- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The latest issue of Newsweek magazine provides a disturbing portrait of George W. Bush as an aloof, out-of-touch president, isolated by his own governing style.

Because of his intolerance for dissent, he has effectively surrounded himself with yes-men (and -women) fearful of telling him anything he doesn’t want to hear.

Written by veteran reporters Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe, the Newsweek story confirms reports we have heard for the last five years about Mr. Bush’s disinterest in the policy process or even the day-to-day politicking that ordinarily goes with the job. He dislikes meeting with members of Congress, is not a big consumer of news that does not come to him through official channels, and relies almost exclusively on a few close aides, ignoring his Cabinet and the rest of the federal establishment.

The result is Mr. Bush appears to live in a sort of fantasy world utterly divorced from reality. For example, Newsweek quotes a senior Republican congressman — unnamed for fear of White House retaliation — who was astounded in a meeting with Mr. Bush about Social Security at how out of touch he was with the political prospects for his reform plan. The congressman and everyone else in the room knew the plan was dead, yet Mr. Bush went on and on as if it was on the brink of enactment.

“I got the sense that his staff was not telling him the bad news,” the lawmaker said. “This was not a case of him thinking positive. He just didn’t have any idea of the political realities there. It was like he wasn’t briefed at all.”

According to Newsweek, in many subtle ways Mr. Bush discourages his aides from telling him the truth. One is how he phrases questions — not to elicit information but to put subordinates in a position where the only answer they can give confirms the wisdom of any decision he has already made.

This is compounded by Mr. Bush’s antipathy for in-depth briefings. He prefers short conversations “long on conclusion, short on reasoning,” we are told. “Faith, not evidence, is the basis for decisionmaking,” Messrs. Thomas and Wolffe report.

Bush loyalists will, no doubt, question the veracity of the Newsweek account. But it is only the latest portrait that paints the same picture. Last year, for example, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind reported a senior White House aide actually mocked him for living in the “reality-based community.” The aide said the White House was creating its own reality that required no thought, analysis, evidence or logic. It simply acted and reality changed.

But as the Iraq war and declining poll ratings weigh ever more on Mr. Bush, the disconnect with reality seems to have worsened. In September, Time magazine reported his bubble had grown “more hermetic… with fewer people willing or able to bring him bad news — or tell him when he’s wrong.”

In October, Thomas DeFrank of the New York Daily News reported Mr. Bush is now given to temper tantrums. He often berates others for his own mistakes, refusing to take responsibility for them, Mr. DeFrank reports. The picture that emerges is eerily familiar to anyone who has read of Richard Nixon’s last days in office.

Other press reports suggest Bush administration officials are now going to extraordinary lengths to avoid displeasing their boss. According to an item in New York magazine last week, administration officials threatened to walk away from global warming talks if Bill Clinton addressed the group. Perhaps the U.S. should abstain from the conference on policy grounds. But to do so because of a Clinton speech is petty in the extreme.

Unfortunately, it seems nobody — even his father — can sit President Bush down and force him to change course. The one person who might be able to do so is Vice President Dick Cheney, but he has long been Mr. Bush’s principal enabler, according to a report by John Dickerson in the online magazine Slate. Lacking any political ambitions of his own, Mr. Cheney has no incentive to disagree with Mr. Bush on anything. This has contributed to the hermetic nature of the White House, helping vitally to sustain the bubble in which Mr. Bush operates largely on his own without hearing any dissent.

In the unlikely event Mr. Bush decides to take a new course, he might turn is to University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, who recently posted some good advice on his Web site. Mr. Bush needs to accept reality on Iraq, Mr. Sabato says, talk up the economy, develop a new domestic agenda, re-staff his administration, and admit error, especially on the unaffordable Medicare drug benefit. I agree.

Bruce Bartlett is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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