Sunday, May 06, 2007

Under-briefed, lazy, arrogant, stubborn

Brad Delong reminisces about the pass that the media gave Incurious George who was "under-briefed ... "lazy"... "arrogant" ... "stubborn".

It was the summer of 2000 when I began asking Republicans I know – generally people who might be natural candidates for various sub-cabinet policy positions in a Republican administration – how worried they were that the Republican presidential candidate, George W. Bush, was clearly not up to the job. They were not worried, they told me, that Bush was inadequately briefed and strangely incurious for a man who sought the most powerful office in the world. One of President Clinton’s problems, they said, was that the ceremonial portions of the job bored him – and thus he got himself into big trouble.

Look at how Bush had operated as president of the Texas Rangers baseball club, they said. Bush let the managers manage the team and the financial guys run the business. He spent his time making sure the political coalition to support the Texas Rangers in the style to which it wanted to be accustomed remained stable. Bush knows his strengths and weaknesses, they told me. He will focus on being America’s Queen Elizabeth II, and will let people like Colin Powell and Paul O’Neill be America’s Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

By the summer of 2001, it had become clear that something had gone very wrong. By that point, Bush had rejected O’Neill’s and Christine Todd Whitman’s advice on environmental policy, just as he had rejected Alan Greenspan’s and O’Neill’s advice on fiscal policy, Powell’s and Condoleezza Rice’s advice on the importance of pushing forward on negotiations between Israel and Palestine, and – as we learned later – George Tenet’s and Richard Clarke’s advice about the importance of counterterrorism.

A strange picture of Bush emerged from conversations with sub-cabinet administration appointees, their friends, and their friends of friends. He was not just under-briefed, but also lazy: he insisted on remaining under-briefed. He was not just incurious, but also arrogant: he insisted on making uninformed decisions, and hence made decisions that were essentially random. And he was stubborn: once he had made a decision – even, or rather especially, if it was glaringly wrong and stupid – he would never revisit it.

So, by the summer of 2001, a pattern was set that would lead British observer Daniel Davies to ask if there was a Bush administration policy on anything of even moderate importance that had not been completely bollixed up. But if you relied on either the Washington Post or the New York Times, you would have had a very hard time seeing it. Today, it is an accepted fact that the kindest thing you can say about the Bush administration is that it is completely incompetent, which is the line now taken by hard-line Bush supporters like the National Review and the commentator Robert Novak.

Why didn’t the American press corps cover the Bush administration properly for its first five years? I really do not know. I do know that the world cannot afford to rely again on America’s press for its information: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. So I appeal to all of you working for newspapers, radio, and television stations outside the United States: it is to you that we – including those of us in America – must look to discover what our own government is doing.


There are honorable exceptions. Ron Suskind. Paul Krugman. McClatchy--the news service and organization formerly known as Knight-Ridder. David Wessel and the crew at the Wall Street Journal's Washington Bureau got medieval on economic policy missteps early. The Financial Times was measured but accurate, and didn't follow the strategy of keeping its good reporters off the front page.

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