read idle speculation?

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