Samuel Hayim Brody
Bush the Exception, p.2

I agree with the general feeling of Bush's special significance, and argue that lies in the fact that his administration truly is an exception, an anomaly in recent American history. If the problem with Clinton was that he was simply an empire manager, never dealing with the real, deep, underlying issues that plague the world, the problem with Bush is that he doesn't know how to run the empire. He's screwing everything up; the world is going down the tubes, and it's hard-both for Bush and for activists opposed to him-to know what problem or issue to confront first.

Yet Bush's caprice makes it very hard to pin down exactly what is going wrong with our country. According to Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill, the problem is an unmoored, unintelligent president who ignores advice and disdains reasoned argument. It is an intimate, inside look at Bush that reveals just how different he is from other presidents. According to David Cay Johnston's Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich-and Cheat Everybody Else, Bush is just icing on a cake. The book's focus is on the structural, macro level, delivering a searing critique of the American tax system as it has existed over the last twenty years. George W. Bush is just an egregiously awful cog in that machine.

Process and Personality: The Price of Loyalty

Freelance journalist Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty is not written like a shocking book. Suskind has taken his many conversations with former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, the 19,000 documents O'Neill turned over to him for the book, and interviews with other, unnamed inside sources and turned them into an airport-ready suspense novel. The main characters are President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, with special appearances from the rest of the Cabinet and the National Security Council. Essentially, the book is a rise and fall narrative of O'Neill's difficult two years as Treasury Secretary. Perhaps not surprisingly, since the book was mostly drawn from interviews with O'Neill, the main protagonist comes out looking quite rosy; O'Neill is presented as a loyal, honest policymaker, reluctant to seize power and hesitant to wield it, who just wants to weigh the facts and make the best decisions. He is placed in stark contrast to the rest of the Bush administration, with the occasional exceptions of Environmental Protection Agency head Christie Whitman and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Bush is seen as dangerously ignorant and completely reliant on his advisors to describe the world to him. The problem for O'Neill is that his advisors all present the same kind of world.

O'Neill, you see, is a "process man." This passage from early in The Price of Loyalty sets the hagiographical tone and gives away half the plot:

O'Neill was a believer in the middle ground. Not in compromise, so much. Or horse trading. He was never much on any of that. It was the fresh, unaffiliated idea that enlivened him. Across four decades of search and study in and near government, he was sure he'd spotted a staid, stoic truth beneath the heat lightning of political rhetoric: that on matters of policy there are answers-right answers-that eventually assert their primacy over political posturing. These answers fall indiscriminately, here and there, along the left/right political axis, or create new territory not yet charted. An idea's first conceptual mold tends to form through plodding rigor, from a clear-eyed examination of available evidence and an open-minded-and sometimes humbling-assessment of opposing views. Fierce, frank dialogue commences; choices and consequences take shape. And, if everyone is honest about what they all know-and about what they've learned in this roiling process-an answer, a best remedy, emerges. Illusion will have its moment, but there is, in fact, a discernible underlying reality. It may take a while, but in the end that reality becomes visible and undeniable. In the end, it's all about process, O'Neill believed. Trust process and the ends take care of themselves.

This is a kind of idealist metaphysics of government, and one might be tempted to dismiss it entirely as a fantasy. But O'Neill has four decades of government experience under his belt, and, according to him, this type of glorious policy debate happened in-shock of shocks-the Nixon administration. He compares Bush unfavorably with Nixon, and the real surprise of the comparison is how accurate it seems. The point is that for O'Neill, the Bush administration was completely uninterested in process or reasoned argument. Its philosophy was, and presumably still is: "The base likes this, and who the hell knows anyway."

That destructive maxim was applied to energy, the economy, Social Security, global warming, and plenty of other issues you would think would be important enough to merit consideration of opposing views. The reluctance of the administration to entertain policy debate of any sort combines with a president "just learning the issues," and "one of the most experience-heavy teams of any recent administration," with the end result being "senior officials both formulating and, in some cases, conducting U.S. policy." Including, importantly, political officials, most notably Karl Rove, the political wizard the Left loves to hate.

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March 2004

Passion and Violence
Jay Michaelson

A Song of Ascents:
The News from San Francisco
Sarah Lefton

Bush the Exception
Samuel Hayim Brody

The Wrong Half
Margaret Mackenzie Schwartz

God Had a Controlling Interest
Hal Sirowitz

Eliezer Sobel

Josh hosts a party
Josh Ring

Our 450 Back Pages

David Stromberg

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From previous issues:

Radical Evil
Michael Shurkin

I hear America Bling-blinging
Jay Michaelson

9/11: Tony's Story
Dan Friedman