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Without a Doubt
By Ron Suskind
The New York Times
Saturday 17 October 2004
Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a treasury
official for the first President Bush, told me recently that "if Bush
wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting on
Nov. 3. " The nature of that conflict, as Bartlett sees it?
Essentially, the same as the one raging across much of the world: a
battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true
believers, reason and religion.
(Photo: Kevin LaMarque / Reuters)
in the past few months," Bartlett said, "I think a light has gone off
for people who've spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he's
always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he
thinks God has told him to do." Bartlett, a 53-year-old columnist and
self-described libertarian Republican who has lately been a champion
for traditional Republicans concerned about Bush's governance, went on
to say: "This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and
the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them
all. They can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark
vision. He understands them, because he's just like them. . . .
is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient
facts," Bartlett went on to say. "He truly believes he's on a mission
from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The
whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no
empirical evidence." Bartlett paused, then said, "But you can't run the
world on faith."
democratic senators were gathered for a lunch in March just off the
Senate floor. I was there as a guest speaker. Joe Biden was telling a
story, a story about the president. "I was in the Oval Office a few
months after we swept into Baghdad," he began, "and I was telling the
president of my many concerns" - concerns about growing problems
winning the peace, the explosive mix of Shiite and Sunni, the
disbanding of the Iraqi Army and problems securing the oil fields.
Bush, Biden recalled, just looked at him, unflappably sure that the
United States was on the right course and that all was well. "'Mr.
President,' I finally said, 'How can you be so sure when you know you
don't know the facts?"'
said that Bush stood up and put his hand on the senator's shoulder. "My
instincts," he said. "My instincts."
paused and shook his head, recalling it all as the room grew quiet. "I
said, 'Mr. President, your instincts aren't good enough!"'
democrat Biden and the Republican Bartlett are trying to make sense of
the same thing - a president who has been an extraordinary blend of
forcefulness and inscrutability, opacity and action.
But lately, words and deeds are beginning to connect.
Delaware senator was, in fact, hearing what Bush's top deputies - from
cabinet members like Paul O'Neill, Christine Todd Whitman and Colin
Powell to generals fighting in Iraq - have been told for years when
they requested explanations for many of the president's decisions,
policies that often seemed to collide with accepted facts. The
president would say that he relied on his "gut" or his "instinct" to
guide the ship of state, and then he "prayed over it." The old pro
Bartlett, a deliberative, fact-based wonk, is finally hearing a tune
that has been hummed quietly by evangelicals (so as not to trouble the
secular) for years as they gazed upon President George W. Bush. This
evangelical group - the core of the energetic "base" that may well
usher Bush to victory - believes that their leader is a messenger from
God. And in the first presidential debate, many Americans heard the
discursive John Kerry succinctly raise, for the first time, the issue
of Bush's certainty - the issue being, as Kerry put it, that "you can
be certain and be wrong."
What underlies Bush's certainty? And can it be assessed in the temporal realm of informed consent?
of this - the "gut" and "instincts," the certainty and religiosity
-connects to a single word, "faith," and faith asserts its hold ever
more on debates in this country and abroad. That a deep Christian faith
illuminated the personal journey of George W. Bush is common knowledge.
But faith has also shaped his presidency in profound, nonreligious
ways. The president has demanded unquestioning faith from his
followers, his staff, his senior aides and his kindred in the
Republican Party. Once he makes a decision - often swiftly, based on a
creed or moral position - he expects complete faith in its rightness.
disdainful smirks and grimaces that many viewers were surprised to see
in the first presidential debate are familiar expressions to those in
the administration or in Congress who have simply asked the president
to explain his positions. Since 9/11, those requests have grown scarce;
Bush's intolerance of doubters has, if anything, increased, and few
dare to question him now. A writ of infallibility - a premise beneath
the powerful Bushian certainty that has, in many ways, moved mountains
- is not just for public consumption: it has guided the inner life of
the White House. As Whitman told me on the day in May 2003 that she
announced her resignation as administrator of the Environmental
Protection Agency: "In meetings, I'd ask if there were any facts to
support our case. And for that, I was accused of disloyalty!" (Whitman,
whose faith in Bush has since been renewed, denies making these remarks
and is now a leader of the president's re-election effort in New
nation's founders, smarting still from the punitive pieties of Europe's
state religions, were adamant about erecting a wall between organized
religion and political authority. But suddenly, that seems like a long
time ago. George W. Bush - both captive and creator of this moment -
has steadily, inexorably, changed the office itself. He has created the
faith-based presidency is a with-us-or-against-us model that has been
enormously effective at, among other things, keeping the workings and
temperament of the Bush White House a kind of state secret. The dome of
silence cracked a bit in the late winter and spring, with revelations
from the former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke and also, in my
book, from the former Bush treasury secretary Paul O'Neill. When I
quoted O'Neill saying that Bush was like "a blind man in a room full of
deaf people," this did not endear me to the White House. But my phone
did begin to ring, with Democrats and Republicans calling with similar
impressions and anecdotes about Bush's faith and certainty. These are
among the sources I relied upon for this article. Few were willing to
talk on the record. Some were willing to talk because they said they
thought George W. Bush might lose; others, out of fear of what might
transpire if he wins. In either case, there seems to be a growing
silence fatigue - public servants, some with vast experience, who feel
they have spent years being treated like Victorian-era children, seen
but not heard, and are tired of it. But silence still reigns in the
highest reaches of the White House. After many requests, Dan Bartlett,
the White House communications director, said in a letter that the
president and those around him would not be cooperating with this
article in any way.
officials, elected or otherwise, with whom I have spoken with left
meetings in the Oval Office concerned that the president was struggling
with the demands of the job. Others focused on Bush's substantial
interpersonal gifts as a compensation for his perceived lack of broader
capabilities. Still others, like Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, a
Democrat, are worried about something other than his native
intelligence. "He's plenty smart enough to do the job," Levin said.
"It's his lack of curiosity about complex issues which troubles me."
But more than anything else, I heard expressions of awe at the
president's preternatural certainty and wonderment about its source.
is one story about Bush's particular brand of certainty I am able to
piece together and tell for the record.
the Oval Office in December 2002, the president met with a few ranking
senators and members of the House, both Republicans and Democrats. In
those days, there were high hopes that the United States-sponsored
"road map" for the Israelis and Palestinians would be a pathway to
peace, and the discussion that wintry day was, in part, about countries
providing peacekeeping forces in the region. The problem, everyone
agreed, was that a number of European countries, like France and
Germany, had armies that were not trusted by either the Israelis or
Palestinians. One congressman - the Hungarian-born Tom Lantos, a
Democrat from California and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress -
mentioned that the Scandinavian countries were viewed more positively.
Lantos went on to describe for the president how the Swedish Army might
be an ideal candidate to anchor a small peacekeeping force on the West
Bank and the Gaza Strip. Sweden has a well-trained force of about
25,000. The president looked at him appraisingly, several people in the
don't know why you're talking about Sweden," Bush said. "They're the
neutral one. They don't have an army."
paused, a little shocked, and offered a gentlemanly reply: "Mr.
President, you may have thought that I said Switzerland. They're the
ones that are historically neutral, without an army." Then Lantos
mentioned, in a gracious aside, that the Swiss do have a tough national
guard to protect the country in the event of invasion.
Bush held to his view. "No, no, it's Sweden that has no army."
The room went silent, until someone changed the subject.
few weeks later, members of Congress and their spouses gathered with
administration officials and other dignitaries for the White House
Christmas party. The president saw Lantos and grabbed him by the
shoulder. "You were right," he said, with bonhomie. "Sweden does have
story was told to me by one of the senators in the Oval Office that
December day, Joe Biden. Lantos, a liberal Democrat, would not comment
about it. In general, people who meet with Bush will not discuss their
encounters. (Lantos, through a spokesman, says it is a longstanding
policy of his not to discuss Oval Office meetings.)
is one key feature of the faith-based presidency: open dialogue, based
on facts, is not seen as something of inherent value. It may, in fact,
create doubt, which undercuts faith. It could result in a loss of
confidence in the decision-maker and, just as important, by the
decision-maker. Nothing could be more vital, whether staying on message
with the voters or the terrorists or a California congressman in a
meeting about one of the world's most nagging problems. As Bush himself
has said any number of times on the campaign trail, "By remaining
resolute and firm and strong, this world will be peaceful."
didn't always talk this way. A precious glimpse of Bush, just as he was
ascending to the presidency, comes from Jim Wallis, a man with the
added advantage of having deep acuity about the struggles between fact
and faith. Wallis, an evangelical pastor who for 30 years has run the
Sojourners - a progressive organization of advocates for social justice
- was asked during the transition to help pull together a diverse group
of members of the clergy to talk about faith and poverty with the new
December 2000, Bush sat in the classroom of a Baptist church in Austin,
Tex., with 30 or so clergy members and asked, "How do I speak to the
soul of the nation?" He listened as each guest articulated a vision of
what might be. The afternoon hours passed. No one wanted to leave.
People rose from their chairs and wandered the room, huddling in
groups, conversing passionately. In one cluster, Bush and Wallis talked
of their journeys.
never lived around poor people," Wallis remembers Bush saying. "I don't
know what they think. I really don't know what they think. I'm a white
Republican guy who doesn't get it. How do I get it?"
Wallis recalls replying, "You need to listen to the poor and those who live and work with poor people."
called over his speechwriter, Michael Gerson, and said, "I want you to
hear this." A month later, an almost identical line - "many in our
country do not know the pain of poverty, but we can listen to those who
do" - ended up in the inaugural address.
was an earlier Bush, one rather more open and conversant, matching his
impulsiveness with a can-do attitude and seemingly unafraid of engaging
with a diverse group. The president has an array of interpersonal gifts
that fit well with this fearlessness - a headlong, unalloyed quality,
best suited to ranging among different types of people, searching for
the outlines of what will take shape as principles.
this strong suit, an improvisational gift, has long been forced to
wrestle with its "left brain" opposite - a struggle, across 30 years,
with the critical and analytical skills so prized in America's
professional class. In terms of intellectual faculties, that has been
the ongoing battle for this talented man, first visible during the
lackluster years at Yale and five years of drift through his 20's - a
time when peers were busy building credentials in law, business or
who early on became disenchanted with Bush's grasp of foreign-policy
issues and is among John Kerry's closest Senate friends, has spent a
lot of time trying to size up the president. "Most successful people
are good at identifying, very early, their strengths and weaknesses, at
knowing themselves," he told me not long ago. "For most of us average
Joes, that meant we've relied on strengths but had to work on our
weakness - to lift them to adequacy - otherwise they might bring us
down. I don't think the president really had to do that, because he
always had someone there - his family or friends - to bail him out. I
don't think, on balance, that has served him well for the moment he's
in now as president. He never seems to have worked on his weaknesses."
has been called the C.E.O. president, but that's just a catch phrase -
he never ran anything of consequence in the private sector. The M.B.A.
president would be more accurate: he did, after all, graduate from
Harvard Business School. And some who have worked under him in the
White House and know about business have spotted a strange
business-school time warp. It's as if a 1975 graduate from H.B.S. - one
who had little chance to season theory with practice during the past
few decades of change in corporate America - has simply been dropped
into the most challenging management job in the world.
aspect of the H.B.S. method, with its emphasis on problems of actual
corporations, is sometimes referred to as the "case cracker" problem.
The case studies are static, generally a snapshot of a troubled
company, frozen in time; the various "solutions" students proffer, and
then defend in class against tough questioning, tend to have very short
shelf lives. They promote rigidity, inappropriate surety. This is
something H.B.S. graduates, most of whom land at large or midsize
firms, learn in their first few years in business. They discover, often
to their surprise, that the world is dynamic, it flows and changes,
often for no good reason. The key is flexibility, rather than sticking
to your guns in a debate, and constant reassessment of shifting
realities. In short, thoughtful second-guessing.
W. Bush, who went off to Texas to be an oil wildcatter, never had a
chance to learn these lessons about the power of nuanced, fact-based
analysis. The small oil companies he ran tended to lose money; much of
their value was as tax shelters. (The investors were often friends of
his father's.) Later, with the Texas Rangers baseball team, he would
act as an able front man but never really as a boss.
of learning the limitations of his Harvard training, what George W.
Bush learned instead during these fitful years were lessons about faith
and its particular efficacy. It was in 1985, around the time of his
39th birthday, George W. Bush says, that his life took a sharp turn
toward salvation. At that point he was drinking, his marriage was on
the rocks, his career was listless. Several accounts have emerged from
those close to Bush about a faith "intervention" of sorts at the
Kennebunkport family compound that year. Details vary, but here's the
gist of what I understand took place. George W., drunk at a party,
crudely insulted a friend of his mother's. George senior and Barbara
blew up. Words were exchanged along the lines of something having to be
done. George senior, then the vice president, dialed up his friend,
Billy Graham, who came to the compound and spent several days with
George W. in probing exchanges and walks on the beach. George W. was
soon born again. He stopped drinking, attended Bible study and wrestled
with issues of fervent faith. A man who was lost was saved.
marriage may have been repaired by the power of faith, but faith was
clearly having little impact on his broken career. Faith heals the
heart and the spirit, but it doesn't do much for analytical skills. In
1990, a few years after receiving salvation, Bush was still bumping
along. Much is apparent from one of the few instances of disinterested
testimony to come from this period. It is the voice of David
Rubenstein, managing director and cofounder of the Carlyle Group, the
Washington-based investment firm that is one of the town's most
powerful institutions and a longtime business home for the president's
father. In 1989, the catering division of Marriott was taken private
and established as Caterair by a group of Carlyle investors. Several
old-guard Republicans, including the former Nixon aide Fred Malek, were
described that time to a convention of pension managers in Los Angeles
last year, recalling that Malek approached him and said: "There is a
guy who would like to be on the board. He's kind of down on his luck a
bit. Needs a job. . . . Needs some board positions." Though Rubenstein
didn't think George W. Bush, then in his mid-40's, "added much value,"
he put him on the Caterair board. "Came to all the meetings,"
Rubenstein told the conventioneers. "Told a lot of jokes. Not that many
clean ones. And after a while I kind of said to him, after about three
years: 'You know, I'm not sure this is really for you. Maybe you should
do something else. Because I don't think you're adding that much value
to the board. You don't know that much about the company.' He said:
'Well, I think I'm getting out of this business anyway. And I don't
really like it that much. So I'm probably going to resign from the
board.' And I said thanks. Didn't think I'd ever see him again."
would soon officially resign from Caterair's board. Around this time,
Karl Rove set up meetings to discuss Bush's possible candidacy for the
governorship of Texas. Six years after that, he was elected leader of
the free world and began "case cracking" on a dizzying array of
subjects, proffering his various solutions, in both foreign and
domestic affairs. But the pointed "defend your position" queries - so
central to the H.B.S. method and rigorous analysis of all kinds - were
infrequent. Questioning a regional supervisor or V.P. for planning is
one thing. Questioning the president of the United States is another.
some couldn't resist. As I reported in "The Price of Loyalty," at the
Bush administration's first National Security Council meeting, Bush
asked if anyone had ever met Ariel Sharon. Some were uncertain if it
was a joke. It wasn't: Bush launched into a riff about briefly meeting
Sharon two years before, how he wouldn't "go by past reputations when
it comes to Sharon. . . . I'm going to take him at face value," and how
the United States should pull out of the Arab-Israeli conflict because
"I don't see much we can do over there at this point." Colin Powell,
for one, seemed startled. This would reverse 30 years of policy - since
the Nixon administration - of American engagement. Such a move would
unleash Sharon, Powell countered, and tear the delicate fabric of the
Mideast in ways that might be irreparable. Bush brushed aside Powell's
concerns impatiently. "Sometimes a show of force by one side can really
challenges - from either Powell or his opposite number as the top
official in domestic policy, Paul O'Neill - were trials that Bush had
less and less patience for as the months passed. He made that clear to
his top lieutenants. Gradually, Bush lost what Richard Perle, who would
later head a largely private-sector group under Bush called the Defense
Policy Board Advisory Committee, had described as his open posture
during foreign-policy tutorials prior to the 2000 campaign. ("He had
the confidence to ask questions that revealed he didn't know very
much," Perle said.) By midyear 2001, a stand-and-deliver rhythm was
established. Meetings, large and small, started to take on a scripted
quality. Even then, the circle around Bush was tightening. Top
officials, from cabinet members on down, were often told when they
would speak in Bush's presence, for how long and on what topic. The
president would listen without betraying any reaction. Sometimes there
would be cross-discussions - Powell and Rumsfeld, for instance, briefly
parrying on an issue - but the president would rarely prod anyone with
direct, informed questions.
administration, over the course of a term, is steadily shaped by its
president, by his character, personality and priorities. It is a
process that unfolds on many levels. There are, of course, a chief
executive's policies, which are executed by a staff and attending
bureaucracies. But a few months along, officials, top to bottom, will
also start to adopt the boss's phraseology, his presumptions, his
rhythms. If a president fishes, people buy poles; if he expresses
displeasure, aides get busy finding evidence to support the judgment. A
staff channels the leader.
cluster of particularly vivid qualities was shaping George W. Bush's
White House through the summer of 2001: a disdain for contemplation or
deliberation, an embrace of decisiveness, a retreat from empiricism, a
sometimes bullying impatience with doubters and even friendly
questioners. Already Bush was saying, Have faith in me and my
decisions, and you'll be rewarded. All through the White House, people
were channeling the boss. He didn't second-guess himself; why should
the trials that were soon to arrive, it is easy to overlook what a
difficult time this must have been for George W. Bush. For nearly three
decades, he had sat in classrooms, and then at mahogany tables in
corporate suites, with little to contribute. Then, as governor of
Texas, he was graced with a pliable enough bipartisan Legislature, and
the Legislature is where the real work in that state's governance gets
done. The Texas Legislature's tension of opposites offered the
structure of point and counterpoint, which Bush could navigate
effectively with his strong, improvisational skills.
the mahogany tables were now in the Situation Room and in the large
conference room adjacent to the Oval Office. He guided a ruling party.
Every issue that entered that rarefied sanctum required a complex
decision, demanding focus, thoroughness and analytical potency.
the president, as Biden said, to be acutely aware of his weaknesses -
and to have to worry about revealing uncertainty or need or confusion,
even to senior officials - must have presented an untenable bind. By
summer's end that first year, Vice President Dick Cheney had stopped
talking in meetings he attended with Bush. They would talk privately,
or at their weekly lunch. The president was spending a lot of time
outside the White House, often at the ranch, in the presence of only
the most trustworthy confidants. The circle around Bush is the tightest
around any president in the modern era, and "it's both exclusive and
exclusionary," Christopher DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise
Institute, the neoconservative policy group, told me. "It's a too
tightly managed decision-making process. When they make decisions, a
very small number of people are in the room, and it has a certain
effect of constricting the range of alternatives being offered."
Sept. 11, 2001, the country watched intently to see if and how Bush
would lead. After a couple of days in which he seemed shaky and
uncertain, he emerged, and the moment he began to lead - standing on
the World Trade Center's rubble with a bullhorn - for much of America,
any lingering doubts about his abilities vanished. No one could afford
doubt, not then. They wanted action, and George W. Bush was ready,
having never felt the reasonable hesitations that slowed more
deliberative men, and many presidents, including his father.
a few days of the attacks, Bush decided on the invasion of Afghanistan
and was barking orders. His speech to the joint session of Congress on
Sept. 20 will most likely be the greatest of his presidency. He prayed
for God's help. And many Americans, of all faiths, prayed with him - or
for him. It was simple and nondenominational: a prayer that he'd be up
to this moment, so that he - and, by extension, we as a country - would
triumph in that dark hour.
is where the faith-based presidency truly takes shape. Faith, which for
months had been coloring the decision-making process and a host of
political tactics - think of his address to the nation on stem-cell
research - now began to guide events. It was the most natural
ascension: George W. Bush turning to faith in his darkest moment and
discovering a wellspring of power and confidence.
course, the mandates of sound, sober analysis didn't vanish. They never
do. Ask any entrepreneur with a blazing idea when, a few years along,
the first debt payments start coming due. Or the C.E.O., certain that a
high stock price affirms his sweeping vision, until that neglected,
flagging division cripples the company. There's a startled look - how'd
that happen? In this case, the challenge of mobilizing the various
agencies of the United States government and making certain that
agreed-upon goals become demonstrable outcomes grew exponentially.
back at the months directly following 9/11, virtually every leading
military analyst seems to believe that rather than using Afghan
proxies, we should have used more American troops, deployed more
quickly, to pursue Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora. Many
have also been critical of the president's handling of Saudi Arabia,
home to 15 of the 19 hijackers; despite Bush's setting goals in the
so-called "financial war on terror," the Saudis failed to cooperate
with American officials in hunting for the financial sources of terror.
Still, the nation wanted bold action and was delighted to get it.
Bush's approval rating approached 90 percent. Meanwhile, the
executive's balance between analysis and resolution, between
contemplation and action, was being tipped by the pull of righteous
was during a press conference on Sept. 16, in response to a question
about homeland security efforts infringing on civil rights, that Bush
first used the telltale word "crusade" in public. "This is a new kind
of - a new kind of evil," he said. "And we understand. And the American
people are beginning to understand. This crusade, this war on terrorism
is going to take a while."
around the world were incensed. Two days later, Ari Fleischer tried to
perform damage control. "I think what the president was saying was -
had no intended consequences for anybody, Muslim or otherwise, other
than to say that this is a broad cause that he is calling on America
and the nations around the world to join." As to "any connotations that
would upset any of our partners, or anybody else in the world, the
president would regret if anything like that was conveyed."
few months later, on Feb. 1, 2002, Jim Wallis of the Sojourners stood
in the Roosevelt Room for the introduction of Jim Towey as head of the
president's faith-based and community initiative. John DiIulio, the
original head, had left the job feeling that the initiative was not
about "compassionate conservatism," as originally promised, but rather
a political giveaway to the Christian right, a way to consolidate and
energize that part of the base.
after the ceremony, Bush saw Wallis. He bounded over and grabbed the
cheeks of his face, one in each hand, and squeezed. "Jim, how ya doin',
how ya doin'!" he exclaimed. Wallis was taken aback. Bush excitedly
said that his massage therapist had given him Wallis's book, "Faith
Works." His joy at seeing Wallis, as Wallis and others remember it, was
palpable - a president, wrestling with faith and its role at a time of
peril, seeing that rare bird: an independent counselor. Wallis recalls
telling Bush he was doing fine, "'but in the State of the Union address
a few days before, you said that unless we devote all our energies, our
focus, our resources on this war on terrorism, we're going to lose.' I
said, 'Mr. President, if we don't devote our energy, our focus and our
time on also overcoming global poverty and desperation, we will lose
not only the war on poverty, but we'll lose the war on terrorism."'
Bush replied that that was why America needed the leadership of Wallis and other members of the clergy.
Mr. President," Wallis says he told Bush, "We need your leadership on
this question, and all of us will then commit to support you. Unless we
drain the swamp of injustice in which the mosquitoes of terrorism
breed, we'll never defeat the threat of terrorism."
Bush looked quizzically at the minister, Wallis recalls. They never spoke again after that.
I was first with Bush in Austin, what I saw was a self-help Methodist,
very open, seeking," Wallis says now. "What I started to see at this
point was the man that would emerge over the next year - a messianic
American Calvinist. He doesn't want to hear from anyone who doubts
with a country crying out for intrepid leadership, does a president
have time to entertain doubters? In a speech in Alaska two weeks later,
Bush again referred to the war on terror as a "crusade."
the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the
White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director,
Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He
expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something
that at the time I didn't fully comprehend - but which I now believe
gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based
community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions
emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and
murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He
cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he
continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own
reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you
will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can
study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors
. . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
besides guys like me are part of the reality-based community? Many of
the other elected officials in Washington, it would seem. A group of
Democratic and Republican members of Congress were called in to discuss
Iraq sometime before the October 2002 vote authorizing Bush to move
forward. A Republican senator recently told Time Magazine that the
president walked in and said: "Look, I want your vote. I'm not going to
debate it with you." When one of the senators began to ask a question,
Bush snapped, "Look, I'm not going to debate it with you."
9/11 commission did not directly address the question of whether Bush
exerted influence over the intelligence community about the existence
of weapons of mass destruction. That question will be investigated
after the election, but if no tangible evidence of undue pressure is
found, few officials or alumni of the administration whom I spoke to
are likely to be surprised. "If you operate in a certain way - by
saying this is how I want to justify what I've already decided to do,
and I don't care how you pull it off - you guarantee that you'll get
faulty, one-sided information," Paul O'Neill, who was asked to resign
his post of treasury secretary in December 2002, said when we had
dinner a few weeks ago. "You don't have to issue an edict, or twist
arms, or be overt."
a way, the president got what he wanted: a National Intelligence
Estimate on W.M.D. that creatively marshaled a few thin facts, and then
Colin Powell putting his credibility on the line at the United Nations
in a show of faith. That was enough for George W. Bush to press forward
and invade Iraq. As he told his quasi-memoirist, Bob Woodward, in "Plan
of Attack": "Going into this period, I was praying for strength to do
the Lord's will. . . . I'm surely not going to justify the war based
upon God. Understand that. Nevertheless, in my case, I pray to be as
good a messenger of his will as possible."
oft-cited line about the adequacy of the perception of power prompts a
question. Is the appearance of confidence as important as its
possession? Can confidence - true confidence - be willed? Or must it be
W. Bush, clearly, is one of history's great confidence men. That is not
meant in the huckster's sense, though many critics claim that on the
war in Iraq, the economy and a few other matters he has engaged in some
manner of bait-and-switch. No, I mean it in the sense that he's a
believer in the power of confidence. At a time when constituents are
uneasy and enemies are probing for weaknesses, he clearly feels that
unflinching confidence has an almost mystical power. It can all but
Whether you can run the world on faith, it's clear you can run one hell of a campaign on it.
W. Bush and his team have constructed a high-performance electoral
engine. The soul of this new machine is the support of millions of
likely voters, who judge his worth based on intangibles - character,
certainty, fortitude and godliness - rather than on what he says or
does. The deeper the darkness, the brighter this filament of faith
glows, a faith in the president and the just God who affirms him.
leader of the free world is clearly comfortable with this calculus and
artfully encourages it. In the series of televised, carefully
choreographed "Ask President Bush" events with supporters around the
country, sessions filled with prayers and blessings, one questioner
recently summed up the feelings of so many Christian conservatives, the
core of the Bush army. "I've voted Republican from the very first time
I could vote," said Gary Walby, a retired jeweler from Destin, Fla., as
he stood before the president in a crowded college gym. "And I also
want to say this is the very first time that I have felt that God was
in the White House." Bush simply said "thank you" as a wave of raucous
applause rose from the assembled.
few months, a report surfaces of the president using strikingly
Messianic language, only to be dismissed by the White House. Three
months ago, for instance, in a private meeting with Amish farmers in
Lancaster County, Pa., Bush was reported to have said, "I trust God
speaks through me." In this ongoing game of winks and nods, a White
House spokesman denied the president had specifically spoken those
words, but noted that "his faith helps him in his service to people."
recent Gallup Poll noted that 42 percent of Americans identify
themselves as evangelical or "born again." While this group leans
Republican, it includes black urban churches and is far from
monolithic. But Bush clearly draws his most ardent supporters and
tireless workers from this group, many from a healthy subset of
approximately four million evangelicals who didn't vote in 2000 -
potential new arrivals to the voting booth who could tip a close
election or push a tight contest toward a rout.
signaling system - forceful, national, varied, yet clean of the
president's specific fingerprint - carries enormous weight. Lincoln
Chafee, the moderate Republican senator from Rhode Island, has broken
with the president precisely over concerns about the nature of Bush's
certainty. "This issue," he says, of Bush's "announcing that 'I carry
the word of God' is the key to the election. The president wants to
signal to the base with that message, but in the swing states he does
to the hostings on Labor Day and meet the base. In 2004, you know a
candidate by his base, and the Bush campaign is harnessing the might of
churches, with hordes of voters registering through church-sponsored
programs. Following the news of Bush on his national tour in the week
after the Republican convention, you could sense how a faith-based
president campaigns: on a surf of prayer and righteous rage.
rage - that's what Hardy Billington felt when he heard about same-sex
marriage possibly being made legal in Massachusetts. "It made me upset
and disgusted, things going on in Massachusetts," the 52-year-old from
Poplar Bluff, Mo., told me. "I prayed, then I got to work." Billington
spent $830 in early July to put up a billboard on the edge of town. It
read: "I Support President Bush and the Men and Women Fighting for Our
Country. We Invite President Bush to Visit Poplar Bluff." Soon
Billington and his friend David Hahn, a fundamentalist preacher,
started a petition drive. They gathered 10,000 signatures. That fact
eventually reached the White House scheduling office.
late afternoon on a cloudy Labor Day, with a crowd of more than 20,000
assembled in a public park, Billington stepped to the podium. "The
largest group I ever talked to I think was seven people, and I'm not
much of a talker," Billington, a shy man with three kids and a couple
of dozen rental properties that he owns, told me several days later.
"I've never been so frightened."
Billington said he "looked to God" and said what was in his heart. "The
United States is the greatest country in the world," he told the rally.
"President Bush is the greatest president I have ever known. I love my
president. I love my country. And more important, I love Jesus Christ."
crowd went wild, and they went wild again when the president finally
arrived and gave his stump speech. There were Bush's periodic stumbles
and gaffes, but for the followers of the faith-based president, that
was just fine. They got it - and "it" was the faith.
for those who don't get it? That was explained to me in late 2002 by
Mark McKinnon, a longtime senior media adviser to Bush, who now runs
his own consulting firm and helps the president. He started by
challenging me. "You think he's an idiot, don't you?" I said, no, I
didn't. "No, you do, all of you do, up and down the West Coast, the
East Coast, a few blocks in southern Manhattan called Wall Street. Let
me clue you in. We don't care. You see, you're outnumbered 2 to 1 by
folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don't
read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you
know what they like? They like the way he walks and the way he points,
the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you
attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it's good for us.
Because you know what those folks don't like? They don't like you!" In
this instance, the final "you," of course, meant the entire
bond between Bush and his base is a bond of mutual support. He supports
them with his actions, doing his level best to stand firm on wedge
issues like abortion and same-sex marriage while he identifies evil in
the world, at home and abroad. They respond with fierce faith. The
power of this transaction is something that people, especially those
who are religious, tend to connect to their own lives. If you have
faith in someone, that person is filled like a vessel. Your faith is
the wind beneath his or her wings. That person may well rise to the
occasion and surprise you: I had faith in you, and my faith was
rewarded. Or, I know you've been struggling, and I need to pray harder.
speech that day in Poplar Bluff finished with a mythic appeal: "For all
Americans, these years in our history will always stand apart," he
said. "You know, there are quiet times in the life of a nation when
little is expected of its leaders. This isn't one of those times. This
is a time that needs - when we need firm resolve and clear vision and a
deep faith in the values that make us a great nation."
life of the nation and the life of Bush effortlessly merge - his
fortitude, even in the face of doubters, is that of the nation; his
ordinariness, like theirs, is heroic; his resolve, to whatever end,
will turn the wheel of history.
this is consent, informed by the heart and by the spirit. In the end,
Bush doesn't have to say he's ordained by God. After a day of speeches
by Hardy Billington and others, it goes without saying.
me, I just believe God controls everything, and God uses the president
to keep evil down, to see the darkness and protect this nation,"
Billington told me, voicing an idea shared by millions of Bush
supporters. "Other people will not protect us. God gives people choices
to make. God gave us this president to be the man to protect the nation
at this time."
when the moment came in the V.I.P. tent to shake Bush's hand,
Billington remembered being reserved. "'I really thank God that you're
the president' was all I told him." Bush, he recalled, said, "Thank
knew what I meant," Billington said. "I believe he's an instrument of
God, but I have to be careful about what I say, you know, in public."
Is there anyone in America who feels that John Kerry is an instrument of God?
going to be real positive, while I keep my foot on John Kerry's
throat," George W. Bush said last month at a confidential luncheon a
block away from the White House with a hundred or so of his most
ardent, longtime supporters, the so-called R.N.C. Regents. This was a
high-rolling crowd - at one time or another, they had all given large
contributions to Bush or the Republican National Committee. Bush had
known many of them for years, and a number of them had visited him at
the ranch. It was a long way from Poplar Bluff.
Bush these supporters heard was a triumphal Bush, actively beginning to
plan his second term. It is a second term, should it come to pass, that
will alter American life in many ways, if predictions that Bush voiced
at the luncheon come true.
said emphatically that he expects the Republicans will gain seats to
expand their control of the House and the Senate. According to notes
provided to me, and according to several guests at the lunch who agreed
to speak about what they heard, he said that "Osama bin Laden would
like to overthrow the Saudis . . .
we're in trouble. Because they have a weapon. They have the oil." He
said that there will be an opportunity to appoint a Supreme Court
justice shortly after his inauguration, and perhaps three more
high-court vacancies during his second term.
that be amazing?" said Peter Stent, a rancher and conservationist who
attended the luncheon. "Can you imagine? Four appointments!"
his remarks, Bush opened it up for questions, and someone asked what
he's going to do about energy policy with worldwide oil reserves
predicted to peak.
said: "I'm going to push nuclear energy, drilling in Alaska and clean
coal. Some nuclear-fusion technologies are interesting." He mentions
energy from "processing corn."
going to bring all this up in the debate, and I'm going to push it," he
said, and then tried out a line. "Do you realize that ANWR [the Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge] is the size of South Carolina, and where we
want to drill is the size of the Columbia airport?"
questions came from many directions - respectful, but clearly
reality-based. About the deficits, he said he'd "spend whatever it
takes to protect our kids in Iraq," that "homeland security cost more
than I originally thought."
response to a question, he talked about diversity, saying that "hands
down," he has the most diverse senior staff in terms of both gender and
race. He recalled a meeting with Chancellor Gerhard Schroder of
Germany. "You know, I'm sitting there with Schroder one day with Colin
and Condi. And I'm thinking: What's Schroder thinking?! He's sitting
here with two blacks and one's a woman."
But as the hour passed, Bush kept coming back to the thing most on his mind: his second term.
going to come out strong after my swearing in," Bush said, "with
fundamental tax reform, tort reform, privatizing of Social Security."
The victories he expects in November, he said, will give us "two years,
at least, until the next midterm. We have to move quickly, because
after that I'll be quacking like a duck."
Gildenhorn, a top contributor who attended the luncheon and has been
invited to visit Bush at his ranch, said later: "I've never seen the
president so ebullient. He was so confident. He feels so strongly he
will win." Yet one part of Bush's 60-odd-minute free-form riff gave
Gildenhorn - a board member of the American Israel Public Affairs
Committee and a former ambassador to Switzerland - a moment's pause.
The president, listing priorities for his second term, placed near the
top of his agenda the expansion of federal support for faith-based
institutions. The president talked at length about giving the
initiative the full measure of his devotion and said that questions
about separation of church and state were not an issue.
of the faith-based initiative, Gildenhorn said, makes him "a little
uneasy." Many conservative evangelicals "feel they have a direct line
from God," he said, and feel Bush is divinely chosen.
think he's religious, I think he's a born-again, I don't think, though,
that he feels that he's been ordained by God to serve the country."
Gildenhorn paused, then said, "But you know, I really haven't discussed
it with him."
regent I spoke to later and who asked not to be identified told me:
"I'm happy he's certain of victory and that he's ready to burst forth
into his second term, but it all makes me a little nervous. There are a
lot of big things that he's planning to do domestically, and who knows
what countries we might invade or what might happen in Iraq. But when
it gets complex, he seems to turn to prayer or God rather than digging
in and thinking things through. What's that line? - the devil's in the
details. If you don't go after that devil, he'll come after you."
grew into one of history's most forceful leaders, his admirers will
attest, by replacing hesitation and reasonable doubt with faith and
clarity. Many more will surely tap this high-voltage connection of
fervent faith and bold action. In politics, the saying goes, anything
that works must be repeated until it is replaced by something better.
The horizon seems clear of competitors.
the unfinished American experiment in self-governance - sputtering on
the watery fuel of illusion and assertion - deal with something as
nuanced as the subtleties of one man's faith? What, after all, is the
nature of the particular conversation the president feels he has with
God - a colloquy upon which the world now precariously turns?
very issue is what Jim Wallis wishes he could sit and talk about with
George W. Bush. That's impossible now, he says. He is no longer invited
to the White House.
can cut in so many ways," he said. "If you're penitent and not
triumphal, it can move us to repentance and accountability and help us
reach for something higher than ourselves. That can be a powerful
thing, a thing that moves us beyond politics as usual, like Martin
Luther King did. But when it's designed to certify our righteousness -
that can be a dangerous thing. Then it pushes self-criticism aside.
There's no reflection.
people often get lost is on this very point," he said after a moment of
thought. "Real faith, you see, leads us to deeper reflection and not -
not ever - to the thing we as humans so very much want."
And what is that?
Suskind was the senior national-affairs reporter for The Wall Street
Journal from 1993 to 2000. He is the author most recently of "The Price
of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul
Jump to TO Features for Sunday October 17, 2004