W. on the Couch

By Jacob Weisberg
Random House, 242 pages, $26

This is a literary story, a family drama—a tragedy. Jacob Weisberg’s The Bush Tragedy is not even strictly a political book: The author gets at George W. Bush’s presidency by examining his family history and interpreting his psychology, and the psychology of his second family, the advisers closest to him.

Mr. Weisberg’s approach courts skepticism—as an attempt to explain monumental events in terms of individual psychology should—but he argues it effectively, and it’s certainly seductive. Although the author’s literary references—he makes extensive use of Shakespeare’s Henry IV (both parts) and Henry V, too—are sometimes tiresome, and his skill at analysis in the Freudian tradition is unproven, his interpretation of this presidency remains consistently compelling.

The first chapter reaches back several generations into Mr. Bush’s family. The president’s character, Mr. Weisberg argues, is the product of the merging of two families, and two traditions. George W. is more Walker (his mother’s family) than Bush. The Walkers were brash, they were risk-takers, they were bold. But the Bush family shaped the president nearly as much because his constant efforts to rebel against it pushed him toward the opposing tradition. Mr. Weisberg paints the president as a man torn between the need to follow in the path of his father, and to define himself against the patriarch.

The third chapter examines Mr. Bush’s religion. In some sense, his faith has defined his presidency, because the press has devoted a great deal of time to conjecture about his beliefs, and also because discussion of the political influence of the religious right has been a constant since the day he was elected. Mr. Weisberg argues, as some have before him, that essentially there is no religious George W. Bush. His religion is a “self-help” faith, not founded in any specific set of beliefs. When Mr. Bush made public addresses that seemed messianic, that was because his speechwriters—Michael Gerson in particular—at first inserted coded appeals to evangelicals, and later wrote divine allusions into the president’s speeches in accordance with a new iteration of the administration’s shape-shifting foreign policy. In other words, in searching Mr. Bush’s public utterances for clues to his religious belief, the political left has been looking for significance where there is none.

Mr. Weisberg reserves a chapter each for Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, who have defined the Bush years as much as the president himself. Both men, Mr. Weisberg writes, had enormous ambitions, but each was deficient in one way or another. Mr. Rove was the perpetual nerd, but he wanted to cast the future of the Republican Party. Mr. Cheney was reticent, but believed fervently in the need to expand presidential power.

How these two men locked into Mr. Bush’s deficiencies is the other half of the family tragedy. The things that define the Bush presidency—secrecy, a failed war, limited domestic initiatives and bureaucratic failure—are the result of a perfect storm. Just as great partnerships can be made by the joining of minds, so can great destruction.


ON JAN. 30, AFTER the collapse of Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign, Ben Smith and David Paul Kuhn wrote an article for The Politico that declared the end of the Giuliani White House bid the end to 9/11 politics. “Giuliani’s failure,” they wrote, “reflects a broader shift in the American landscape, in which Sept. 11 has so diminished as an emotional touchstone that neither The Gallup Organization nor The Pew Research Center has even polled Americans about the attacks for a half year.”

One of the concluding chapters of The Bush Tragedy is devoted to Iraq, and it re-immerses us in those politics: Mr. Weisberg reminds us of what the politics of fear meant to us before we were tired of them, before they became a hackneyed refrain for a few politicians whose greatest successes took place in the months and years immediately following 9/11. The Bush administration struggled through five incarnations of its foreign policy. The many forms it took was a result, Mr. Weisberg argues, less of intentional manipulation and justification after the fact than a result of Mr. Bush’s own interior battle for a coherent legacy. He wanted, like Ronald Reagan, to leave an ideological mark. What Americans received, therefore, was a “relentless ebb into abstraction, incompetent execution, and glaring inconsistency.”

W. on the Couch