Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Suskind on Bush: NYTimes Says God is Dead

Read Ron Suskind’s New York Times magazine piece on Bush’s "faith-based presidency" yesterday. I’m impressed by the reporting, even as I pick up the constant scent of rhetorical overreach.

What Suskind knows is this. In his twenties and thirties, George Bush was a failure, albeit a rich one, who coasted along on the strength of his family connections. After his fortieth birthday, the president found God in what was the most significant, and perhaps only, major course correction in his pre-presidential personal life and career.
But George Bush turned his life around not after a process of trial and error, nor by turning a skeptical eye on his own lackluster resume and neglected personal relationships. He did it by revelation. George Bush "found" God.

Suskind contends that Bush never seems to have internalized any of the more rigorous methods for discovering one’s own errors and how to fix them: rational scrutiny, the give and take of potentially hostile questioning, trolling for a diversity of views to inform your own decisions. And now that he’s a president who’s as bold as he is, in certain quarters, hated, all that listening and questioning stuff has totally gone out the window. His circle of advisers is closing and often seems to be a circle of one—or rather two if you count the big One, God.

From here it’s easy to see how Suskind constructs his brief against Bush and Bush’s (religiously based) confidence in his own judgment.

But I personally think there is an interesting debate to be had between how we (as Americans, intellectuals, whatever) idealize the decision-making process and what we know about it being necessary to hold your cards close in order to perform well. Suskind appears unable to imagine effective leadership that doesn’t show its cards, expose itself to tough questioning, and do basically everything the college handbook tells you to do as a member of intellectual community. His ideal administration would probably be the first year of the Clinton administration, an ongoing seminar in executive leadership that was too paralyzed by debate to get anything done.

That said, Suskind has come up with some fantastic quotes, none more amazing or less self-conscious than the aide who talked with Suskind after his unflattering profile of Karen Hughes appeared in Esquire.

"The 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."

As deeply hubristic as this kind of talk is—far more hubristic, btw, than any talk I would have imagined was taking place—one should also pay attention to Suskind’s little aside about empiricism and the Enlightenment. Think about it. Ron Suskind, who accuses George Bush of believing he is God’s own messenger on Earth, appears to believe that it’s up to him to represent rationalism and the Enlightenment in response. Ron Suskind’s view of his own little journalistic self is in fact a mirror-image caricature of the one he’s constructed of Bush.

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