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The Bush Exit Ramp

By Sam Parry
January 22, 2003

George W. Bush’s followers hail his tough comments as proof of his straight-talking style and his “moral clarity.” But his often-insulting remarks about political and international adversaries also raise questions about whether the president’s loose tongue is becoming a national security danger to the American people.

Do Americans, for instance, face a greater risk of nuclear conflict because Bush indulged in a rant last year that included calling North Korea’s leader a “pygmy” – or of terrorism because Bush termed U.S. military action in the Middle East a “crusade,” with its Christian vs. Muslim overtones? Or does he exacerbate worldwide suspicion that Washington doesn’t care much about the global environment when he mocks environmentalists to his White House aides as “green-green lima beans”?

Part of the job of any leader is to avoid careless talk that can complicate the always-tricky business of diplomacy. Publicly at least, effective leaders take pains not to personalize issues. But Bush consistently does the opposite, suggesting either a political tin ear to how he sounds to people around the world or perhaps a personality disorder that he can't control.

Either way, Bush's inability to make America's case to the world may become a political issue as the American people approach the exit ramp of Election 2004.

Bush & Anti-Americanism

The evidence is now clear that Bush’s bellicose statements have contributed to a growing hostility toward the United States in all corners of the globe.

“Negative opinions of the U.S. have increased in most of the nations where trend benchmarks are available,” reported the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press in a recent study. Even worse is the deterioration of U.S. standing in areas near the front lines of the war on terror, such as Jordan, Turkey and Pakistan. [For details, go to]

Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria has written that anti-Americanism is emerging as the planet’s “default ideology,” which translates into deepening threats against Americans, both as individuals and as a people. But the anger may be less anti-American than anti-Bush. Respondents to international surveys often stress that they like Americans but oppose Bush administration policies.

Hostility toward Bush even is eroding U.S. standing among the staunchest of allies. In Great Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair is derided as a “poodle” for backing Bush’s Iraq policy, politicians across the ideological spectrum are feeling “anxiety and antagonism” toward the U.S. president, reports Andrew Rawnsley, chief political commentator for the London Observer.

In a Jan. 15 dispatch, Rawnsley quotes a former Conservative Cabinet minister as likening Bush to “a child running around with a grenade with the pin pulled out.” [For details, see “Why We Don't Trust Bush.”]

Solidifying Image

This image of Bush is now solidifying around the world and is creeping into the consciousness of the American public as marked by Bush's weakening poll numbers. But there have long been warning signs about Bush’s lack of discipline over the words coming out of his mouth.

Remember the scene in 1986 when Bush was miffed about a prediction made by Wall Street Journal political writer Al Hunt that Jack Kemp – not then-Vice President George H.W. Bush – would win the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. At a Dallas restaurant, the younger George Bush spotted Hunt having dinner with his wife, Judy Woodruff, and their four-year-old son.

Bush stormed up to the table and started cursing out Hunt. “You [expletive] son of a bitch,” Bush yelled. “I saw what you wrote. We’re not going to forget this.” [Washington Post, July 25, 1999]

While thin-skinned about criticism of himself or his family, Bush regularly pokes fun at others. While Texas governor, Bush lined up for a photo and fingered the man next to him. “He’s the ugly one!” Bush laughed. [NYT, Aug. 22, 1999]

In one of Campaign 2000’s most memorable moments, Bush uttered an aside to his running mate Dick Cheney about New York Times reporter Adam Clymer. “There's Adam Clymer -- major league asshole -- from the New York Times,” Bush said as he was waving to a campaign crowd from a stage in Naperville, Ill. “Yeah, big time,” responded Cheney. Their voices were picked up on an open microphone.

Or recall Bush making a joke about the condemned murderer Carla Faye Tucker pleading for her life to the Texas governor. “Please don’t kill me,” Bush whimpered through pursed lips in an imitation of the woman whom Bush had refused clemency.

In the second presidential debate, Bush continued to make light of people facing the death penalty in Texas. While arguing against hate-crimes laws, Bush said the three men convicted of the racially motivated murder of James Byrd were already facing the death penalty.

“It’s going to be hard to punish them any worse after they’re put to death,” Bush said, with an out-of-place smile across his face.  Beyond the inaccuracy of his statement -- one of the three killers had received life imprisonment -- there was that smirk again when discussing people on Death Row.

Presidential Humor

Bush’s pleasure with jokes at other people’s expense hasn’t changed much since he became president. For instance, at a press conference on Aug. 24, 2001, after stumbling through an answer about his stem-cell research policy, Bush turned to a reporter who had covered him as Texas governor. Bush called the Texas reporter “a fine lad, fine lad,” drawing laughter from the national press corps.

The Texas reporter began to ask his question, “You talked about the need to maintain technological …” But Bush interrupted the reporter to deliver the punch line. “A little short on hair, but a fine lad. Yeah,” Bush said, provoking a new round of laughter. The young reporter paused and acknowledged meekly, “I am losing some hair.”

While many of Bush’s backers find his biting humor refreshing – the sign of a “politically incorrect” politician – some critics contend that Bush’s clumsy use of words and off-handed insults fit with a dynastic sense of entitlement toward the presidency.

“Although the GOP machine has spun his elementary goofs as signs of kinship with the Common Man, they are in fact an insult to the people,” writes Mark Crispin Miller in The Bush Dyslexicon. “Every bit of broken English, every flash of comfy ignorance, reminds us of a privilege blithely squandered: Bush attended Phillips Andover Academy, then Yale – olympian institutions that would never have admitted him if he were not a Bush.”

Miller continues,  “Thus, in the matter of his education, this president, despite his folksy pretense, is something of an anti-Lincoln – one who, instead of learning eagerly in humble circumstances, learned almost nothing at the finest institutions in the land. When he comments on how many hands he’s ‘shaked,’ or frets that quotas ‘vulcanize’ society, … he is, of course, flaunting not his costly education but his disdain for it – much as some feckless prince, with a crowd of beggars watching from the street, might take a few bites from the feast laid out before him, then let the servants throw the rest away.”

‘Glib, Dogmatic’

Indeed, Bush’s short temper and imperious treatment of those under his power have become hallmarks of his governing style during his two years in the White House, according to recent accounts of insiders and others who have dealt with him.

In the new book, The Right Man, former Bush speechwriter David Frum paints a generally flattering portrait of Bush and his leadership skills, while acknowledging Bush’s autocratic behavior. Bush is “impatient and quick to anger; sometimes glib, even dogmatic; often uncurious and as a result ill informed; more conventional in his thinking than a leader probably should be.”

Bush describes environmentalists as “green-green lima beans” and has built a White House staff with a “dearth of really high-powered brains,” Frum writes.

“One seldom heard an unexpected thought in the Bush White House or met someone who possessed unusual knowledge,” Frum writes, adding that by comparison the TV show, “The West Wing,” with its dialogue imbued with sophisticated political thinking “might as well have been set aboard a Klingon starship for all that it resembled life inside the Bush White House.”

Frum, who drafted the phrase “axis of evil” for Bush’s State of the Union speech in January 2002, resigned from the White House after a flap over an e-mail that his wife sent to friends boasting of Frum’s authorship of the phrase. Since then, Frum has defended his former boss when Bush’s motives for starting a war with Iraq have been questioned in other countries.

Last October, Frum dismissed rumblings in the British press that Bush was engaged in a family vendetta against Saddam Hussein. Bush had brought on this suspicion himself in September by calling Saddam a liar and adding, “After all, this is the guy who tried to kill my dad,” a reference to an alleged assassination plot against former President Bush in Kuwait in 1993.

The word “vendetta” soon became common in the British press as one of the reasons for Bush’s obsession with Saddam and Iraq. Frum tried to refute the claim in an article he wrote in London’s Daily Telegraph. “I'll concede that, like the others, this myth also contains its particle of truth,” Frum wrote. But “the idea that an outburst of family pique and pride can move the gigantic and sluggish American democracy to the edge of war is simply - why be polite? - nuts.” [Daily Telegraph, Oct. 23, 2002]

Unneeded Hazards

Still, a president who consistently shows a lack of discipline in his choice of words creates unneeded hazards for the country.

Rhetorical sloppiness can have real consequences, including an erosion of international support if war with Iraq or North Korea proves necessary. That, in turn, can mean more danger to U.S. soldiers in the field, a higher cost borne by U.S. taxpayers and a greater likelihood that anti-Americanism will lead to more terrorism.

There is an obvious reason why the rest of the world takes the words of a president seriously, even if many Americans make light of Bush’s so-called gaffes. More than any other single person, the U.S. president has the power to wage war anywhere in the world. What presidents say and how they say it can dampen tensions – or enflame them.

Take the current crisis with North Korea. Early in his administration, Bush signaled that he wanted a harder approach toward North Korea than President Clinton’s. But Bush and his foreign-policy team caused confusion and anger from the start.

On March 6, 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated that Bush would use Clinton’s North Korea policy as a jumping-off point. “We do plan to engage with North Korea to pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off,” Powell said. “Some promising elements were left on the table, and we’ll be examining those elements.”

The next day, however, Bush met with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and had a different policy in mind. After the meeting, Bush embarrassed Kim, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who had promoted a “sunshine” policy toward North Korea’s communist government. Bush declared that the U.S. would not be resuming talks with North Korea.

“We’re not certain as to whether or not they’re keeping all terms of all agreements,” Bush said, also expressing “some skepticism about the leader of North Korea.”

The following week, on March 13, North Korea abruptly postponed meetings with South Korea that had been planned for a few days later. Rather than following Powell’s strategy of seeking improvements in Clinton’s negotiated restrictions on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Bush’s decision heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula. Ever since, the U.S.-North Korean situation has deteriorated.

‘Axis of Evil’

Less than a year later, in his State of the Union address, Bush included North Korea in the “axis of evil,” a point that raised eyebrows among some foreign policy experts who wondered what North Korea had to do with al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 terror attacks or, for that matter, with Iran and Iraq, the other members of the “axis.”

Apparently, the decision to include North Korea was made without consulting the State Department and Powell, who was told about it only shortly before the speech. On CNBC’s Hardball (now on MSNBC), Newsweek’s Howard Fineman reported a few days after Bush’s speech that the decision to include North Korea came at the last minute more as a way to balance the “axis” than as well thought-out policy.

Bush didn’t want to single out Iraq for fear that the world would expect “daisy cutters” to start falling right away, Fineman said. Bush first added Iran, but was then concerned that the “axis” would be perceived as simply an anti-Islamic construct. So, Fineman said, North Korea was included because it was not a Muslim country. [Hardball, Feb. 11, 2002]

North Korea didn’t treat Bush’s memorable line as just a rhetorical flourish, however. The Foreign Ministry called Bush’s warning “little short of declaring a war.”

The “axis of evil” speech also came about the same time as reports that Bush had put North Korea on a list of countries that would be possible targets of a U.S. nuclear attack. This decision, which was made in Bush’s “nuclear posture review” sent to Congress in late 2001, reversed Clinton’s policy against targeting non-nuclear states with nuclear weapons.

Then, at a meeting with Republican senators last spring, Bush launched into a disjointed, lectern-pounding tirade on issues ranging from the Sept. 11 attacks to the Crusader weapons program. Bush ended with a denunciation of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

 “He’s starving his own people,” Bush said about Kim Jong Il. Bush compared Kim to “a spoiled child at a dinner table” and called him a “pygmy.” The senators were “stunned,” with one of them telling Newsweek magazine that “it was like in church, when the sermon goes on too long and you’re not sure what the point is. Nobody dared look at anybody else.” [Newsweek, May 27, 2002]


In interviews with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward taped a few months later in August 2002, Bush grew agitated again in talking about Kim Jong Il. In Bush at War, Woodward reported that Bush began shouting and wagging his fingers as he vented, “I loathe Kim Jong Il — I've got a visceral reaction to this guy.”

Bush also talked about his policy toward North Korea as part of a plan to reorder the world, if necessary through preemptive and unilateral military action.

It remains unclear why Bush has such a “visceral reaction” – defined as “intensely emotional” – to Kim Jong Il, as opposed to scores of other unsavory leaders around the world who oppress and abuse their own people. Perhaps Bush is projecting frustration and impatience with a situation he can't control.

Whatever Bush’s reasons, most world leaders are careful about using personal and racially charged insults against other leaders because such comments can complicate or even poison government-to-government relations.

Beyond Question

In the interviews with Woodward, Bush also described how he viewed his judgments as beyond questioning. Bush said, “I am the commander, see. I do not need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they need to say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”

Bush also described himself to Woodward as “fiery,” “impatient,” “instinctive,” and “a gut player.”

That “fiery” and “impatient” Bush was on display again at a New Year’s Eve question-and-answer session with reporters while Bush vacationed at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.  The situation on the Korean peninsula was escalating into a full-blown crisis as Kim Jong Il’s government renounced its 1994 nuclear arms agreement with the Clinton administration. In the Middle East, Bush’s showdown with Iraq was progressing toward what looked like inevitable war.

A reporter asked Bush a simple question: “Mr. President, looking ahead here, with a possible war with Iraq looming, North Korea nuclear conflict [sic] as well as Osama bin Laden still at large, is the world safer as we look ahead to 2003?”

The vagueness of the question made it one of those softballs that skilled politicians hit out of the park. It was an easy opportunity for Bush to reassure the American people and the world that everything will turn out just fine and that he had everything under control.

“Yes, it’s a lot safer today than it was a year ago, and it’s going to be safer after this year than it was this year because,” Bush said, “the United States of America will continue to lead a vast coalition of freedom loving countries to disrupt terrorist activities, to hold dictators accountable, particularly those who ignore international norm and international rule.”

But as he continued to emphasize his commitment to peace, Bush suddenly veered off into challenging the reporter. “You said we’re headed to war in Iraq -- I don’t know why you say that. I hope we’re not headed to war in Iraq. I’m the person who gets to decide, not you,” Bush said.

`C'est Moi'

The jarring comment had a whiff of megalomania to it, an echo of past royalty when monarchs declared, “l’etat, c’est moi,” as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted. [NYT, Jan. 3, 2003]

But other parts of the remark raised potentially more substantive questions. Bush’s declaration of holding dictators “accountable, particularly those who ignore international norm,” suggests an even broader scope of potential military interventions than had been understood from his West Point speech in June declaring his intention of using preemptive attacks to stop rogue states from obtaining weapons of mass destruction.

The sweep of Bush’s news conference language – which could apply to dozens of world leaders including U.S. allies – recalled his open-ended post-Sept. 11 pledge to “rid the world of evil.”

Reporters covering Bush are inclined to treat these remarks as insignificant, simply examples of Bush’s fondness for imprecise and melodramatic rhetoric. But these comments can have real consequences in the capitals of other countries.

It’s one thing for a president to challenge U.S. adversaries by speaking about American ideals of freedom and democracy, such as President Reagan’s famous call in Berlin to then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. In addressing Gorbachev rhetorically, with a deft diplomatic politeness, Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

It is altogether different to announce, off-the-cuff, a plan “to lead a vast coalition” that will “hold dictators accountable.” The language conveys a threat of war, especially when added to a long list of other comments threatening preemptive strikes. Countries on Bush’s enemies list can be expected to react accordingly. In the cases of North Korea and Iran, that likely means a speed-up in plans to build nuclear bombs while the U.S. is distracted by Iraq.

Beyond policy concerns, Bush's comments raise questions about whether Bush may suffer from what psychiatrists call a narcissistic personality disorder. This disorder has the following characteristics: arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes; sense of entitlement; preoccupation with grandiose fantasies; need for excessive admiration; a grandiose sense of self-importance; inability to recognize or identify with feelings of others; exploitation of others; and envy. [This definition comes from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - Fourth Edition.]

Whether Bush suffers from a personality disorder or not, his behavior does convey a sense that even issues of war and peace are really all about him. Commenting on the use of inspections to restrain Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Bush displayed his personal impatience. "This looks like a rerun of a bad movie and I'm not interested in watching it," Bush said at the White House on Jan. 21.

Exit Ramp

How much of the North Korean crisis is attributable to Bush’s statements may never be known. Nor is it clear how much of the swelling anti-Americanism around the Iraq crisis comes from the world’s “visceral” reaction to Bush. But what is increasingly clear is that Bush’s loose tongue is adding to the many dangers now confronting the American people.

This reality seems to be dawning on a growing number of Americans. The CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll of mid-January found Bush's overall approval rating slipping to 58 percent, down from a high of 90 percent after the Sept. 11 attacks. But more strikingly, the poll showed only 36 percent of voters in favor of a Bush second term, with 32 percent set to vote against him and 31 percent undecided, remarkably low re-elect numbers for an incumbent.

For now, however, the American public is like a passenger riding in a speeding car with a dangerous driver. As he weaves through traffic shouting and gesturing at other drivers on the highway, there’s not much to do but tighten the seat belt and urge more responsible behavior. There may be no reasonable chance to wrestle the steering wheel away without making a bad situation worse.

But the next time an exit ramp comes along – in, say, 2004 – a growing number of Americans appear to be thinking about easing the driver off the highway and into a rest area, where they can leave him behind and drive off with a more responsible president behind the wheel.

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