· 9 min read · Features

A leader in search of a vision


George W Bush has shown himself to be a skilled politician despite the jibes over his intellectual ability. But perhaps more worrying in a US leader is an apparent lack of ideological beliefs. Morice Mendoza reports

Between 1973 and 1975, while George W Bush drifted through what he has since termed his nomadic years, his father George Bush, then chairman of the Republican National Committee, was agonising over the unfolding Watergate scandal.

In a letter to his children in July 1974 Bush Sr says, We are living in the best of times and the worst of times...we are privileged people in a privileged country. But Bush, whose political views and devotion to public service had been shaped in a bygone era, was clearly appalled by the revelation that Richard Nixon, a man to whom he remained loyal, had installed phone taps in the White House. He was witnessing the beginning of a more cynical age in which politics would be perceived by many as dirty. And he hoped his children would not be deterred from doing their duty as he saw it to put something back into society.

Watergate and the Vietnam war were events which shaped and divided the attitudes of different generations. It is unlikely that, post-Vietnam, any young man, even from an Ivy League school, would jump so readily, as Bush Sr had in 1942, to fight for his country. He was advised, as were his fellow pupils at the prestigious Philips Academy in Andover, to go on to university. But Bush recalls that he could hardly wait to get out of school and enlist and on his 18th birthday he enrolled in the Navys flight training programme as a seaman second class.

Some 26 years later Bush Sr allegedly helped his son George W (known as Dubya because of the way W is pronounced in Texas) avoid action in Vietnam. According to Molly Ivins, author of Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W Bush, a friend of the Bush family persuaded the speaker of the Texas House to usher George W into the Texas Air National Guard whose primary role was to defend US shores. It is unlikely that George W reflected much on the fact that family connections had bought him an easy way out of Vietnam. Indeed, one 1970s report showed that out of 234 sons of senators and congressmen, who were eligible for the draft, only 28 served in Vietnam. And out of this group only 19 saw combat. It could be argued that George W was unusual among his peers in that he did not seek to evade military duty altogether.

What George Ws ideological beliefs really are is still open to debate. Nonetheless, as the governor (twice) of Texas and as president of the US, he has portrayed himself as a no-nonsense Republican and friend of the evangelical right in some ways carrying on the legacy of Ronald Reagan. It is fair, therefore, to ask why a man of such beliefs did not feel it was his duty to serve in Vietnam in 1968. All he says on the subject in his ghost-written hagiography, A Charge to Keep, is, I was headed for the military, and I wanted to learn a new skill that would make doing my duty an interesting adventure.

The issue did not harm Bushs electoral chances in the 2000 election though and has since receded from the medias radar screen. However, character of which integrity and consistency of views are a natural part is an important factor when considering whether someone is up to running the most powerful country in the world. On this same point Ivins goes into great detail about Bushs record as governor of Texas during the 1980s. She sees some irony in the fact that Bush supported tough sentencing policies against people found to be in possession of marijuana and cocaine even though he had reportedly indulged himself in the past.

As Ivins puts it, Bush was pushing for policies that could have put someone like him in jail. Of course, one can argue that as a reformed man and a born-again Christian his values had changed or sharpened. And, furthermore, he is certainly a skilled politician and pragmatist who knows how to play to core Republican supporters. But, on a deeper emotional level, Bushs instincts in areas such as crime and welfare provision may be rooted more in a personal struggle within himself than in firm political conviction. In his less happy years, 1973 to 1975, one story reveals something of what it must have been like to emerge from his fathers shadow.

Ivins writes, Dubya was visiting his parents in Washington when he took his younger brother Marvin out for a night of drinking, arrived home after running over a neighbors trash can, and asked his angry father if he wanted to go mano a mano with me, right here?

Later when Bush went to Midland, Texas, got married and started to build a new life, his father wrote with characteristic understatement: Today is Georges 29th birthday. He is off to Midland, starting a little later in life than I did, but nevertheless starting out on what I hope will be a challenging new life for him. He is able. If he gets his teeth into something semi-permanent or permanent, he will do just fine...

As a young man starting out on his career Bush Sr had been reluctant to take advantage of his family connections to get a job. He wrote in 1948 to a friend about his quandary: I am not sure I want to capitalize completely on the benefits I received at birth that is, the benefits of my social position...

We have already seen that his son did not appear to mind using family connections to get the posting he wanted during the Vietnam war. Ivins also argues, in addition, that he was bailed out of failed business ventures on at least two occasions by investors who were probably attempting to buy influence with his father, then vice president. Ivins sums up George Ws oil career thus: The governors oil-field career can be summed up in a single paragraph. George W arrived in Midland in 1975, set up a shell company, lost a congressional election in 1978, restarted building the company hed put on hold, lost more than $2 million of other peoples money, and left Midland with $840,000 in his pocket. Not bad for a guy who showed up with an Olds and $18K. Not good for investors who lost $2 million unless they were speculating in political futures and cultivating connections with the son of the vice president of the United States.

Whether you approve of such behaviour or not (Ivins also claims that George W pulled out of one of his oil companies when it was on a downward slide, selling his stock without informing the appropriate authorities) many people would admire his knack for survival. In his business dealings he also proved his political skills in the ease with which he seemed to be able to persuade people, often friends, to part with their money. One of Bushs former employees commented that he would take his buddies from Harvard to the oilfield and show them around, and before we knew it, they were blowing money our way. And in 1984 George W raised $83 million to buy the Texas Rangers baseball team. His contribution was $640,000 for 2% with the proviso that this would become 11% if the investors recovered their initial investment. This was the mark of a very effective political operator who knew how to charm people. George W is clearly not the idiot many of his detractors have taken him for.

It has been noted, however, that he often seems detached. And Ivins makes much of the fact that he does not get engaged in policy issues unless he is really interested. He is on record as saying that he dislikes big books and avoids reading policy documents or journals. Nonetheless, even Ivins gives him credit for being a highly impressive political operator when interested. She refers to the time when as governor of Texas Bush was trying to push through a bill that would have gone some way to equalising the money available for public schools in poorer districts. In this instance, he made 47 speeches on education, almost one a week.

What is Bushs leadership style then and is it likely to succeed in his White House years? One thing that stands out is that he is clearly aware that the best way to manage given his short attention span is by delegating the policy detail to his advisers and relying on them for succinct briefings. In Bushs view this is the way a good CEO would run things. In this sense, the people he surrounds himself with his key advisers become critical. He prefers meetings to be kept to time and to get straight to the point and he insists on keeping a life for himself outside of work. He is probably the only president in the past 100 years, with the possible exception of Reagan, who insists on getting to bed early every night. He is, in some ways, the work/life president. As Chris Kiddy of corporate psychologists Kiddy & Partners puts it, he treats the presidency as a day job.

Whether that proves workable, particularly during times of crisis has yet to be seen. Kiddy speculates that it would be easier to work for Bush than someone more driven. However, his style puts huge responsibility in the hands of his top Cabinet members and policy aides.

Bush does seem to be particularly skilled at appointing the right advisers and indeed devotes a whole chapter in his autobiography to the subject. He likes to have a mentor figure and has chosen Dick Cheney as his vice president a man with considerable political experience who served under presidents Ford as chief of staff and Bush Sr as defense secretary.

George W also may have deliberately chosen to appoint two groups of people within the foreign and defence policy arena with opposing views (foreign secretary Colin Powell and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for instance). In this way, Bush can stand back and see which argument wins the day. He wants to push the detail out but still wants to be the one who makes the big decisions. Further, he has a restless energy and, in his own words, is in perpetual motion. He likes to provoke people, confront them in a teasing way. He is known to be likable and this combination of gentle provocation is not a bad trait to have when depending on others to think for you.

George W, who dislikes haughty intellectuals, told TV chat show host Oprah Winfrey during his presidential campaign that there are two different kinds of smarts. It isnt just intellect, it is also, he said, about having good instincts, judgment and competence. He added, You cant inspire and unite people by thinking that youre smarter than everyone else.

As governor of Texas he made very tough decisions regarding state executions within 15 minutes. And in one well publicised case, in which the murderess and born-again Christian Karla Faye Tucker pleaded for clemency on the grounds that she had repented, Bush stuck to his decision to go ahead with the execution. Again, as with the US policy towards the Kyoto treaty, he does not waiver once his mind is made up. This was proven again when Bush stood by his decision to appoint the evangelical Christian John Ashcroft as attorney general even though the latter was suspected by his critics to be a racist.

The one primary danger Bush faces is that his tight-knit group of advisers will develop group think and run the risk of losing touch with the outside world. However, his apparent desire to appoint people with opposing views might lessen that danger. He is also more than capable of learning from the past. He knows, for example, that it is not a good idea to appoint an overbearing chief of staff.

In Bush Srs time, John Sunnunu, who was renowned for his toughness, deterred people from speaking openly to the president. In fact, George W is said to believe that the fact that Sunnunu blocked good ideas led directly to his fathers electoral defeat in 1992. His message is that he wants his aides to be honest and frank at all times. He says, What I want from my staff is thorough research and unvarnished opinion. I dont want them to tell me what they think I want to hear; I try to create an atmosphere where they feel comfortable expressing their ideas and opinions.

Compared to his father George W is a rough diamond. He has used his jocular, locker-room humour to good effect in both Texas and now as president. He does not appear at any time to have had a plan or even a particularly strong desire to be president. Nonetheless, he handled the protracted presidential election campaign well and has governed to date, albeit not to everyones taste, with firmness and calm. He is unlikely to be judged by history as one of the centurys giants though many commentators underestimated Reagan.

As Kiddy says, Bush doesnt seem to be terribly bright. Intellectual challenge does not motivate him. Hes not a visionary. Hes more pragmatic and responsive to situations. He is likely to be guided by the people around him. What it doesnt add up to is a political philosophy. Bushs genius might be in his people skills and in his limited vision of the role of the president. He has a massive machine in Washington, and people he regards as good advisers, to grease the wheels of government. And he is more than happy to let them drive policy.

Summing up Bushs prospects just before he became the most important person in the world, Ivins writes: [Bush] can learn, and if theres anything that will rivet your attention, its the challenges of the presidency. I think when George W Bush is there, hes paying attention, hes heard the arguments (short form please, attention span not that long) he is not bad.

Further reading

A Charge to Keep by George W Bush (William Morrow, 1999)

Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W Bush by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose (Vintage Books, 2000)

All the Best, Bush: My Life in Letters (Lisa Drew/Scribner, 1999)