I disagree with Ron Suskind. If George W. Bush is not a stupid or a bad man, than the words "stupid and "bad" have no meaning.
What Bush Meant: One morning in 2001, one of President Bush's most senior economic advisors walked into the Oval Office for a meeting with the president. The day before, the advisor had learned that the president had decided to send out tax-rebate checks to stimulate the faltering economy. Concerned about deficits and the dubious stimulatory effect of such rebates, he had called the president's chief of staff, Andy Card, to ask for the audience, and the meeting had been set.
As the man took his seat in the wing chair next to the president's desk, he began to explain his problem with the president's decision. The fact of the matter was that in this area of policy, this advisor was one of the experts, really top-drawer, and had been instrumental in devising some of the very language now used to discuss these concepts. He was convinced, he told Bush, that the president's position would soon enough be seen as "bad policy."
This, it seems, was the wrong thing to say to the president.
According to senior administration officials who learned of the encounter soon after it happened, President Bush looked at the man. "I don't ever want to hear you use those words in my presence again," he said.
"What words, Mr. President?"
"Bad policy," President Bush said. "If I decide to do it, by definition it's good policy. I thought you got that."
The advisor was dismissed. The meeting was over.
It is one story among many such stories. Why, you might ask, would the president bother to have advisors who are expert in various constellations of policy-making if he then disregards utterly whatever they have to say? The answer is at the heart of the failure of this presidency.
George Walker Bush is not a stupid or a bad man. But in his conduct as president, he behaved stupidly and badly. He was constrained by neither the standards of conduct common to the average professional nor the Constitution. This was not ignorance but a willful rejection on Bush's part, in the service of streamlining White House decision-making, eliminating complexity, and shutting out dissenting voices. This insular mind-set was and is dangerous. Rigorous thinking and hard-won expertise are both very good things, and our government for the past eight years has routinely debased and mocked these virtues.
President Bush was unmoved by any arguments that challenged his assumptions. Debate was silenced, expertise was punished, and diversity of opinion was anathema, so much so that his political opponents--other earnest Americans who want the best for their country--were, to him and his men, the moral equivalent of the enemy. It is important to note just how different such conduct has been from the conduct of other presidents from both parties.
Anyone who has drawn this sad conclusion has been dismissed as a "Bush hater" by those who defend the president.
I am not a "Bush hater." I am a reporter, and it is incumbent in the enterprise to scrutinize power and follow facts.
I began chronicling this administration for Esquire in late 2001, and have been compelled to write about nothing else since. Among many other things, I learned that the bright lines typical in a White House between policy-making and political operations had been obliterated in the Bush White House, abandoned in favor of political calculations routed through Karl Rove's office. In his critique of this troubling power dynamic, one of my sources, the former director of the president's faith-based initiative, John DiIulio, called Rove's swarming operatives the "Mayberry Machiavellis." That was in 2002. DiIulio couldn't have known then just how right he was.
I also learned from another source, Bush's first treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, that at President Bush's very first National Security Council meeting, in January 2001, finding a rationale for overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein topped the agenda.
I learned that the president's message-makers derided the rest of us who live in the "reality-based community," as opposed to the alternate reality that they saw it in their power to create.
And most recently I learned that the White House was apprised by the Iraqi intelligence chief in January 2003--well in advance of the war--that Saddam Hussein's regime possessed no weapons of mass destruction and had no such active weapons programs. The intelligence chief, in his secret back-channel meetings, also described the mind of Saddam--his fear of the Iranians finding out he was weaponless--which explained his odd prewar behavior. When this fact was borne out after the invasion, the White House directed that a fraudulent document be created to establish a connection between the Iraqi regime and the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta. (This document miraculously materialized in Baghdad in December 2003)...
Note from DeLong: The "most senior economic advisors" who could ask for and get a personal one-on-one meeting with the president in a day are limited to:
The Secretary of the Treasury (Paul O'Neill)
The Secretary of Labor (Elaine Chao)
The Secretary of Commerce (Donald Evans)
The Director of OMB (Mitch Daniels)
The Assistant to the President for Economic Policy (Larry Lindsey)
The Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors (Glenn Hubbard)
Only Larry and Glenn can be characterized as experts in fiscal policy.