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Bright College Days, Dark White House Years
January 16, 2003
By demosthenes

It is clear the personal style and deep-rooted sensibilities of both GWB and Bill Clinton were made, or at least made plain during their time in college. Because the White House mirrors its occupant and thus magnifies the personal into political, it projects upon our history their every strength and flaw.

Clinton's education, self-motivated and largely self-financed, was the all-nighters, cram sessions and bull sessions with all and sundry, fueled by pizza, by driving ambition, by love of debate and the clash of ideas and by the wholehearted and successful pursuit of advancement, of knowledge for its own sake' and of anything in a skirt. And yes, lies were told, "The dog ate my essay, I have to retype it", "Of course you're the only one" and that old favorite, "The check is in the mail."

Bush, on the other hand, never had to lie about money because he was never short of it. He was a Yale "legacy," there for his "gentleman's C" because it was expected of him. He regarded both learning and the learned with patrician disdain. Instead his focus was social, and elitist - Skull and Bones and the sons of his father's rich friends. If he furnished his mind at all in his time at Yale, it was with the "received wisdom" of the rich, and certainly not the bothersome and complicated "book learning" that he has never even pretended to value.

The effect on their respective administrations is clear.

The elitism and cronyism which shaped GWB's life and 'education' are on display with every tone-deaf appointment of his father's old apparatchiks, men like Kissenger or Poindexter.

And even after an election with much discussion about character, once in the White House, it's all about process. How are decisions reached? Who has input? Are policies subject to change when circumstances change? Does the man seek out advice from experts, even when they might not agree with him? If so, does he actually listen to what they have to say?

These, like the way disagreements are resolved within a family, tend to reflect the personality traits of the "man of the house" and there are real differences between the Clinton and GWB "households."

Clinton's is a big, noisy kitchen table where people argue things out to exhaustion with Clinton playing the genial ringmaster, listening, asking questions, arguing, convincing or being convinced in turn. Bush is much more the autocrat. There's not a lot of room for dispute at his table, and not a lot of room for doubt in his worldview.

But more than this, his distaste for book learning and expertise has created a "White House sans white-papers." Decisions come from GWB's heart, where he "knows" such truths as that the rich pay far too much in taxes, from the K Street corporate lobbyists or straight from the right wing playbook via Karl Rove.

But proposing a policy change, whether from the heart or from K Street, is only the beginning of the process, right? Well, no. With Bush, there is no policy process.

John DiIulio's letter to Esquire conveyed his insight into the Bush White House. Remember, this is a friend of Bush's, the man he picked to head his Faith Based Initiative. DiIulio describes an administration where there is virtually no research, no discussion, review or consultation involved in the making of policy.

One of Bush's major foreign policy decisions was made by a speechwriter's rhetorical flourish. Hertzberg's article on how the phrase "Axis of Evil" was crafted after 9/11 to justify a war with Iraq and how it got, all-too-casually, populated with three very different nations for reasons that had nothing at all to do with that attack on our country. Nuclear weapons for N. Korea are what we got from that speech; what we wanted was a bullet for Saddam.

During his time in the White House, Bill Clinton lied and covered up in various petty ways, and chased the occasional skirt just as he did in college. But his administration's policies were determined in often-passionate dialogue between real, educated and experienced authorities in the relevant fields, with Clinton's considerable intellect driving the discussion, not only asking the tough questions, but actually listening to the answers.

This meant each of the Clinton-era policies was, at least potentially, firmly rooted in the best available data and vigorously vetted by any number of strong-willed individuals. It ensured that the implications and even many of the "unintended consequences" of each possibility had been at least discussed.

Even in those cases where political expedience overruled policy expertise, decisions were made in a fully developed informational context - when Bill Clinton chose to ignore the experts, he damn well knew what conclusions they'd reached, and he knew when and why he was doing something different.

And even more important, the process made it far less likely, by the sheer volume of people, words and arguments involved in reaching each decision, that Clinton would be set up to blithely overlook some critical complication, the way Bush tends to.

For example, what will dividend tax cuts do to the muni-bond market and thus to the states? Or, will putting N. Korea on the "Axis of Evil" (just so it's not all-Muslim) be taken as a declaration of war?

If Clinton had proposed to cut dividend taxes, we could be certain the implications for the states and the tax-free bond markets would have been hashed out ahead of time, no matter how many all-nighters it took.

The "family dynamic" in Clinton's White House is well described in this article on the Clinton Economic Team.

I am unqualified to judge whether GWB is a better man than Bill Clinton - Clinton's flaws as a man have been made obvious to all, to our cost. But, for all his personal defects, Clinton clearly ran a far better White House policy team.

The traits I described above, all part of Bush's much-praised "character," have effectively poisoned the wellsprings of policy and cut his White House off from the resources of expertise, desperately needed for the many absolutely critical decisions that Bush must make, as he attempts to lead our nation through these complex and perilous times.

Just like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush will never really outgrow his college days. He will continue to be what he is, what he has been all his life and what we clearly saw him to be, even as a candidate.

And so we, and the world, will continue to live with these consequences of his character.

May heaven help us all.

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