Friday, May 17, 2002

Orrin Judd suggests that Dubya's career can be better understood if we pay attention to the milieu from which he emerged. Well, you can't disagree with that. I'd just take a broader view than Judd. So, to try to put Bush's political career in some kind of larger perspective, here's a brief list of some of the signal events of his adult life:
  • Rather than serve in Vietnam, he finds a post in the Texas Air National Guard, somehow avoiding a very long waiting list. (He may have avoided more than that; records of his service have large gaps, there are no known witnesses to his attendance at required drills, and one man listed as his commanding officer can't ever recall seeing him).
  • Next, he tries to get into the University of Texas Law School, but can't make it in; the Dean notes in a letter that he's "sure there is a place for young George Bush somewhere," but that his test scores show he just doesn't have the smarts for Texas Law. So he winds up in his safety school --- Harvard Business.
  • After a dissolute, decade-long lost weekend, he finally starts out as a "businessman" in the oilpatch. As Judd notes, this was a depressed sector, and the best opportunities in the economy were probably elsewhere --- but it is where Dad had connections.
  • The businesses which he runs get into deep doodoo (as Dada might call it), but a buyer always materializes to bail Bush out, and the buyer is always quite kind to Dubya.
  • His next "business" venture is the Texas Rangers baseball team, where he is widely perceived as a figurehead for his partners, who put up almost all of the money.
  • And now, he enters politics, mentored every step of the way by donors with family ties, and placing extraordinary reliance in seasoned political operatives like Karen Hughes and Karl Rove, who line up for some reason behind a candidate with no political experience at all.

It seems a stretch to say this record shows any particular success at, or aptitude for, business. But there is a pattern. His positions are not earned; they are arranged. Wherever young Dubya wound up, whatever trouble he was in, there was always someone ready to make the deal, to do the favor, to pick up the check, to bail him out. None of his achievements are really his own.

The question is whether this helps explain anything about Bush the president. I think it does.

Consider foreign policy. It's clear, at this point, that his advisors are in two camps --- hawks, led by old Nixon hands Cheney and Rumsfeld, and doves, led by Powell. When they all agree on matters at hand, Bush can look good by sticking to the script. But when they disagree, and aren't giving him a consistent script to follow, he dithers, sometimes echoing one camp, sometimes the other, and sometimes just sounding pitifully confused. (Say, if you like, that he was humiliating himself in service of a grand master plan. I don't buy it).

But note how this tie is broken --- by the arrival of Dad's old friend from the oil bidness, the heir apparent to the Saudi throne, who promptly takes Young George in tow, and American foreign policy with it, surprised only to find that Young George "read only brief reports" about the Middle East, one of the most pressing problems in current American foreign policy, and was uninformed about the real conditions there. A lot of bloggers spend much more time keeping track of middle eastern affairs, and for us, it's just a hobby. It's Dubya's job.

(This via Little Green Footballs, which refers to the Saudi gentleman in question as the Clown Prince. But in view of his role in formulating American foreign policy, I think that's undignfied; it might be better to refer to him with his proper name and title: Assistant Secretary of State for Middle Eastern Affairs Abdullah bin Saud).

Or consider domestic policy, evidently the domain of Bush's political advisors, where no principle, including fiscal restraint, seems worth giving up cheap political points. Bush's welfare bill, for instance, demands 40 hours of work a week instead of 30, even though that is actually likely to cost government money to pay for child care, because "we put more welfare mothers to work" sounds good in a stump speech.

(You've gotta love these guys' vision of family values --- budgeting $300 million for ill-defined, feel-good "marriage classes" --- another campaign bullet point --- but making it far harder for single moms to take care of their own kids. This stuff collects votes, which is certainly an area where Bush, or rather his Svengalis, have demonstrated skill. But that doesn't necessarily lead to sound policy).

And we all know the story on tariffs (steel, wood, textiles, wherever there's a vote to be bought) and that farm bill.

The bottom line, as the Bull Moose has noted, is a presidency that serves its own stated agenda --- fiscal restraint, welfare reform, free trade, keeping government out of the market --- far less than Bill Clinton's did. And, fans of fiscal restraint, note that Clinton's point man on cost reductions, a guy with eight years experience in the nuts and bolts of restructuring government programs to improve efficiency and reduce waste, was running for President --- and instead, you voted for Bush. Congratulations.

Has Bush learned anything from business? Well, one thing does come to mind. Becoming aware that the United States had a bad reputation on the "Arab street", his administration hired an advertising executive, Charlotte Beers, who, as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, is requesting $247 million for the next fiscal year for her publicity efforts. (I wonder how that compares to what she billed Uncle Ben's?) Hiring an advertising executive is something businessmen do. I have to give him that.

(Update: Judd responds. Apparently, he thinks its conspiracy-mongering on the scale of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to suggest that Dubya, a member of a notoriously tight-knit political clan, might be serving Dad's interests and getting favors in return, or to observe that the advisors Poppy found for him seem to be leading him around by the nose, and he has no idea what he himself believes when they disagree.

So to put it in words of (well, mostly) one syllable: while I can't say for sure where all Dubya's opportunities came from, I certainly wouldn't guess at any dark conspiracies to explain his charmed life --- just Dear Old Dad, trying to do his well-connected best for a favorite, if somewhat dimwitted son. It would be charming, if so many other people weren't getting screwed...).


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