A former colleague of mine studied during the 1960s at the University of Chicago in a graduate school class that included Paul Wolfowitz. While my friend expresses surprise and disappointment at what he sees as his classmate's many errors in judgment, he recalls that Wolfowitz was a very bright and thoughtful person. Both were influenced by Albert Wohlstetter, who, from the day that Saddam Hussein took power, identified the dictator as the single most destabilizing force in the Middle East.
So my friend isn't at all surprised by Wolfowitz's single-minded interest in promoting the invasion of Iraq. Nor does he think that his classmate was out of line in making a strong argument for invasion. To the contrary, he blames the President for not asking the hard questions. It fell to the president to push the issue, to probe, to sift, to critique. But George W. Bush, my colleague suggests, has never been even close to being up to this job.
Finally, in the first presidential debate last week, after almost four years of evasion, spinning and obfuscation, President Bush found himself with nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, with no props, no spinmeisters and with no armed guards ready to cart away dissenters. Just him, his debate opponent and a questioner whose queries could not be ducked.
The curtain was pulled away, and who stood behind it? Not even the Wizard of Oz, who, as we recall, answered Dorothy's angry charge of "You're a very bad man," with the line, "No little girl, I'm not a bad man, just a bad wizard."
Well, most of America has always suspected Bush was no wizard (and whether he was a bad man has, for some reason, been seen as largely irrelevant). What most Americans have always suspected was that Bush just is, well, limited. Even his most optimistic supporters keep telling the rest of us that the President is merely inarticulate, which showed only that he is a "regular guy" unlike the snobs who judge him.
Bush proved in his first debate with John Kerry to be less than limited. His carefully orchestrated disguises torn away, he revealed himself to be, after all this time, none other than Alfred E. Newman, whose line "What, Me Worry?" long ago entered the American lexicon. Bush's Newman might not be worried, but the other night he seemed paralyzed by the headlights of Senator Kerry's onrushing train of understated, rational, dignified and thoughtful presentation.
The president's supporters continue to struggle to put the best face on a disastrous evening. Some, such as the highly partisan Tony Blankley, grudgingly acknowledge that Kerry won -- but only on "style points." Another, David Brooks, tells us that "steadfast" Bush has a problem of "relating means to ends, of orchestrating the institutions of government to achieve your desired goals." Citing Iraq as an example, Brooks writes "Bush launched a preemptive war even though his intelligence community was incompetent. He occupied a country even though he didn't really believe in, or work with, the institutions of government he would need to complete the task."
Some conservatives are more blunt. Pat Buchanan, for example, said: "Kerry won going away." Period.
Many polls suggest that a significant number of voters have all along wanted to vote against Bush if only Kerry would give them a reason. Surely they now have a reason. They may be picturing our very own president sitting in the "War Room," doing his best worry-free Alfred E. Newman routine. Insulated as he is, Newman discusses a dire situation with the half dozen or so people who occupy his tightly controlled leadership universe. To his right (of course) sits Dick Cheney, who sounds (and looks) ever more like Buck Turgidson, the general in Dr. Strangelove. Turgidson, you will recall, urged a preemptory strike against the Soviet Union with the line, "if we can catch 'em with their pants down" we would lose "only" between 10 and 20 million "tops -- ah, depending on the breaks."
It gets worse.
The president's more charitable critics always point to his "faith" -- he is a faith-based leader. But we know that in governance, "faith" can be a dangerous thing if it is clung to in the absence of any demonstrated ability to ask the right questions at the right time, to demand answers, to sort through all the noise that comes the way of any president.
Contrast Bush's sloppy and uninformed thought processes (even his supporters comment about his "lack of curiosity") with the attentiveness and search for complexity that people who have worked for him say defines John Kerry. Richard Holbrooke, the former United Nations ambassador and an adviser to Mr. Kerry, says of the Senator: "He attacks the material, he questions things, he tries to get it right." During a recent conversation about Iraq, recounts Holbrooke, "Mr. Kerry interrupts me and he says, 'Have you read Peter Galbraith's article in The New York Review of Books? You've got to read that, it's very important.'"
Can you imagine George W. Bush complicating his faith-based (aka "worry-free") life by directing, say, Paul Wolfowitz to read an important article that might cast doubt on his preferred conclusions? Can you? After watching his performance in the first debate?