The Misunderestimated Man
How Bush chose stupidity.
Slate turns 10 this week, and we're publishing The Best of Slate: A Tenth Anniversary Anthology. In celebration of the book and the anniversary, we're publishing (or, rather, re-publishing) a selection of pieces from the anthology, including this article. This article was originally published May 7, 2004.You can see a list of all the republished pieces, as well as everything else we are publishing in honor of the anniversary, here.
After half a lifetime of this kind of frustration, Bush decided to straighten up. Nursing a hangover at a 40th-birthday weekend, he gave up Wild Turkey, cold turkey. With the help of Billy Graham, he put himself in the hands of a higher power and began going to church. He became obsessed with punctuality and developed a rigid routine. Thus did Prince Hal molt into an evangelical King Henry. And it worked! Putting together a deal to buy the Texas Rangers, the ne'er-do-well finally tasted success. With success, he grew closer to his father, taking on the role of family avenger. This culminated in his 1994 challenge to Texas Gov. Ann Richards, who had twitted dad at the 1988 Democratic convention *.
Curiously, this late arrival at adulthood did not involve Bush becoming in any way thoughtful. Having chosen stupidity as rebellion, he stuck with it out of conformity. The promise-keeper, reformed-alkie path he chose not only drastically curtailed personal choices he no longer wanted, it also supplied an all-encompassing order, offered guidance on policy, and prevented the need for much actual information. Bush's old answer to hard questions was, "I don't know and, who cares." His new answer was, "Wait a second while I check with Jesus."
A remaining bit of poignancy was his unresolved struggle with his father. "All I ask," he implored a reporter while running for governor in 1994, "is that for once you guys stop seeing me as the son of George Bush." In his campaigns, W. has kept his dad offstage. (In an exceptional appearance on the eve of the 2000 New Hampshire primary, 41 came onstage and called his son "this boy.") While some describe the second Bush presidency as a restoration, it is in at least equal measure a repudiation. The son's harder-edged conservatism explicitly rejects the old man's approach to such issues as abortion, taxes, and relations with Israel.
This Oedipally induced ignorance expresses itself most dangerously in Bush's handling of the war in Iraq. Dubya polished off his old man's greatest enemy, Saddam, but only by lampooning 41's accomplishment of coalition-building in the first Gulf War. Bush led the country to war on false pretenses and neglected to plan the occupation that would inevitably follow. A more knowledgeable and engaged president might have questioned the quality of the evidence about Iraq's supposed weapons programs. One who preferred to be intelligent might have asked about the possibility of an unfriendly reception. Instead, Bush rolled the dice. His budget-busting tax cuts exemplify a similar phenomenon, driven by an alternate set of ideologues.
As the president says, we misunderestimate him. He was not born stupid. He chose stupidity. Bush may look like a well-meaning dolt. On consideration, he's something far more dangerous: a dedicated fool.
Correction, May 7, 2004: This article originally misstated the date of the Democratic convention where Ann Richards twitted President George H.W. Bush. It was 1988 not 1992. Return to the corrected sentence.