See What Happens When You Don’t Read?

“Is he out of his mind?

“Does he have the faintest idea what he’s talking about?”

So wondered Andrew Sullivan, formerly among George W. Bush’s most voluble admirers, after the President’s jarring Oval Office interview with Tim Russert last Sunday. The conservative columnist referred specifically to Mr. Bush’s strange assertions about federal spending, but the same goggling unreality pervaded his other remarks.

Although he sounded confused and still speaks English like a second or third language, the President is not out of his mind. He may not have the faintest idea what he’s talking about, however, for the reason he revealed last fall. Recall what Mr. Bush told Fox News anchor Brit Hume about his information-gathering strategy.

“I get briefed by [chief of staff] Andy Card and [National Security Advisor] Condi [Rice] in the morning. They come in and tell me …. I glance at the headlines just to [get?] kind of a flavor for what’s moving. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who are probably read [sic] the news themselves …. And the best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what’s happening in the world.”

It’s nice that the President has such confidence in his staff, but his trust increasingly seems to be misplaced. I first suspected that Mr. Bush had lost contact with everyday reality last July, when he insisted during a press conference that “we gave [Saddam Hussein] a chance to allow the [U.N. weapons] inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in.”

Even if Mr. Bush watches only Fox News, he ought to have known that the inspectors searched Iraq for six weeks last winter, before they were forced to clear out so bombing could begin. Yet he repeated the same weird claim just last month, in the presence of the Polish president, saying of Saddam Hussein: “It was his choice to make, and he did not let us in.” Did Condi forget to tell him about Hans Blix and the inspectors?

On Meet the Press , Mr. Bush said a few other things that suggest his hired “objective sources” are gaslighting him. “The budget I just proposed to the Congress cuts the deficit in half in five years,” he told the NBC newsman confidently. If Mr. Bush glanced at a newspaper, or watched TV (even Fox News!), he would know that nobody believes his budgetary policies will reduce the deficit. Does Andy Card assure him every morning that all is financially well?

Somebody must be misleading the President about basic budgetary facts as well. He apparently believes that his record of cutting discretionary spending compares favorably with that of President Clinton-when precisely the opposite is true. He would know more about his own record if he could bring himself to read Paul Krugman occasionally.

Mr. Russert asked whether he has been surprised by the “very difficult situation” in Iraq. “Well, I think we are welcomed in Iraq,” he replied. “We are welcomed in Iraq.” To miss the daily tidings of carnage, he must be rapidly skimming those grim headlines.

The President also sounded badly misinformed about his own inspector’s report on the missing weapons of mass destruction. “And when David Kay goes in and says we haven’t found stockpiles yet, there’s theories as to where the weapons went,” he declared. “They could have been destroyed during the war. Saddam and his henchmen could have destroyed them as we entered into Iraq. They could be hidden. They could have been transported to another country, and we’ll find out.” Actually, Dr. Kay deduced that Iraq possessed little or no chemical weaponry after 1991, because American bombing and U.N. inspections had destroyed its stockpiles and production capacity.

That’s the kind of news the President might have learned from any decent wire-service story. But he doesn’t read newspapers. That is also why he could tell Mr. Russert, without irony, that he had learned the “essential lessons” of Vietnam, a “political war” with “politicians making military decisions”: He missed all the press coverage of his political appointees overruling (and publicly humiliating) the professional officers in the Pentagon, and ignoring their warnings about the real problems of invading and running Iraq. The President’s political appointees-notably a deputy defense secretary who never served in uniform-have dictated every aspect of the Iraq war, from force strength to timing.

Speaking with a British journalist last November, Mr. Bush further explained why he doesn’t read newspapers: “It’s not to say I don’t respect the press. I do respect the press. But sometimes it’s hard to be an optimistic leader. A leader must project an optimistic view. It’s hard to be optimistic if you read a bunch of stuff about yourself.” Surely his staffers smile when they give him the good news every morning, too.

See What Happens When You Don’t Read?