the mind of George W. Bush

The cover story of the April Atlantic Monthly is entitled “The Mind of George W. Bush.” Interesting article, written by Richard Brookhiser, a fellow conservative and a historian. Not a softball piece. The bottom line: Bush is smart, a capable manager, using his Harvard MBA, running an organization. The question posed but unanswered: does he have the imagination to lead the nation during wartime? Can he fully imagine the consequences of his decisions, or find new ways to think about familiar relationships, for example with Saudi Arabia?

More interesting was the interview of Brookhiser on the Atlantic website. This was quite a telling exchange:

Sage Stossel, Atlantic Monthly: You do suggest, though, that patience is somewhat new for him. In fact it struck me that parts of your assessment of the way Bush functions come across a bit like the evaluation of an elementary school child who’s slowly working his way through Piaget’s developmental stages. You write, for example, that:

Bush knows that following through can require patience. This is new for him: when he was with the Rangers, and in his father’s White House, he was just learning patience. Though he may still see the fundamental issues in black and white, he can now wait to achieve his goals.

From your description, it sounds as though he’s at the Concrete Operations stage at which, according to the Cognitive Science Dictionary, children “can understand concrete problems,” but “cannot yet perform on abstract problems, and … do not consider all of the logically possible outcomes.” I’m mostly being facetious, but do you think there’s anything to that?

Brookhiser: People like you and me tend to assume that someone like him must be a dunce. Right? He hasn’t heard of Piaget, so how smart can he be? But there are people in the world who haven’t read Piaget and they’re smart anyway. That does happen. Obviously Piaget wasn’t around in the Washington Administration, but whoever his equivalent was, I’m pretty sure Washington hadn’t read him. But Washington does seem to have read Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding. Madison gave him a copy of it, and there are some references in Washington’s speeches, which suggest that he at least looked at it. Did Washington get all the way through it? I don’t know. But I suspect that even after he looked at it, he was not as conversant with Locke’s epistemology as Madison would have been. Does that mean he wasn’t as smart as Madison? Certainly he wasn’t. But in some ways, he was every bit as smart as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and all the college-educated bright boys that he drew around himself.

Notice the evasive response. Bush has never heard of Piaget, but he’s still smart. Stossel is not interrogating Bush’s intimacy with cognitive science. The question is how do Piaget’s ideas about cognitive development apply to “The Mind of George W. Bush?”

I think Stossel is onto something here: as you read the article, you do get that sense of a man with an intelligent mind who knows how to ask good practical questions, but doesn’t know when to question his most basic assumptions. And notice the concreteness in morality: Good and Evil, and no serious inquiry about how anyone could draw the line any other way. No understanding of how–conservatively–half a billion people could consider bin Laden a hero. Not a glimmer of dialectic thought.

But this is the core of political conservatism in America. This is not just the way our president thinks, this is precisely the pattern of thought that distinguishes conservatism itself. Right and Wrong, Good and Evil, Mine and Yours, pregiven and uninspected. Concrete operations applied to politics.

Interesting that Brookhiser is also a conservative. He’s not a stupid man, either: his analysis of Bush is nuanced and sharp. Whether or not he thinks concretely in politics, he demonstrates higher capacities in other areas.

I wonder if this question troubled him at all. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t answer it.

(For more political-developmental fun, check out Grave’s Spiral Dynamics, the blue meme. Should look familiar.)


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