1. The Culture of Motivation
I arrived at certain theories about George W. Bush by a strange route, which was thinking about the class of writers who take rejection worst. I don’t mean the ones who’re hurt worst; I couldn ‘t possibly judge that. I’m talking about the ones who react with aggressive denial. And it seemed to me that the ones I most often saw doing that were middle-aged white guys with a management background.
As a class, their writing was on average no better nor worse than other comparable group of authors, and many of them were as modest and persevering as any writer you could meet. Still, when when I looked at the writers who reacted to their first few rejections with a sense of massively affronted entitlement, followed by the swift conviction that a publishing industry that gave them that reaction must be broken, it was remarkable how many of them belonged to that class.
You could spin out a lot of thumb-sucking theory about this, but my belief is I was seeing the habits of mind and character inculcated by a certain strain of American corporate culture. To put it succinctly, imagine that Dilbert ‘s pointy-haired boss has decided he ‘s going to be a bestselling writer, only he keeps getting rejected.
After a while it occurs to the PHB that nobody wants his masterwork in its current form. Note: the book may well be in near-publishable form, but his habitual strategies won’t lead him to figure that out and work on becoming a better author. Instead, he announces that the publishing industry as we’ve known it is dead, or hopelessly broken, or in such bad shape that it can no longer publish promising new writers; but lo! E-publishing, or POD publishing, or whatever model he’s lighted upon, is obviously the cutting edge of the future. And by the way, O lucky readers, here’s his own book, now available in that format.
I’ve lost count of all the e-publishing and pod-publishing sites these guys have started. Sometimes their book is the only one listed there. Sometimes they ‘ve persuaded other marginal writers to throw in their fortunes with them. It’s a complicated world.
Anyway, after years of birdwatching these guys, and their distinctive response to frustration, I think I’ve gotten a sense of their mindset. It’s not well adapted to writing and publishing, which depend so much on audience response. Perhaps it’s more useful if you’re a pointy-haired boss. Or perhaps causality runs the other way, and it’s simply what PHBs are pleased to believe is useful.
They appear to believe that whatever success they’ve had in life is solely due to their own shrewdness and hard work. It ‘s likewise an article of faith that they have an absolute right to succeed, if only they believe in their own success hard enough and are steadfast in its pursuit; and furthermore, that nonbelievers’ input not only doesn’t matter, but ought to be resolutely ignored.
Facts and mechanisms are not the issue. Their relationship with success is mystical and emotional. Thus, the person who quibbles with the details of their plan is their enemy rather than their ally. Such impediments will of course be overcome if the employee correctly understands and implements the magic PHB force of will. After all, that’s what force of will is there for. In the meantime, by expressing reservations the employee has potentially weakened the all-important PHB confidence. That’s not being a good employee.
(Do I need to point out that there’s a world of difference between absolute faith in the success of work you do yourself, and absolute faith in your own success when your job consists of telling other people what to do?)
PHBs also have a fervent belief in team effort, by which they mean team effort on the part of the people under them. Team players are demonstrating their own belief in the eventual success of the enterprise, which confirms the boss ‘s faith in himself and thus makes him stronger.
Of course, if this were the way things actually work, the Soviet Union would have been the greatest and most successful state in the history of the world. (Which reminds me: You know how topical jokes are generally formed by adapting earlier groups of cognate jokes? I’ve been looking into the current batch of GWB jokes, and find that many of the jokes from which they’re drawn were originally about Stalin. But I digress.)
I’ve long wondered whether PHBs have any sense that the real importance of team effort is that it’s the only way their plans get carried out. This is illustrated by that basic sitcom plot where Chuck walks in dressed as a giant slice of pie. (laughtrack) His assistant Leslie expresses surprise and disbelief. (laughtrack) Chuck groans, and explains that this is part of his boss ‘s latest brainstorm, and that he ‘s been assigned to implement it. (laughtrack) The rest of the episode will consist of Chuck and Leslie, helped by a couple of other employees in that department plus their crony Lee down in Systems, trying to make the boss’s insanely stupid idea work so that Chuck can keep his job.
Nine times out of ten, when an employer says during a job interview that he doesn ‘t care how the work gets done as long as it gets done, he means he isn’t going to want to hear that what he’s asked for is impossible. It may be that this is the true secret advantage of the PHB mindset: they aren’t hampered by questions of feasibility. They don’t have to know whether something they want is even possible, much less how much it’ll cost those under them. They just exercise their magic force of will, and if there’s any way the thing can be made possible, their underlings will have to find it and make it work.If you don’t believe me, just look at the motivational posters that get put up in corporate lunchrooms. PHBs are the ones who buy them and put them up. And because they think these posters are genuinely motivating (ho), we can reasonably judge that they reflect the way PHBs actually think. Here are some I collected a while back:
—It is the size of one’s will which determines success.Reflections on the relationship between labor and management:
—Victory goes to the man whose desire is strongest.
—Believe in yourself and anything becomes possible.
—Vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be.
—What would you not attempt to achieve, if you believed it was impossible to fail?
—The fundamentals of a person are not in substance, but in spirit.
—What is genius, but the power of expressing a new individuality?
—There is only one success: to be able to live your life in your own way.
—The world has a habit of making room for those who know where they are going.
—The distance between a person’s dreams and their accomplishments can only be measured by their desire.
—The difference between the unattainable and the attainable lies in a person’s determination.
—The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.
—You have to know you can win. You have to think you can win. You have to feel you can win.
—Trust your instinct to the end, though you can render no reason
—Spread your wings, unencumbered by fear.
—Destiny is a matter of choice, not chanceVirtuous precepts for underlings:
—Power gravitates to the man who has courage.
—We make way for the one who pushes past us.
—The block of granite which was an obstacle in the path of the weak, becomes a stepping stone in the path of the strong
—It is a sad fact that regardless of effort or talent, second place really means you are first in a long line of losers.
—It takes the efforts of many to make impossible feats possible.A historical note: The corporation that had the most, and most fervent, motivational and inspirational corporate-branded pelf I ‘ve ever seen? That would have to be Enron. They were swimming in it — everything from posters, pens, and t-shirts to Christmas ornaments and fine cut-crystal tchotchkes. And when Enron went boom, and screwed its employees six ways from Sunday, you should have seen how fast that stuff came flying onto eBay. The saddest ones were the employee awards set with little jewels showing how many years of devoted work they’d put into the company: Together, we aren’t winners.
—Individuals play the games, but teams win championships.
—Welcome the chores that make you go beyond yourself.
—The reward of one duty is the power to fulfill another.
—You can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed.
—There is no such thing as a self-made man. You will reach your goals only with the help of others.
—Many people have gone further than they thought they could because somebody else thought they could.
—When a team makes a commitment to act as one, the sky’s the limit.
—Together we are winners.
2. Without a DoubtThis is Ron Suskind, from this week’s New York Times Magazine:
Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a treasury official for the first President Bush, told me recently that ”if Bush wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting on Nov. 3.” The nature of that conflict, as Bartlett sees it? Essentially, the same as the one raging across much of the world: a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion.If you’re a Republican, don’t automatically assume that these are your guys. Far from it, in fact. If you’re a responsible citizen, this is something you really do have to stop and think about.
”Just in the past few months,” Bartlett said, ”I think a light has gone off for people who’ve spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he’s always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.” Bartlett, a 53-year-old columnist and self-described libertarian Republican who has lately been a champion for traditional Republicans concerned about Bush’s governance, went on to say: ”This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can’t be persuaded, that they’re extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he’s just like them. …It’s not cute, and it’s not funny, and it’s not religion. George Bush is running national policy on faith—but it’s not faith in God. It’s become something far stranger and more idolatrous.
What he’s put his faith in is George W. Bush, which is not the same thing as saying he believes in himself. He can’t believe in himself; he knows he doesn’t know anything. But instead of seeking more information and better counsel, he’s abandoned the frustrations of dealing with the factual, external universe. He’s now basing everything on the instincts of George W. Bush. That’s where the smirk comes from.
He’s certain he’s right. So was every dotcom investor. So is every blackjack player in Las Vegas.
Pause, then. Some of you already think this must be hyperbole, and that Bush can’t explicitly, literally, concretely have given up on external data and the reasoned analysis thereof.
Unfortunately, that’s what Suskind is saying.
Meanwhile, some of you may be hearing “faith” and “God”, and thinking Bush can’t be a bad guy if he’s using that as his basis for action. However, what you’re imagining is not what’s going on.
I’m not going to discuss my doubts about Bush’s spiritual life, though I have them. There’s a deeper problem. A whole bunch of times now, Bush has been absolutely certain of his decisions, overflowing with faith—and dead wrong. So whatever it is he’s put his faith in, it’s something that’s telling him things that aren’t true.
As I’m sure you’re aware, God doesn’t do that.Onward.
”This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts,” Bartlett went on to say. ”He truly believes he’s on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.” Bartlett paused, then said, ”But you can’t run the world on faith.”We think we know the temptations the world has to offer us: money, power, gluttony, various carnal pleasures. We imagine them, in mostly cartoonish forms.
Forty democratic senators were gathered for a lunch in March just off the Senate floor. I was there as a guest speaker. Joe Biden was telling a story, a story about the president. ”I was in the Oval Office a few months after we swept into Baghdad,” he began, ”and I was telling the president of my many concerns”—concerns about growing problems winning the peace, the explosive mix of Shiite and Sunni, the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and problems securing the oil fields. Bush, Biden recalled, just looked at him, unflappably sure that the United States was on the right course and that all was well. ”’Mr. President,’ I finally said, ‘How can you be so sure when you know you don’t know the facts?”’
Biden said that Bush stood up and put his hand on the senator’s shoulder. ”My instincts,” he said. ”My instincts.”Biden paused and shook his head, recalling it all as the room grew quiet. ”I said, ‘Mr. President, your instincts aren’t good enough!”’
But there are other, subtler temptations that don’t get nearly as much publicity. The desire to be in on secrets: that’s a good one. The desire to overact: there’s another, a very strong temptation. Haven’t we all seen people blow opportunities, alienate their loved ones, and make fools of themselves in public, because they couldn’t resist the urge to give themselves all the killer lines in the script?
But there’s another one, even subtler, that I think Bush has fallen into: The desire to just be what you are, and do what you wish, and have it somehow turn out to be right. It’s one of the great misuses of power. We all want to be ourselves, but our authentic selves don’t always get the reactions we want from the real world. (Somehow this puts me in mind of Anna Vargo’s definition of adolescence as the stage where you think your actions have only the consequences you intend.)
This mismatch between our authentic unmodified selves and the world’s reaction to us puts us under the terrible necessity of changing what we are: a process that’s seldom pleasant, and never feels natural. We resent it. Few of us will undertake it unless driven by need, and at the earliest opportunity we stop, sure that whatever changes we’ve put ourselves through already must surely be enough.Thus the appeal of that magical state where what you are and what you do will always turn out to be right. Bush knew that temptation before he ever ran for office. It’s a lot easier to be confident and decisive when there’s a glass floor right there under your feet, and an endless supply of people willing to bail you out.
The democrat Biden and the Republican Bartlett are trying to make sense of the same thing—a president who has been an extraordinary blend of forcefulness and inscrutability, opacity and action.Consider, for instance, the French at Poitiers, Agincourt, and Crecy.
But lately, words and deeds are beginning to connect.The Delaware senator was, in fact, hearing what Bush’s top deputies—from cabinet members like Paul O’Neill, Christine Todd Whitman and Colin Powell to generals fighting in Iraq—have been told for years when they requested explanations for many of the president’s decisions, policies that often seemed to collide with accepted facts. The president would say that he relied on his ”gut” or his ”instinct” to guide the ship of state, and then he ”prayed over it.” The old pro Bartlett, a deliberative, fact-based wonk, is finally hearing a tune that has been hummed quietly by evangelicals (so as not to trouble the secular) for years as they gazed upon President George W. Bush. This evangelical group—the core of the energetic ”base” that may well usher Bush to victory—believes that their leader is a messenger from God. And in the first presidential debate, many Americans heard the discursive John Kerry succinctly raise, for the first time, the issue of Bush’s certainty—the issue being, as Kerry put it, that ”you can be certain and be wrong.”
What underlies Bush’s certainty? And can it be assessed in the temporal realm of informed consent?They have no obligation to keep the public informed because we have no role in this new system. You have no role. They don’t need you. Bush consults only with Bush. Concepts like an informed electorate and the consent of the governed belong to the old, superseded, fact-based system of thought.
… The president has demanded unquestioning faith from his followers, his staff, his senior aides and his kindred in the Republican Party. Once he makes a decision—often swiftly, based on a creed or moral position—he expects complete faith in its rightness.
The disdainful smirks and grimaces that many viewers were surprised to see in the first presidential debate are familiar expressions to those in the administration or in Congress who have simply asked the president to explain his positions. Since 9/11, those requests have grown scarce; Bush’s intolerance of doubters has, if anything, increased, and few dare to question him now. A writ of infallibility—a premise beneath the powerful Bushian certainty that has, in many ways, moved mountains—is not just for public consumption: it has guided the inner life of the White House. As Whitman told me on the day in May 2003 that she announced her resignation as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency: ”In meetings, I’d ask if there were any facts to support our case. And for that, I was accused of disloyalty!” (Whitman, whose faith in Bush has since been renewed, denies making these remarks and is now a leader of the president’s re-election effort in New Jersey.) …The faith-based presidency is a with-us-or-against-us model that has been enormously effective at, among other things, keeping the workings and temperament of the Bush White House a kind of state secret. The dome of silence cracked a bit in the late winter and spring, with revelations from the former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke and also, in my book, from the former Bush treasury secretary Paul O’Neill. When I quoted O’Neill saying that Bush was like ”a blind man in a room full of deaf people,” this did not endear me to the White House. But my phone did begin to ring, with Democrats and Republicans calling with similar impressions and anecdotes about Bush’s faith and certainty. These are among the sources I relied upon for this article. Few were willing to talk on the record. Some were willing to talk because they said they thought George W. Bush might lose; others, out of fear of what might transpire if he wins. In either case, there seems to be a growing silence fatigue—public servants, some with vast experience, who feel they have spent years being treated like Victorian-era children, seen but not heard, and are tired of it. But silence still reigns in the highest reaches of the White House.
… This is one key feature of the faith-based presidency: open dialogue, based on facts, is not seen as something of inherent value. It may, in fact, create doubt, which undercuts faith. It could result in a loss of confidence in the decision-maker and, just as important, by the decision-maker. Nothing could be more vital, whether staying on message with the voters or the terrorists or a California congressman in a meeting about one of the world’s most nagging problems. As Bush himself has said any number of times on the campaign trail, ”By remaining resolute and firm and strong, this world will be peaceful.”Recognize this guy? It’s the pointy-haired boss from the Dilbert Universe. He doesn’t have to know anything. He just has to Make Decisions and Be Resolute. It’s the people working under him who have to worry about the real-world details.
Biden, who early on became disenchanted with Bush’s grasp of foreign-policy issues and is among John Kerry’s closest Senate friends, has spent a lot of time trying to size up the president. ”Most successful people are good at identifying, very early, their strengths and weaknesses, at knowing themselves,” he told me not long ago. ”For most of us average Joes, that meant we’ve relied on strengths but had to work on our weakness—to lift them to adequacy—otherwise they might bring us down. I don’t think the president really had to do that, because he always had someone there—his family or friends—to bail him out. I don’t think, on balance, that has served him well for the moment he’s in now as president. He never seems to have worked on his weaknesses.”It must be nice to be able to live like that. I’m not sure it’s good for you, but it sure sounds nice.
Bush has been called the C.E.O. president, but that’s just a catch phrase—he never ran anything of consequence in the private sector. The M.B.A. president would be more accurate: he did, after all, graduate from Harvard Business School. And some who have worked under him in the White House and know about business have spotted a strange business-school time warp. It’s as if a 1975 graduate from H.B.S.—one who had little chance to season theory with practice during the past few decades of change in corporate America—has simply been dropped into the most challenging management job in the world.No new input, just lots of decisiveness. I could weep for my poor country, which in time of crisis found itself armed only with the contents of George W. Bush’s head.
… As I reported in “The Price of Loyalty,” at the Bush administration’s first National Security Council meeting, Bush asked if anyone had ever met Ariel Sharon. Some were uncertain if it was a joke. It wasn’t: Bush launched into a riff about briefly meeting Sharon two years before, how he wouldn’t ”go by past reputations when it comes to Sharon… . I’m going to take him at face value,” and how the United States should pull out of the Arab-Israeli conflict because ”I don’t see much we can do over there at this point.” Colin Powell, for one, seemed startled. This would reverse 30 years of policy—since the Nixon administration—of American engagement. Such a move would unleash Sharon, Powell countered, and tear the delicate fabric of the Mideast in ways that might be irreparable. Bush brushed aside Powell’s concerns impatiently. ”Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things.”
Such challenges—from either Powell or his opposite number as the top official in domestic policy, Paul O’Neill—were trials that Bush had less and less patience for as the months passed. He made that clear to his top lieutenants. Gradually, Bush lost what Richard Perle, who would later head a largely private-sector group under Bush called the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee, had described as his open posture during foreign-policy tutorials prior to the 2000 campaign. (”He had the confidence to ask questions that revealed he didn’t know very much,” Perle said.) By midyear 2001, a stand-and-deliver rhythm was established. Meetings, large and small, started to take on a scripted quality. Even then, the circle around Bush was tightening. Top officials, from cabinet members on down, were often told when they would speak in Bush’s presence, for how long and on what topic. The president would listen without betraying any reaction. Sometimes there would be cross-discussions—Powell and Rumsfeld, for instance, briefly parrying on an issue—but the president would rarely prod anyone with direct, informed questions.
Each administration, over the course of a term, is steadily shaped by its president, by his character, personality and priorities. It is a process that unfolds on many levels. There are, of course, a chief executive’s policies, which are executed by a staff and attending bureaucracies. But a few months along, officials, top to bottom, will also start to adopt the boss’s phraseology, his presumptions, his rhythms. If a president fishes, people buy poles; if he expresses displeasure, aides get busy finding evidence to support the judgment. A staff channels the leader.
A cluster of particularly vivid qualities was shaping George W. Bush’s White House through the summer of 2001: a disdain for contemplation or deliberation, an embrace of decisiveness, a retreat from empiricism, a sometimes bullying impatience with doubters and even friendly questioners. Already Bush was saying, Have faith in me and my decisions, and you’ll be rewarded. All through the White House, people were channeling the boss. He didn’t second-guess himself; why should they? …
[In the immediate aftermath of 9/11:] This is where the faith-based presidency truly takes shape. Faith, which for months had been coloring the decision-making process and a host of political tactics—think of his address to the nation on stem-cell research—now began to guide events. It was the most natural ascension: George W. Bush turning to faith in his darkest moment and discovering a wellspring of power and confidence.
Of course, the mandates of sound, sober analysis didn’t vanish. They never do. Ask any entrepreneur with a blazing idea when, a few years along, the first debt payments start coming due. Or the C.E.O., certain that a high stock price affirms his sweeping vision, until that neglected, flagging division cripples the company. There’s a startled look—how’d that happen? In this case, the challenge of mobilizing the various agencies of the United States government and making certain that agreed-upon goals become demonstrable outcomes grew exponentially.Looking back at the months directly following 9/11, virtually every leading military analyst seems to believe that rather than using Afghan proxies, we should have used more American troops, deployed more quickly, to pursue Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora. Many have also been critical of the president’s handling of Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the 19 hijackers; despite Bush’s setting goals in the so-called ”financial war on terror,” the Saudis failed to cooperate with American officials in hunting for the financial sources of terror. …
”When I was first with Bush in Austin, what I saw was a self-help Methodist, very open, seeking,” [Jim Wallis, of the Sojourners] says now. ”What I started to see at this point was the man that would emerge over the next year—a messianic American Calvinist. He doesn’t want to hear from anyone who doubts him.”What they’re describing is not how the world works, ever. It’s pure folly, the kind of pure self-conscious folly that mistakes the temporary success of hubris for proof of Divine favor.
… In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend—but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Who besides guys like me are part of the reality-based community? Many of the other elected officials in Washington, it would seem. A group of Democratic and Republican members of Congress were called in to discuss Iraq sometime before the October 2002 vote authorizing Bush to move forward. A Republican senator recently told Time Magazine that the president walked in and said: ”Look, I want your vote. I’m not going to debate it with you.” When one of the senators began to ask a question, Bush snapped, ”Look, I’m not going to debate it with you.”If we’d wanted a hereditary monarchy, we could have kept the one we had. Believing that God prompts your every decision is no guarantee that God will do so. If you abandon your responsibility for thought, judgement, research, and counsel, you’ll be left with maybe a few small, still promptings from God, and a whole lot of noisy promptings from your own will and desire.
The 9/11 commission did not directly address the question of whether Bush exerted influence over the intelligence community about the existence of weapons of mass destruction. That question will be investigated after the election, but if no tangible evidence of undue pressure is found, few officials or alumni of the administration whom I spoke to are likely to be surprised. ”If you operate in a certain way—by saying this is how I want to justify what I’ve already decided to do, and I don’t care how you pull it off—you guarantee that you’ll get faulty, one-sided information,” Paul O’Neill, who was asked to resign his post of treasury secretary in December 2002, said when we had dinner a few weeks ago. ”You don’t have to issue an edict, or twist arms, or be overt.” In a way, the president got what he wanted: a National Intelligence Estimate on W.M.D. that creatively marshaled a few thin facts, and then Colin Powell putting his credibility on the line at the United Nations in a show of faith. That was enough for George W. Bush to press forward and invade Iraq. As he told his quasi-memoirist, Bob Woodward, in ”Plan of Attack”: ”Going into this period, I was praying for strength to do the Lord’s will… . I’m surely not going to justify the war based upon God. Understand that. Nevertheless, in my case, I pray to be as good a messenger of his will as possible.”So Bush threw reasoned analysis out the window, and in its place found what he thought was God telling him to go to war with Iraq, which just happened to be what Bush—and all his favorite advisors—had been planning to do since well before the 2000 election.
This has nothing to do with religion. This is a combination of self-indulgence and Stupid Executive Tricks. If you believe that your will and imagination are the only determinants of success, the most you’ll get is what you’ve wanted and imagined. In Bush’s case, that’s simply not enough.