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The trouble with incurious George

Published September 28, 2003

With only 13 months to go until the next presidential election, Americans who voted for George W. Bush the first time around need to start facing the cold, hard truth about their man.

And what is that truth? First, the newest poll numbers.

An AOL poll asked: "Who should lead the rebuilding of Iraq, the United States, the United Nations, (or) the Iraqis?" The results should be sobering for the president and his supporters. Of the nearly 2-million respondents, 29 percent said the United States; 37 percent, the U.N.; 33 percent, the Iraqis.

According to a Pew Research Center for the People & and the Press poll, 49 percent of Americans want the president to focus more on the slumping economy and disappearing jobs and less on Iraq. Other polls that asked the same question report similar results.

As to the president's approval rating, Republicans and others who voted for Bush should be worried. Again, half of Americans approve of Bush's performance, the smallest percentage of his tenure, according to an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll and a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll.

On the one hand, Bush's falling star is remarkable given the high numbers the president enjoyed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and during the first weeks following the quick military campaign in Iraq.

On the other hand - which is the main point of this column - no one should be surprised at Bush's eroding standing.

The Man from Texas is not up to the job. I wrote as much before he was "elected," and I reiterate it now. This issue is more important now than ever because the nation faces problems like never before. Spinning the evidence will hurt the nation.

During the first eight months of Bush's first term, handlers struggled to find a way to make the president look presidential and up to the challenge of governing the world's only superpower. The nation saw Bush whiling away the month of August at his Texas ranch, his staff trying to lend significance to the mundane.

Then, the World Trade Center came down and the Pentagon was hit. Bush was suddenly anointed with relevance and meaning. His presidency was transformed by catastrophe and chance.

Going to war against the Taliban was an easy call, as was deposing the Iraqi dictator. Anyone can win with the United States military at his command. Only now is Bush's real leadership ability being tested. The U.S. military per se - no matter who the commander in chief - is very good at destroying other armies. That is its function.

But after the bombs have stopped falling, then what?

Bush is now in the "then what?" stage of his presidency. And, with regard to the war in Iraq, the picture is ugly. How to put Iraq back together? How to govern without bombs? How to communicate with and serve the vanquished?

George W. Bush's biggest problem is that he never knew much about the world around him, and he still does not know much. All of his life, he has been known as a person who does not read, who does not travel unless forced to do so.

Note part of a recent New York Times editorial describing Bush's manner of informing himself:

"As for newspapers, Mr. Bush said, "I glance at the headlines' but "rarely read the stories.' The people who brief him on current events encounter many of the newsmakers personally, he said, and in any case "probably read the news themselves.' . . . During the Iraq invasion, when the rest of the nation was glued to TV, Mr. Bush's spokesman claimed that his boss had barely glanced at the pictures of what was going on . . . it is worrisome when one of the most incurious men ever to occupy the White House takes pains to insist that he gets his information on what the world is saying only in predigested bits from his appointees."

Anyone who listens seriously to the president speak surely has to wonder what on earth is going on. Will he ever utter something close to a spontaneous insight: a piece of wisdom that gives a little order to life, that moves us to see matters in a new way?

Many of us expect and want our president to be smarter than the rest of us. We want a president who reads voraciously, who may write a book without a ghostwriter, who loves to travel, who can synthesize disparate schools of thought and chunks of information to form a sensible view of reality. We have had such presidents, even during my lifetime.

November 2004 is fast approaching, and we need to start taking full measure of the man in the White House. We need to face the cold, hard truth about our president and ask ourselves if he is the man we want to lead the nation for another four years. For now, at least, the poll numbers are trying to tell us something.

[Last modified September 28, 2003, 01:49:44]

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