Good Enough and Smart Enough?
This New York Times article by Ron Suskind about Bush’s ‘faith-based’ certainty got a lot of attention and comment, I gather, but I was away from my desk at the time – away from my desk, from radio and newspapers, from telephones and people, tables and chairs, bread and butter – no, I exaggerate. I was still in civilization. But I was mostly too busy running around and looking at things to pay attention to things like the New York Times magazine or comments on same, so I missed the reaction. But it is a very interesting article. I would like to think it’s a little exaggerated, a little animus-driven – but I’m not sure I can manage it. It’s all much too plausible.
There are a lot of points worth commenting on, but I’ll just mention a couple for now.
Some officials, elected or otherwise, with whom I have spoken with left meetings in the Oval Office concerned that the president was struggling with the demands of the job. Others focused on Bush’s substantial interpersonal gifts as a compensation for his perceived lack of broader capabilities. Still others, like Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, a Democrat, are worried about something other than his native intelligence. ”He’s plenty smart enough to do the job,” Levin said. ”It’s his lack of curiosity about complex issues which troubles me.”
That’s not the first time I’ve heard those two observations made together. It’s not that Bush is not smart, goes the line, it’s that he’s not curious. But I think that’s an almost meaningless thing to say in this context. It’s like saying it’s not that Bush flies, it’s just that he moves through the air by flapping his wings. It’s not that Bush eats, it’s that he puts food in his mouth and chews it and swallows it. Look – if Bush is in that job and thinks he doesn’t need to be ‘curious’ about complex issues – then that’s not smart. To put it mildly. That’s all there is to it. It just is not smart to think that ignorance is okay for someone who chose to go for the job of being the most powerful single human on the planet. That observation is essentially the point of the whole article – that Bush doesn’t give a shit what the facts are or what the evidence is, because he has ‘faith’ in a supernatural being instead. He apparently shocks and scares a lot of people with the extent to which he simply does not care if the facts indicate he’s doing the wrong thing. He has instinct, he has intuition, he has faith, he prays, so who cares about facts. So – he’s not plenty smart enough to do the job, is he. Surely not. Surely that’s a pretty good description of someone who is in no sense smart enough to do the job. (Which of course is unfortunate, since he’s doing it.)
And then there’s the famous bit about ‘reality-based’ people and then the other kind.
I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency. 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.”
Well…who knows, maybe there’s no need to take that too seriously. Maybe the aide was just yanking Suskind’s chain, or flattering himself, or both those plus having a laugh. But then again…
And of course again it’s so stupid. If he does mean it, it’s so stupid. What can he think he means, ‘we create our own reality’? Of course they create some reality, that’s obvious enough. They change the tax code, they invade Iraq, they appoint Supreme Court justices and other judges. They make things happen. But since when does that equate to creating ‘reality’? Hey, guess what, aide, reality’s a big thing, there’s a lot of it out there, and a fair bit of it is actually created by people other than you and your team. However powerful you all are, and you are plenty powerful, nobody denies it, you aren’t in a position to create reality full stop. You are of course in a position to influence the way other people create some more pieces of reality – which is one big reason it would be advisable for you to do it with plenty of respect for things like facts and evidence and careful thought, as opposed to stupid shortcuts like prayer and ‘faith’ and ‘instinct’ and brainless certainty. Shortcuts to nowhere, those are – if not worse. As a Bush fan hinted to Suskind:
A regent I spoke to later and who asked not to be identified told me: ”I’m happy he’s certain of victory and that he’s ready to burst forth into his second term, but it all makes me a little nervous. There are a lot of big things that he’s planning to do domestically, and who knows what countries we might invade or what might happen in Iraq. But when it gets complex, he seems to turn to prayer or God rather than digging in and thinking things through. What’s that line? — the devil’s in the details. If you don’t go after that devil, he’ll come after you.”
Yeah, and the rest of us, too.