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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Why Bush doesn't like homework

For George W., never much of a student, leadership means hearing the options and deciding. Does it matter whether he can name the leader of Pakistan?

By James Carney

TIME magazine

November 8, 1999
Web posted at: 1:21 p.m. EST (1821 GMT)

George w. Bush knows the question is coming. He is sitting in the back of a silver Ford Windstar minivan, his compact frame unfurled across the bench seat, his left arm slung across the backrest. He appears completely relaxed, but when the question arrives--the one about whether he has the intellectual wherewithal to be President and whether it bothers him that this issue keeps being raised in the campaign--his body tenses. He turns his face forward, his eyes narrow, and he gazes out the windshield at the long road ahead. "You know," Bush says, his voice tinny but measured, "I don't really mind people picking on me. I know what I can do. I've never held myself out to be any great genius, but I'm plenty smart. And I've got good common sense and good instincts. And that's what people want in their leader."

Bush may be right about the American people. In 1992 voters threw his father out of office in favor of a Democrat with a potent intellect and an encyclopedic command of everything from gatt to the gap in wages. But Americans learned that Bill Clinton has far less command over his character, and that may have left them with a yearning for a less complicated President. In Texas, Bush is known as a skilled manager and a confident, crisp decision maker. He has pursued, for the most part, simple, understandable policy goals and has stuck to his agenda with remarkable discipline. But on the national stage these past eight months, a competing image of Bush has appeared--that of a cautious, staff-dependent candidate, likable but lacking gravitas, who sounds out of his depth on some of the most serious policy issues a President must consider. Last week reporters pounced on the fact that he failed an interviewer's pop quiz by not knowing the leaders of three out of four world hot spots--Chechnya, India and Pakistan.* (He got right the leader of Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui.) But more troubling was the fact that when exposed to questions from real voters about, say, the impact of the Internet on rural America, Bush gets lost in verbiage, as if struggling to put meaning behind words.

And yet the truth about the Texas Governor's brain is that he is much smarter, at least in terms of raw, innate aptitude, than he lets on. When his purloined college transcript from Yale was published in the New Yorker last week, the news only confirmed what we'd already expected and what Bush had once suggested--that he had been a mediocre, C-average student. The surprise was that Bush's sat scores, while not topping the charts, were better than his grades. (Out of a possible top score of 800, Bush got 566 on the verbal part of the test, 640 on the math.) It turns out Bush was an underachiever. He didn't do well in class not because he couldn't, but because he couldn't be bothered. The fear that continues to fester about Bush--as we read about his periodic foreign-policy gaffes and then hear him blithely assert that what he doesn't know he can learn from his advisers--is that at 53 he has the same cavalier attitude toward knowledge that he had at 21: he could learn what he needs to know, but he doesn't seem to think it's worth his time.

Bush speaks convincingly about how important it is for a leader to assemble a trustworthy cadre of advisers. And he argues that there is no percentage, as Governor or as President, in trying to master every subject or micromanage every decision. But as Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin, says, "Bush is trying to turn his weakness into a virtue. He's not a policy wonk, so he has to rely on people who are." And there is a risk to that approach, adds Buchanan, who is an admirer: "Bush's biggest weakness is that he might not be in a position to discern the credibility of the options his advisers lay out for him."

Bush's grasp of the details and nuance of some domestic-policy issues--especially education--draws praise from experts around the country. He can also talk substantively and passionately about trade and immigration, two areas of "foreign policy" he encountered as Governor of a state that shares a 900-mile border with Mexico. Bush proved as much in Sioux City, Iowa, where he took a vague question from the crowd to deliver a message of compassion toward illegal immigrants. "I want to remind you of something about immigration," Bush told his nearly all-white audience. "Family values do not stop at the Rio Grande River. There are moms and dads [who] have children in Mexico. And they're hungry ... And they're going to come to try to find work. If they pay $5 in one place and $50 in another place, and they've got mouths to feed, they're going to come. It's a powerful instinct. It's called being a mom and being a dad." He then segued from immigration to an ardent defense of free trade, arguing that only increased trade would improve the lives of Mexicans enough to keep them in Mexico. It was an argument aimed directly at the protectionist wing of Bush's party, and it was not one that had been fed to him by advisers. His discourse wasn't weighed down with policy detail, but it was an example of what Bush can be at his best--genuine, articulate and knowledgeable.

But on too many issues, especially those dealing with the wider world of global affairs, Bush often sounds as if he's reading from cue cards. When he ventures into international issues, his unfamiliarity is palpable and not even his unshakable self-confidence keeps him from avoiding mistakes. On a trip to New Hampshire in September, Bush was cruising the streets and storefronts of downtown Milford when he encountered a woman who asked what he would do to "promote peace in the Middle East." Bush didn't hesitate. "I want to stand by Israel," he declared. "We're not gonna allow Israel to be pushed into the Red Sea." And then he said, "There's something called the Arrow missile system, which is an inter-ballistic, a short-range inter-ballistic missile system that intercepts missiles coming from [elsewhere]."

Set aside that Bush replied to a question about the Middle East peace process by talking up missile-defense systems at a time when Israelis and Palestinians are engaged in sensitive negotiations. And never mind the fact that he probably meant the Mediterranean Sea, along which Israel has a lengthy border, and not the Red Sea, on which it has but one port. There was something else jarring about what Bush said. There is no such thing as an "inter"-ballistic missile. These mistakes may seem minor, but taken together they suggest that Bush is still under water when grappling with foreign- and defense-policy basics.

A large part of Bush's attitude about knowledge comes from a combative anti-intellectualism he developed as a Texas-bred Bush attending Ivy League schools back East. Ever since George W. left Houston to follow in his father's footsteps at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., he has viewed with deep suspicion and disdain the world of elite Northeastern academia and the people who populate it. Bush was one of the most popular students in his class at Yale. He mixed easily with the rich and the well bred, but, according to classmates, he developed an intense dislike for the class of Yalie he deemed "intellectual snobs." To Bush, the epitome of the type was Strobe Talbott, the current Deputy Secretary of State. Talbott (a distant relative of Bush) was one of the class of 1968's most ambitious brains--editor of the Daily News, Rhodes scholar roommate at Oxford to Bill Clinton, and before joining the Clinton Administration, career journalist for Time magazine, specializing in defense and foreign policies. "Strobe was the kind of person George could not stand," says Robert Birge, who was a member with Bush in Skull & Bones, a Yale secret society. "He was appalled by people like Strobe. I don't know why, but it was a real issue with him."

Bush won't talk about Talbott specifically, but he will say "there is a certain East Coast attitude," an "intellectual arrogance" that he "didn't find very appealing" at Yale or, later, Harvard Business School. He suggests that the intellectual elite at Yale dismissed him as inferior, that there was, in his words, a "'You're from Texas, therefore' attitude" he resented. "And I still believe," he says, "that just because somebody's got an Ivy League title by their name doesn't make them smarter than anybody else."

That hardly puts Bush, who holds two Ivy degrees, at odds with mainstream America. But it may explain why he doesn't feel compelled to absorb all the information in the briefing books assembled for him by his own stable of heavily credentialed experts. Besides, in Austin, at the statehouse and in campaign headquarters on Congress Avenue, his distaste for the highbrow is considered a virtue. In meetings with his speechwriter and press staff, Bush reviews the words that will go out under his name with a keen eye for the pompous and overwrought. When he spots a sentence that wouldn't make sense to the average layman, Bush peers over his half glasses and reads it back to his staff in a haughty, mock-intellectual voice. "He's always asking,'How can we say it more directly?'"says a top aide.

His leadership style is similarly direct. Although he insists "the details are important," Bush freely admits that he prefers one-page memos to bound treatises, oral briefings to long meetings. When he is briefed, he doesn't just sit back and listen. He engages his advisers, testing their logic and pressing them to get to the heart of the matter. From the minute someone starts talking about an issue, Bush is itching for a recommendation. As Albert Hawkins, his state budget director, says, "If you're going on too long, he tells you so." Says Bush: "I like to hear someone enunciate a position, pro or con. Because if someone cannot explain a position, that generally means they don't understand the issue well enough to be part of the decision-making process."

Bush won office in 1994 against a popular incumbent largely because he was disciplined. Month after month during the campaign, he kept repeating his four-point agenda. Once in office, he took the same approach and applied it to governing. In each legislative session, he set a few policy goals, outlined the principles by which he would judge success and gave other people the power to work out the details. "We can make decisions based on his principles, which are very clear," says Vance MacMahon, Bush's state policy director. "We don't have to run every decision up the flagpole."

For all his ambivalence about his Ivy League experience, Bush picked up his successful management skills at Harvard Business School. That's where, according to classmate Peter Gebhard, the future politician showed strength in classes dealing with "human behavior in organizations." Early in his time there, Professor Harry L. Hansen warned Bush and his fellow students that they would be inundated with more work than they could handle. Hansen had a higher purpose than assigning punishing amounts of work: the real goal, he explained, was to force students to learn how to separate what was important from what wasn't and then focus on it.

Bush's ability to focus at the right time has yielded such results as tort reform in Texas. The bill had been languishing in the legislature in 1995. When state senator David Sibley, the G.O.P. author of the legislation, went to see Bush to tell him it was dead, Bush invited him to dinner at the Governor's mansion. Until then, the Governor had kept his distance from legislative machinations. That night he weighed in. With Sibley by his side, Bush got on the phone with the Democratic Lieutenant Governor, Bob Bullock, and in a matter of minutes hammered out a compromise that saved the bill. Even though the deal angered some of Bush's allies in the business community, he stuck by it. "He's like the guy at the pool party who sort of walks up to the diving board and does a double twist with a flip," Sibley says now. "He made it look easy."

Is there such a thing as a wrenching dilemma for Bush? When asked to name the toughest decisions he's made, he hesitates, as if he can't think of any. "Well, the toughest decision was to run," he says at first. He pauses again and then recalls two death-penalty decisions, including his well-publicized refusal to grant a stay of execution to Karla Faye Tucker, that are featured in his book A Charge to Keep, which will be published next week. The next tough call that comes to mind: "The decision to fire Bobby Valentine" as manager of the Texas Rangers when Bush was co-owner.

Bush supporters like to argue that in his governing style, and his lack of interest in some policy details, the Governor resembles Ronald Reagan. It's a comparison every G.O.P. candidate wants for himself. But if Bush, with his different strengths and weaknesses, resembles any past President, it is probably his father, only in mirror image. The elder Bush, unlike his son,was a foreign-policy expert. A former CIA director, U.N. representative and ambassador to China, he is probably on a first-name basis with more world leaders than George W. can name. But the former President's blind spot was domestic affairs. He wasn't much interested in social issues or education. When it came to domestic policy, President Bush deferred to his expert advisers, much as George W. does now on questions of foreign affairs. That arm's-length behavior cost the father a second term. A similar problem could cost the son a first.


Cover Date: November 15, 1999

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