Saturday, December 21, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Forty-Three, The Phantom President

This blog began during the George W. Bush tenure (back under a different name), so don't be too surprised if you go back through the archives to find some of the then-current complaints I had about someone I consider (present tense) the worst President ever (although I will need to update the Labels to have the tabs more search-friendly).

Any animosity I have towards John Tyler, Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Charles Logan are tempered by the distance of time and the fact that Logan's fictional (and on a show I never watched, I had to Google the name).  For the likes of LBJ and Nixon I will grant the horrors of their tenures but still allow some sympathy for tortured souls, ambitious men who tried but were left wanting (and wrecked the nation in the process).

I have more sympathy for the likes of US Grant, Herbert Hoover, Martin Van Buren, James Madison, Jimmy Carter, and Millard Fillmore.  Good men stuck in jobs they were ill-suited to serve.

Also, don't talk any smack to me about Chester A. Arthur or Harry S. Truman, or I will have to take you out back and hurt you.  I know already you'd better not be talking smack about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt.  Those badasses will rise up and smack you in response...

But here I am, having to give as unbiased a review of Bush the Lesser as possible, considering this is meant to be a review of the man's Presidential Character given in the vein of Prof. James David Barber (who died in 2004, right in the midst of Bush's two terms).

So for this I ought to do some honest research: refer to others as references and use their understanding and expertise to counter-balance any bias I may have of the sonofabitch former President.

Some external research looking for others who are of a mind to review Presidential Character pointed to John Dean, he of the Watergate era, writing a review of Mitt Romney and comparing him as an Active-Negative much like he viewed Bush the Lesser:

Barber's active/positive criteria requires a "relatively high self-esteem (with) … an emphasis on rational mastery," which is not Bush. Bush no doubt loves being head of state, enjoying the pomp of his high office, as well as the politics of the presidency. Yet there is no evidence he even likes being head of the government (for it involves far more intellectual rigor than Bush enjoys). In fact, Bush is like Nixon in that he gets out of the White House every chance he has to do so.
There is an abundance of evidence (from simply watching television coverage of the seldom smiling, often annoyed, forehead-wrinkled Bush) that demonstrates that Bush reaps a "relative(ly) low emotional reward" from the job -- to quote one of Barber's active/negative criteria.
Indeed, Bush clearly fits many of the traits that Barber relies upon to define his Active/Negative presidents. For example, Bush has a "compulsive quality, as if … trying to make up for something or escape from anxiety in hard work." Consider how he has immersed himself in continuous campaigning throughout his first term, while Cheney minds the store. (notice the underline I added, we'll get back to this point later)

Problem with that is that Bush's personal traits don't consistently align with an Active-Negative.  (I also noted Mitt wasn't so much Active-Negative as Passive-Negative running out of a sense of Duty, which is why I'm wary of Dean's evaluation here)  Dean noted how the close observers saw Bush "enjoying" the perks and activities of being President and with a brush-off disregard those observations, focusing more on Bush's obvious dislike of the workload of the Presidency itself.

What Dean also ignores is the case history: Bush's background leading up to the Presidency, the man's work history as a businessman and Texas Governor.  Barber himself at least delves into such details when he wrote his evaluations.  If we do the same for Bush the Lesser, what we can glean from those descriptives is a Bush that's not really that ambitious outside of proving himself to one man: his father, Bush the Elder.

George W. talked mostly about his dad, admiringly, of course. About how GHWB had been a World War II fighter pilot who, upon graduating from Yale, left the safety and comfort of the eastern establishment for Midland and the oil works. As an aside, we also talked about W., how he, too, had gone to Yale, learned to fly fighter jets, and moved to West Texas to make it in the oil biz. He wasn’t exactly bragging, but he was letting me know that he, too, was accomplished, although he seemed well aware that his life so far was one writ small compared with his dad... (Walt Harrington)

Stories abound regarding Bush the Lesser as a failed CEO: starting up Arbusto but getting hit by the 1979 Energy Crisis; getting bought out by one energy firm before getting bought out by another in Harken Energy, getting put on the board of directors as part of the deal; questionable loans and stock selling practices while at Harken; getting into an ownership group with the Texas Rangers that itself had questionable financial issues involving stadium deals; finally working up enough political credit to run for Texas governor in 1994 and garnering a win while his (more successful at business) younger brother Jeb failed the same campaign in Florida.  Throughout all of this was a man who, while showing some ambition, did not show the self-discipline and exacting drive that a lot of other A-N types - Hoover, Johnson, Nixon - displayed in their pre-political years.

The stories also describe a George W. Bush being congenial, talkative, glad-handing, joke-making, back-slapping.  Harrington's article points out the various run-ins the writer had with the Bush family throughout both Bushes' administrations (and periods before-after), where Bush the Lesser's personality from the first meeting was "...friendly, funny, bantering, confident man, a regular guy. He was easy to like, and I liked him..." with few exceptions noted afterward.  This is not the mark of an Active-Negative (anyone calling Herbert Hoover or Richard Nixon a back-slapping "life of the party" has had one drink too many, thankyouverymuch).  It is, in fact, much the mark of a Passive-Positive.

Molly Ivins - she of the hard liberal viewpoint of Texan and national politics, and someone I read from college onward (about 1992) - wrote a book during the 2000 campaign on Bush the Lesser titled Shrub: the Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush.  While critical, Ivins and her co-writer Lou DuBose pointed out Bush himself had positives: he was comfortable working campaigns, having been involved in so many of his father's and that circle of friends since the 1970s; while hard Right on social issues wasn't personally hateful towards the usual targets, which made Bush successful with Hispanics and even Black voters (well, compared to other Republicans) in Texas; made friends in all the right places in Texas - corporate headquarters - and knew how to keep those friends.  That Bush the Lesser, on a personal level, was a likable guy: similar in traits to previous Pass-Pos types like Harding and Reagan.

Ivins and DuBose made note of the fact that in Texas, there's a lot more power to the state legislature than the governor's office: while Bush had an agenda - one that took care of his business and Christian allies - he had to defer often to the other branch of government.  Being a Passive-Positive makes that an easy task: he just uses his Congeniality traits to make his presence known and apply just the right kind of back-slap and handshake to make everything work.

What Ivins also noted was Bush the Lesser's utter lack of interest in actual governance: while personally active, almost hyperactive - something that got George Will to think Bush was Active-Positive, which again was a too-simplistic reading of Barber's charting system (Active doesn't mean active, it means "likes to govern") - Bush himself would get bored at meetings and did not take the time to keep up with paperwork.  While Active-Negatives may hate the job they're doing, they actually focus on that job due to their driven sense of "I Must", by using the power of the Presidency to achieve some self-resolution.  Bush never really did.

Bush's ambition for the Presidency was almost Passive-Negative out of a sense of Duty: it was what Bush the Elder did, so Bush the Lesser had to do it too.  But that single P-N instinct goes against everything else Bush demonstrates - P-Ns don't like politics at all, while Bush enjoyed and endured it - so it's clearly not his primary trait (Barber does allow for the fact that the Traits are not exclusive to one Character or another).  Passive-Positive, with that Congeniality - that obsession with being Well-Liked - is the only Presidential Character that makes the most sense.

So if Bush the Lesser was really a Passive-Positive at heart, something that Ivins points to, why was Dean so convinced that Bush was really an Active-Negative?

Because much of the Bush administration was a disaster of obsessive secrecy, reckless war-making, and abuse of powers that one regularly sees in an A-N administration.

Mind you, Passive-Positives preside over scandal-plagued tenures - Reagan's was chock-full, as was Harding's and Grant's - but for different reasons than an Active-Negative's such as Johnson or Nixon.  Pass-Pos' scandals are due more to the nature of such Presidents allowing their cronies free range to embezzle and indulge, whereas A-N's scandals stem from the President's own personal faults and obsessions.

Bush's tenure as President did include a lot of that indulging - through policy positions on massive tax cuts (not themselves scandalous as they were legal... just damaging to the federal budget because those tax cuts created massive deficits we've yet to pay off), hiring on people from his circle of friends to comfortable positions in government that they were fully unqualified to serve - but that administration also presided over such things as a secretive energy policy that never received public review, failed to work with a Congress that was even controlled by their own Party and at points outright lied to that Congress (or worse failed to testify at all), and pretty much lied to the Congress, the American People, and the world when it came to the reason for invading Iraq over "weapons of mass destruction" in dictator Saddam Hussein's "possession."

And that's not even going into the lies about the start of a torture regime during the War on Terror against Afghani, Iraqi, and other Muslim/Asian peoples.

These are the kind of crimes an Active-Negative - angry, self-serving, self-destructive, illegal - would inflict on themselves or others.  Not necessarily something in Bush the Lesser's demeanor (he would rail about the media's attacks on his father during the Elder's troubled administration, but that was not really self-serving nor self-destructive: at the end of the day Bush would deal with that same media).  Bush prided himself on being a "uniter, not a divider" and in public and in policy would act that way.

It might help to understand that a Passive-Positive President is by nature too trusting of his allies and cronies: Harding is a perfect example.  It's often noted in a Pass-Pos administration the tenor of the office defined more by an underling or group of underlings (much like Franklin Pierce's seemed more dictated by his Southern Democrat allies, and Reagan's with regards to the Iran-Contra scandal).  With that consideration, also note that during Bush the Lesser administration we had the most politically-powerful VICE President our nation ever saw in Dick Cheney.

As noted elsewhere, Vice Presidents are usually ill-remembered and isolated from the Presidencies they serve under.  They're also usually political disasters when ill-considered and the President dies/leaves office to their charge.  Before the 20th Century, the Veep's office was where political careers went to die (and a good number of Veeps did die in office, but that's another story).  Most Vice Presidents were barely involved in their President's administrations (Presidents favored their Cabinets more often): the only noteworthy Veep (before the 25th Amendment and the Cold War that conjoined it) that did work with his boss was McKinley's first Vice President Garret Hobart.  Everyone else was hidden away and only let out in times of Senatorial deadlock.

Even with the advent of the Cold War, and the necessity of a Vice President being more involved and more informed, the man working as Veep had to subsume his political ambitions and personality traits in order to work with the more dominant President.  Bush the Elder a perfect example: even with Reagan being a Passive-Positive, Bush respected the chain of command well enough to work within the administration rather than pursue his own Active-Positive interests (outside of whatever role he had in Iran-Contra).

Cheney was different.  Cheney seemed to dominate Bush the Lesser's administration the minute he was given any authority by Bush, and that even began during the 2000 campaign.  Entrusted as a family friend of his father's, Bush put Cheney in charge of finding his Vice Presidential ticket balancer.  There seemed to have been a review process but in the end the selection was... Cheney himself, which puzzled people then but makes more sense when you look at Cheney more closely.

Cheney's biography and personality fits so neatly into an Active-Negative character: aggressive, secretive, driven.  That he was there at the end of Nixon's administration highlights the influence that event had to have on Cheney's political world-view.  As Nixon believed, so too did Cheney in the idea of a "unitary executive theory" that a President must be all-powerful, all-controlling (this was also a Wilsonian stance, so you might notice an A-N trend by now) and never in the wrong (that when the President does it, it's not illegal).

This was a man who was perfectly willing to tell a fellow politician on the floor of the Senate to "go fuck yourself."  Granted, this wasn't a full-on assault with a walking cane, but certain rules of decorum apply (you're supposed to save that for the parking lot).  This was a guy who told a fellow Secretary of Treasury that "deficits don't matter (regarding more massive tax cuts that even the Secretary felt were unneeded).  This is our due."

This was a man who chaired the secretive energy policy meetings.  This was a Vice President who had his office and had his friends in the Defense Department set up a competing "investigative office" to undercut CIA intelligence that didn't fit their "Iraq Has WMDs" narrative.  This was a Veep whose Chief of Staff "Scooter" Libby was indicted for his role in revealing the classified identity of a CIA agent whose husband had publicly questioned the WMD story.

This was a Vice President who used his unprecedented level of authority to ignore standard procedures on a regular basis.  When confronted by the National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office - the ones who handle and store classified materials on a daily basis, mind you - about refusing to turn over materials starting from 2003 into 2007, Cheney did his best to eliminate that part of the National Archives altogether.  Cheney's argument?  As Vice President serving both Executive and Legislative duties (as President of the Senate), he was exempt (the "Fourth Branch" of government argument).  Basically claiming he didn't have to answer to anybody.  Not even to the President.

What Cheney did as Vice President is one of the reasons I'm very keen on the idea of getting rid of the Vice President's office.

That Cheney was able to get away with this had a lot to do with the Passive-Positive nature of Bush the Lesser.  When other Pass-Pos types served, they rarely had an Active-Negative on Cheney's scale of ambition before.  You can discount the 19th Century Pass-Positives since during that century the VP role was disconnected from their administrations from the get-go.  Harding's Veep was a Passive-Negative (Coolidge).  Reagan's was an Active-Positive who may have wanted the authority but respected the political system to ever over-reach like that (Bush the Elder, who later on publicly questioned his old friend Cheney's arrogant behavior).  Other Active-Negatives serving as Vice President (Johnson and Nixon) served under constraining Presidents: for Nixon it was under a Passive-Negative Eisenhower whose dislike of politics would have limited the White House's powers; for Johnson it was under an Active-Positive like Kennedy who had confidence in his own administrative powers and preferred the advice of others that Johnson loathed (little brother Bobby Kennedy, for example).

Cheney's Active-Negative traits flourished because he knew in a way he'd have all the powers of the Presidency without any of the accountability (which would fall to his boss George W. Bush).

To this shadow Presidency a good amount of Bush the Lesser's woes can be laid.  While Bush himself remains complicit in a lot of the crimes committed under his administration - signing off on an unnecessary war and occupation of Iraq, signing off on a torture regime, signing off on a tax-cutting program that induced massive government deficits, allowing an alarming number of incompetent players within the Republican ranks to gain too much authority and influence that taints the party to this day - Cheney had his hands all over a lot of those programs and disasters to begin with.

The dark heart at the center of Bush the Lesser's failures is Cheney.

Next up: Gonna steal this from Sullivan:  Meep.  Meep.

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