Does the president know what the word neocon means?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Feb. 23 2007 6:43 PM

Does Bush Know What Neocon Means?

That isn't a rhetorical question.

Near the end of his new book, Rumsfeld: His Rise, His Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy—an unfriendly but persuasive portrait of the former secretary of defense—journalist Andrew Cockburn relates a story about an encounter between Bush père et fils that I put in the category "remarkable if true." It is August 2004, and the president is taking time off from his re-election campaign to visit his parents at their summer house in Kennebunkport, Maine. Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to the elder Bush, and also a public critic of the younger Bush, has written the president a memo on Iraq. Scowcroft has asked the father to give this memo to the son. Bush père uses Dubya's visit as an occasion to do so. I'll let Cockburn take it from here:

The president glanced at it disdainfully for a few seconds before tossing it aside, reportedly with the words "I'm sick and tired of getting papers from Brent Scowcroft telling me what to do, and I never want to see another one again." With that, he exited, slamming the door behind him.

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This part of the story could very easily be true and wouldn't be all that remarkable if it were; there's very little love lost between Scowcroft and the president. But then Cockburn continues:

Notwithstanding this episode, Bush 43 still sometimes drew on his father's wide knowledge of the world. Though he refused to read newspapers, he was aware of criticism that his administration had been excessively beholden to a particular clique, and wanted to know more about them. One day during that holiday, according to friends of the family, 43 asked his father, "What's a neocon?"

"Do you want names, or a description?" answered 41.

"Description."

"Well," said the former president of the United States, "I'll give it to you in one word: Israel."

Let's set aside the question of whether it's fair to describe neocons as caring only about Israel. (My own view is that it would have been unfair, and possibly anti-Semitic, 20 years ago, but that the neocon agenda has since dwindled to such an extent that by now it's an acceptable shorthand, if slightly risqué.) Instead, let's focus on the anecdote's suggestion that as recently as two and a half years ago, the president of the United States didn't know what neocon meant.

Can this possibly be true?

Cockburn is a good reporter who has covered national security for decades. He wouldn't make it up. He writes that he got this anecdote from "friends of the family," which means multiple sources—probably not eyewitnesses, but rather people who heard the story from the elder Bush or (more likely) from Scowcroft. Scowcroft is a very close friend to Bush père, making it plausible that he would have heard about the conversation between father and son. And because Scowcroft is close to Bush père, one can easily imagine that two other people who would have heard the story (third-hand) from Scowcroft would also be friends of the elder Bushes.

When someone is as uncurious as George W. Bush, it's easy to underestimate what he knows. A friend of mine tells the story of discussing the income tax with the president early in his administration and, after using the term progressive, acting on the impulse to explain to the president what, in that context, progressive means. "I know what progressive means," the president snarled back, irritated that anyone would think him so ignorant. ("How was I supposed to know what he knows and what he doesn't?" my friend says in self-defense.) With that lesson in mind, let's proceed cautiously.

It's possible that Bush fils was not asking Bush père to define a term whose meaning was unfamiliar to him, but rather inviting a ruminative conversation about the category's proper parameters. If Irving Kristol were to ask me, "What's a neocon?", he wouldn't be demonstrating ignorance of the term's meaning. He'd be initiating a lively give-and-take about the movement's nature and evolution. The problem with this interpretation, though, is that ruminative conversations really aren't Dubya's style (nor his father's, as his terse answer makes clear). The president is the kind of guy who, if he asked you what neo-Platonism was, would expect a simple declarative sentence and, if you went on longer than a sentence, would wander out of the room.

It is not possible, I think, that the younger Bush would be asking his father to define a word he'd only just heard for the first time, like gardyloo or chalcedony. It isn't possible to work in the White House and never encounter the word neocon. It is just barely possible, though, that neocon could be, for Bush, one of those words you hear all the time and keep meaning to look up but somehow never get around to, or that you look up again and again but whose meaning you can never seem to remember. (I'm that way with eleemosynary. I pray that doesn't mean I lack a charitable nature.) Moreover, throughout the current administration, I've had the experience again and again of learning some new fact that indicated life in the White House was much worse than I'd previously allowed myself to believe.

Is it true that Bush didn't know what neocon means? I don't know. But if it is true, that's astonishing.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.