Does Bush Really Get Us?

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According to Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward's new book about the events leading to the war in Iraq, George W. Bush was struck by the stone-faced response to his eloquent address to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2002. "The more solemn they looked to me," he tells Woodward, speaking of the U.N. delegates, "the more emotional I was in making the case. Not openly emotional, the more firm I was in making the case. It was a speech I really enjoyed giving." A few weeks later, he tells some members of Congress about the moment: "There were no facial expressions. It was like a Woody Allen movie."

This is a delightful observation, if a bit confusing. Is he disdaining Allen's deadpan intellectual angst or celebrating Woody's early comic flights into the existential absurd? No matter. Any Woody Allen reference is a nice surprise from a President who affects a militant lack of sophistication. More important, the story reveals that Bush has an acute awareness of the impression he makes in the world. His policies may be haphazard, but his public appearances aren't. He is not a simpleton. He just plays one—wittingly, it seems—on TV. "He has a stratospheric EQ," a Senator once told me, referring to Bush's emotional intelligence. "I've never heard him talk much about policy substance or details, but he senses every nuance of interpersonal relations. Every question he asks is transactional. 'If I say X to Chirac, how will he respond?' 'Would this line work with Senator Y?' He prepares himself carefully. He knows exactly how to work you."

Bush's reaction to the CIA's prewar briefing on Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction is instructive. According to Woodward, the President isn't impressed with the evidence—but this doesn't seem to cause him a moment of doubt about his mission to rid the world of Dr. Evil. No, he's concerned about the looming sales job. "Nice try," he tells John McLaughlin, the deputy CIA director. "I don't think this is quite—it's not something that Joe Public would understand or would gain a lot of confidence from."

The President is a compelling presence in this book, as he was in Woodward's last. He fairly leaps off the page, brisk and unflappable. It is difficult to know how accurate this portrait is, and how much of it consists of sweet nothings whispered into the author's ear by loyal retainers. I suspect the Woody Allen and Joe Public stories are true. They are moments when the curtain of platitudes is parted and the quality of Bush's sensibility is revealed. I also suspect the larger picture—the world as seen from the West Wing bunker—is distressingly accurate as well. Bush endures countless military briefings about the war to come. He pays assiduous attention to speech texts and rehearsals. But there are practically no meetings—or questions from the President—about what will happen in Iraq after the initial military success. There is only sad, soft Colin Powell, with oblique Pottery Barn warnings: You break it, you own it. Powell is the only war-Cabinet member who seems to be asking the right questions, but he never raises them with the President. The anguished meekness of the portrait is devastating. Even blustery Donald Rumsfeld comes off better.

Woodward's book will feed the endless, fruitless speculation among the President's critics about the nature of his certainty, his allergic reaction to doubt or introspection. Is it religious, Oedipal or congenital? No doubt the President gets a kick out of these sorts of mind games. He probably enjoys the secular left's discomfort with his religious references as much as he "enjoyed" going up against the stony General Assembly (and despite a few awkward moments, he probably had a ball frustrating the reporters who asked him to admit mistakes or make apologies in his recent press conference).

Perhaps Bush is more easily explained. Maybe his certainty is a marketing strategy. Clearly, the President and Karl Rove believe that Americans want a strong, God-fearing, plainspoken leader who doesn't burden them with complexities. That was certainly true in the recent past, as the nation wafted through an unprecedented period of affluence. It may still be true. The President's poll ratings remain buoyant, despite ample evidence in recent weeks that his Iraq policies are trending toward disaster.

But there is an annoying condescension to this style of leadership. It assumes that nothing has changed since 9/11, that Americans are too busy living their lives to ask tough questions about that planeload of flag-draped coffins—an image the Pentagon didn't want you to see—heading home last week. It assumes that the public won't pay closer and more critical attention as the election draws near. If this is, indeed, the President's calculation, it is a cynical and dispiriting one. Perhaps Bush's EQ isn't so stratospheric after all.