Peering Inside Bush's Head

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, July 2, 2007; 1:58 PM

It's open season on psychoanalyzing President Bush.

The Washington Post this morning unfurls a 3,000-word attempt to figure out what's going on inside Bush's head as his presidency collapses around him. A particular mystery: How he is able to remain so calm and resolute amid so many signs of his own failures.

Peter Baker leads his piece with word that Bush has been summoning authors and philosophers to the White House -- "looking for answers," it is said, to such questions as: "What is the nature of good and evil in the post-Sept. 11 world? What lessons does history have for a president facing the turmoil I'm facing? How will history judge what we've done? Why does the rest of the world seem to hate America? Or is it just me they hate?"

But to me, it sounds like Bush is looking not for answers -- but for rationalizations for his behavior. There is no sign of genuine introspection, no sign of acknowledgment of mistakes, no sign of any significant change of course. In a pattern familiar to anyone who has ever had a drinking problem, Bush appears to be engaged in a furious effort to persuade onlookers that he's fine -- even if he isn't.

In fact, one could even argue that Bush's search for "answers" from a parade of easily cowed visitors allows him to avoid a hard look at the one place he is most likely to find an explanation for his predicament: Within himself.

The Post Story

Baker writes: "Bush is fixated on Iraq, according to friends and advisers. One former aide went to see him recently to discuss various matters, only to find Bush turning the conversation back to Iraq again and again. He recognizes that his presidency hinges on whether Iraq can be turned around in 18 months. 'Nothing matters except the war,' said one person close to Bush. 'That's all that matters. The whole thing rides on that.'

"And yet Bush does not come across like a man lamenting his plight. In public and in private, according to intimates, he exhibits an inexorable upbeat energy that defies the political storms. Even when he convenes philosophical discussions with scholars, he avoids second-guessing his actions. He still acts as if he were master of the universe, even if the rest of Washington no longer sees him that way."

In other words, even while reaching out for advice, he remains firmly in a state of denial. And it's not just about Iraq.

Baker writes that the fight over whether Alberto R. Gonzales should remain attorney general has "exposed a deep fault line" within the traditionally loyal Bush team. "Bush remains convinced that his old friend did nothing wrong ethically in firing U.S. attorneys, and senior adviser Karl Rove angrily rejects what he sees as a Democratic witch hunt, according to White House officials. Yet beyond the inner circle, it is hard to find a current or former administration official who thinks Gonzales should stay. . . .

"Some aides see it as Bush refusing to accept reality. 'The president thinks cutting and running on his friends shows weakness,' said an exasperated senior official. 'Change shows weakness. Doing what everyone knows has to be done shows weakness.' Another former aide said that no matter how many people Bush consults, he heeds only two or three."

The infamous Bush Bubble seems largely intact. One "senior House Republican who met with Bush recently" tells Baker: "There's nobody there who can stand up to him and tell him, 'Mr. President, you've got to do this. You're wrong on this.' There's no adult supervision. It's like he's oblivious. Maybe that's a defense mechanism.'"

And consider the best example aides can come up with of someone telling Bush what he didn't want to hear: "Aides said they do challenge Bush. White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten had what one colleague called 'a lot of hard discussions' with the president after the November midterm elections to shock him into recognizing that his approach to Iraq had failed. Bolten set up meetings so Bush could hear from critics of his policy and sent him written material to emphasize the need for change, the colleague said. That led to the decision to send more troops."

So a concerted effort to convince him of something that should have been obvious leads to a contrarian and potentially irrational response. That's not exactly something to brag about.

The few times Bush actually comes face to face with critics, another coping mechanism emerges: In some cases, Baker writes, "Bush can seem disengaged. When he flew to New York to visit a Harlem school and promote his education program, he brought along New York congressmen on Air Force One, including Democrat Charles B. Rangel, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The White House was in the midst of tough negotiations with Rangel over trade pacts. But Bush did not try to cut a deal with Rangel, chatting instead about baseball. 'He talked a lot about the Rangers,' Rangel said. 'I didn't know what the hell he was talking about.'"

And there's continued evidence of what Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald describes in his new book, "A Tragic Legacy," as the "good vs. evil mentality" that "destroyed the Bush presidency." Baker writes that much of Bush's discussion with outsiders has "focused on the nature of good and evil, a perennial theme for Bush, who casts the struggle against Islamic extremists in black-and-white terms. Michael Novak, a theologian who participated, said it was clear that Bush weathers his difficulties because he sees himself as doing the Lord's work."

The Intimidation Factor

But wait. Aren't all these invitations to the White House definitive evidence that the Bush bubble is overstated? No, because Bush has a no-so-secret weapon in these talks: The intimidating nature of the trappings of the presidency. As Bush himself often explains: "The problem with the Oval Office, it is the kind of place where people stand outside and say, I'm going to walk in and tell him what for; they walk in, and they're overwhelmed by the environment, and they say, man, you're looking beautiful today, Mr. President."

One Author Who Wasn't Invited

Historian and former Baltimore Sun White House correspondent Lynne Olson writes in an opinion piece in Sunday's Washington Post: "I've spent a great deal of time thinking about Churchill while working on my book 'Troublesome Young Men,' a history of the small group of Conservative members of Parliament who defied British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler, forced Chamberlain to resign in May 1940 and helped make Churchill his successor. . . .

"I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the president has been reading my book. He hasn't let me know what he thinks about it, but it's a safe bet that he's identifying with the book's portrayal of Churchill, not Chamberlain. But I think Bush's hero would be bemused, to say the least, by the president's wrapping himself in the Churchillian cloak. Indeed, the more you understand the historical record, the more the parallels leap out -- but they're between Bush and Chamberlain, not Bush and Churchill.

"Like Bush and unlike Churchill, Chamberlain came to office with almost no understanding of foreign affairs or experience in dealing with international leaders. Nonetheless, he was convinced that he alone could bring Hitler and Benito Mussolini to heel. He surrounded himself with like-minded advisers and refused to heed anyone who told him otherwise."

Blogger Reaction

Christy Hardin Smith of Firedoglake assails Bush (and The Post) for holding a "presidential pity party."

DailyKos blogger LithiumCola marvels at the fact that in the entire story, "there is no hint of the influence or even presence of one Richard B. Cheney.

"It's as though [Jo] Becker and [Barton] Gellman's four-day series on the Vice President's pervasive influence, just last week in this same Washington Post, never happened."

Watch for continued blogger reaction during the day.

Bush on the Couch

Sharon Begley wrote in Newsweek a few weeks ago: "Denying the evidence of your eyes is the most extreme form of the coping mechanism called denial. . . .

"It's risky to put a politician on the couch, but that has not kept President Bush's critics from charging that he is 'in a state of denial' about the situation in Iraq, as Sen. Harry Reid said last month. The phrase was the title of Bob Woodward's latest book on the war, and in January, USA Today editorialized that Bush is 'in denial about the insurgency that has plunged [Iraq] into civil war.'

"This could all be dismissed as psychobabble, except for one thing. Psychology researchers, including some who advise politicians, have reached the same conclusion. 'I do think there is denial on Bush's part in his running of the war,' says Kerry Sulkowicz, clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical Center. 'He seems unmoved by the extent of the evidence that things are far worse than he believes. The tip-off for denial is perpetual optimism, a pathological certainty that things are going well.'

"Bush could, of course, know full well that the United States cannot achieve its goals in Iraq. If so, then he is lying not to himself but to us (for reasons scientists would have a field day with, but that's another story). But while it's always risky to psychoanalyze a politician from afar, a few things in his past are consistent with the capacity for denial. When he was 7, his baby sister died of leukemia. Bush, while certainly not denying her death, tried to cheer up his grieving mother, saying everything would be OK. Also, those who abuse alcohol, as Bush has admitted doing, typically need to see the world in black and white in order to stay on the wagon. 'It's how they control their addiction,' says Sulkowicz. 'It reflects an inability or refusal to see shades of gray.' . . .

"One thing we all struggle to protect is a positive self-image. 'The more important the aspect of your self-image that's challenged by the truth, the more likely you are to go into denial,' says [psychologist Peter Ditto of the University of California, Irvine.] If you have a strong sense of self-worth and competence, your self-image can take hits but remain largely intact; if you're beset by self-doubt, however, any acknowledgment of failure can be devastating and any admission of error painful to the point of being unthinkable."

It's all very reminiscent of Washington psychoanalyst Justin Frank's 2004 book, Bush on the Couch.

Maureen Dowd, writing in her subscription-required New York Times column, imagines Bush refusing to come out of his Kennebunkport bedroom: "'I miss Albania!' W. wails. 'They know how to treat a president there. Women were kissing me and men rubbed my hair. The crowd kept yelling, "Bushie!," and they almost grabbed the watch right off my wrist trying to get at me.'"

Andrew Ward writes in the Financial Times: "As President George W. Bush told the story of Cory Endlich, a 23-year-old from Ohio, who died in Iraq this month, his voice cracked and his chin quivered.

"'Cory was an Ohio boy who wanted to join the army so badly that his dad let him start training his senior year of high school,' he told an audience in Rhode Island on Thursday.

"As he struggled to maintain his composure, there was no doubting Mr Bush's anguish about the soldier's death. But the show of emotion may also have reflected the strain of what has been one of the worst weeks of his presidency."

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "He's still a healthy guy and his blood pressure, weight, vision and cholesterol levels have remained consistently good since he came to Washington from the governor's office in Austin (though he somehow has lost a half-inch in height). But despite the rosy annual medical reports, photos (at least undoctored ones) don't lie. President Bush, as presidents do, has aged in office. Gone, a victim of the passage of time and the worries of war, is the boyish-faced, dark-haired new kid in town. In his place is a president, turning 61 on Friday, with the signs of age that no amount of mountain biking can prevent."

Losing His Mojo

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "After a string of Republican defections this week -- on Iraq, immigration and domestic eavesdropping -- President Bush enters the final 18 months of his presidency in danger of losing control over a party that once marched in lockstep with him. . . .

"After years of demanding that Republicans work in service of his agenda, the president has 'very little good will stored up,' said Calvin C. Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Texas, Mr. Bush's home state.

"With 2008 looking like a tough year for Republicans, Mr. Jillson said lawmakers would look back to their districts, rather than to Washington and the White House, for guidance on how to vote. That was abundantly clear on immigration, when even Mr. Bush's closest Republican allies -- including two Texans, Senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison -- openly opposed him.

"'When John Cornyn defects from the president,' Mr. Jillson said, 'you know the president's mojo is completely gone.'"

Robert D. Novak writes in his syndicated column: "It is difficult to exaggerate the pessimism about the immediate political future voiced by Republicans in Congress when not on the record. With an unpopular president waging an unpopular war, they foresee electoral catastrophe in 2008, with Democratic gains in both the House and Senate and Hillary Clinton in the White House."

Eleanor Clift writes in Newsweek about Vic Gold, a longtime Republican operative who has turned against Bush and Cheney. Gold "calls Bush 'President Dodo.' He's known Bush since the '80 campaign, and while he doesn't really think he's dumb, he knows he can be manipulated. 'He's playing the role of president, strutting around,' says Gold. 'He's the weakest president in my memory.'"

See my Friday column, Put a Fork in Him.

Bartlett on the Bubble

Robert Draper interviews departing White House Counselor Dan Bartlett for GQ.

Draper: "To read some of Karl Rove's recent comments, you'd think the state of the administration has never been rosier. Does anyone provide a reality check for the White House?"

Bartlett: "The president's closest advisers are paid to make sure he understands every aspect of the decision he has to make. And I can confidently say that in the five years I've had this job, we haven't walked blindly into decisions. Now have there been missteps? Of course. But I don't buy this notion that Bush lives in a bubble. You can disagree fundamentally with the decisions he makes, but I don't think they are based on a lack of understanding of what's going on around him."

The Putin Visit

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post from Kennebunkport: "Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived here Sunday for a patch-up session at the Bush family compound as war protesters filled this resort town to demand the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney.

"Putin, the first world leader invited by Bush to stay with him at Walker's Point, the oceanfront estate built by Bush's great-grandfather, headed for a 24-hour visit intended to cool recent tensions in U.S.-Russian relations over issues such as missile defense and Kosovo independence. Although aides predicted no breakthroughs, there was hope for disagreeing more agreeably."

Jim Rutenberg writes for the New York Times: "Mr. Bush, for his part, was in a jovial mood, joking with reporters as he waited to greet Mr. Putin for dinner. He said that his fishing earlier in the day had been 'lousy,' saying that the reporters with him here had scared them away."

Washington Times reporter Joseph Curl informed his print colleagues that Bush also engaged in some baseball talk, and said he watched Saturday night's game between the Boston Red Sox and the Texas Rangers.

Sticking to His Guns

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press that Bush "called Saturday for patience as U.S. forces conduct stepped-up operations in Iraq.

"'We're still at the beginning of this offensive, but we're seeing some hopeful signs,' Bush said in his weekly radio address, in which he likened U.S. troops deployed around the globe to the signers of the Declaration of Independence. . . .

"'Today, a new generation of Americans has stepped forward and volunteered to defend the ideals of our nation's founding. ... They've helped bring freedom to the Iraqi people,' he said. 'They've helped make Americans more secure. We will not forget their sacrifice.'"

Leahy's Warning

Lyndsey Layton writes in The Washington Post: "The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said yesterday that he will attempt to cite the White House for criminal contempt of Congress if it does not turn over documents related to the firing of nine federal prosecutors.

"'If they don't cooperate, yes, I'd go that far,' Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said on NBC's 'Meet the Press.' 'This is very important to the American people.'"

Scooter Libby Watch

This just in: Barring action by the president, Scooter Libby will be going to prison soon.

A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals this morning rejected Libby's request to allow Libby to remain free on appeal. "Appellant has not shown that the appeal raises a substantial question" under the applicable law, the panel wrote, explaining that "substantial question is one that is 'close' or that 'could very well be decided the other way'."

How Close Did Rove Come to Getting Indicted?

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "Midway through his CIA leak investigation, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was pretty sure of two things: First, he wasn't going to charge White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby with revealing a covert operative. And second, he thought Libby's testimony was a bunch of lies.

"Documents unsealed in the case Friday revealed that when Fitzgerald subpoenaed New York Times reporter Judith Miller in 2005, he was already building a perjury and obstruction case against Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. . . .

"Information about investigative interviews with President Bush and Cheney remain blacked out, as does information about White House political adviser Karl Rove."

The newly released passages also reveal once and for all that Fitzgerald was indeed at one point in hot pursuit of Rove: "Regarding [Time reporter Matthew] Cooper, the special counsel has demonstrated that his testimony is essential to charging decisions regarding White House adviser Karl Rove," one judge wrote.

Furthermore, the words "and Rove" had previously been redacted from this sentence: "Thus, given the compelling showing of need and exhaustion, plus the sharply tilted balance between harm and news value, the special counsel may overcome the reporters' qualified privilege, even if his only purpose -- at least at this stage of his investigation -- is to shore up perjury charges against leading suspects such as Libby and Rove."

Blogger Jeralyn Merritt writes: "How close did Karl Rove come to getting indicted in PlameGate? As they say, 'this close.'"

For background, see my April 28, 2006, column.

Fourth anniversary

Four years ago today, Bush had this to say to America's would-be attackers in Iraq: "My answer is, bring 'em on."

Bush on the Rocks

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's presidency is stuck in low gear. On Sunday, his fishing boat was stuck on stop.

"Fellow Republicans may not be rushing to rescue his legislative agenda, but the Secret Service bailed Bush out of a jam when his boat anchor got wedged in rocks along the Atlantic Coast."

Cartoon Humor

Tom Toles on wiretapping; Mike Luckovich on Bush and Congress; Garry Trudeau on Cheney.

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