Tales from the Bushiverse

What the debates tell us about the president's psyche


We doctors know

a hopeless case if—listen: there's a hell
of a good universe next door; let's go

—e.e. cummings

One of depressingly few surprising moments in the second of the presidential Debate Capades—along with President Bush's comforting pledge not to reappoint Roger Brooks Taney to the Supreme Court and that surreal "need any wood?" exchange—came when Bush angrily interrupted moderator Charles Gibson and began shouting at his opponent. A forced joke about his tendency to scowl early in the debate showed he'd been advised to play it warmer and fuzzier for round two, making his inability to control his anger in response to criticism all the more telling.

That trouble brooking disagreement and conceding error is sometimes picked out as cause and consequence, in a kind of vicious circle, of the "Bush Bubble." For as the debates are also making clear, the president exists in a strange parallel realm, a kind of Lake Woebegone version of America, where all the deficit reduction packages are strong, all the WMDs are good looking, and all the students reached by NCLB are above average.

One way to explain that bubble is to regard Republicans as victims of their own dominance: They control the legislative and executive branches as well as, increasingly, the lobbying groups with whom they interact. That's partly why Bush, who by his own admission doesn't like to read newspapers and does like to surround himself with fawning supporters for photo-op "town hall" sessions, has been able to hold the fewest press conferences of any TV-era president. The conditions have been ideal for a Snafu Principle perfect storm of unreality.

But Bush has long been guided by a combination of personal connections and emotional narratives, which have a way of making mere empirical data seem otiose. I suspect this hermetic seal against facts has deeper roots in the president's worldview.

Like a good Methodist (and most Protestants) Bush presumably accepts the doctrine of sola fide, which holds that, as the Methodist Discipline has it, "we are never accounted righteous before God through our works or merit, but…only by faith." (Actually, leaders in the Methodist church have been disputing the "good Methodist" characterization, a story that's been oddly ignored given the amount of ink spilled over Kerry's deviations from Catholic dogma and the centrality of faith to Bush's public image, but that's another story.) Good deeds are merely external signs of the faith that is, as Methodist founding father John Wesley put it, "productive of all good works, and all holiness."

The more one listens to Bush speak, to the primacy he places on character, values, intention, resolve, the more it seems clear that this doctrine plays a central role in shaping the president's perception. He lives in a world where a good will is of paramount importance, and providence can be trusted to ensure that pure motives never yield perverse consequences. One suspects Bush, often enough subject to being called "the idiot" himself, would have trouble appreciating the example of Dostoyevsky's Prince Myshkin, who though perfectly good-hearted, manages to produce only tragedy. He is, in short, in the grip of what Thomas Sowell, who attributed the syndrome primarily to technocratic liberals, termed the vision of the anointed.

This, rather than mere ignorance, may shed light on Bush's decision when asked his favorite figure in political philosophy—ordinarily thought to be concerned with changing the world—to name Jesus, "because he changed my heart." This, perhaps, is why when faced with questions of strategy or tactics in the War on Terror, Bush so often resorts to some variant on "terrorists are bad, mmkay?" It would explain his reliance on insight into the "souls" of foreign leaders in foreign policy, and perhaps most tellingly, his persistence in believing in the necessity of preemptive war on the grounds of intent to acquire weapons of mass destruction, even absent any sign that the intent was being realized.

This would also go a long way toward explaining Bush's visceral reaction to criticism. If one is in the habit of separating intent from outcome, not every mistake is shameful. Things can turn out badly even though one behaved as well as could be expected. When they're inextricably linked, however, every allegation of error rings like the accusatory cop-out of the failed revival healer: "It only works if your faith is strong." To accuse Bush of having made a bad decision is, if this is indeed his mind-set, in effect to call him a bad person, to question the quality of his heart no less than his judgment. Admitting error, acknowledging that things haven't panned out, becomes impossible.

Bush critics, of course, most often write off the "Bush Bubble" as a product of spin or calculated disingenuousness. But it doesn't seem particularly well calculated: Many Bush boosters now seem to be agreeing that the president could appeal to skeptical swing voters by conceding that "mistakes were made," as it were, and pledging to make corrections. There is a qualitative difference in Bush's spin, as Mark Halperin recently bought himself some trouble by noticing. John Kerry exaggerates or oversimplifies in the course of making factual arguments, which is what you expect from politicians engaged in deliberate spin. Bush's distortions, on the other hand, go to the core of his reelection campaign, and are often almost self-destructively ludicrous in a post-pajama age where he-said, she-said journalism is giving way to more robust fact checking. Why, for instance, would anyone merely trying to massage a reality cite the Duelfer report rather than avoid mentioning of it at all? Why return to the line about sanctions and inspections not working when this only reminds people that, in fact, they were?

The terrifying possibility, then, is that Bush is being perfectly honest when he claims he can't think of any mistakes he's made. If, as those protest signs love to claim, "Bush lied," it would mean his strange statements are only standard (if, perhaps, unusually egregious) electoral dishonesty, and we could expect him to get to work correcting his errors once November had passed. We should really be worried that he means every word of it.