Bush’s Brain: Smart, but Too Certain
So, I got a hold of that Bush’s Brain paper referenced here, yesterday. I’m not allowed to post the whole thing because the paper has been published as chapter two of “Judging Bush,” just out from Stanford University Press. I can, however, give you a few quotes and a sense of the argument…
The basic premise of the authors, Robert Maranto and Richard E. Redding, is as follows:
SAT scores and other available measures indicate that Bush has sufficient intelligence to serve as president. Yet the best studies, in which raters evaluate statements without being aware of their source, suggest that Bush lacks integrative complexity and thus views issues without nuance. The leading personality theory (the “5-Factor Model”), as measured by the NEO Personality Inventory, suggests that Bush is highly extraverted but not very agreeable or conscientious. He also rates low on “Openness to Experience.” Similarly Immelman (2002) had expert raters judge Bush‟s personality using the Millon Inventory of Diagnostic Criteria. Raters identified Bush as fitting the “Outgoing,” “Dominant (Controlling),” and “Dauntless” personality patterns, which together constitute a style given to lack of reflection, superficiality, and impulsivity. When compared to other presidents, Bush most closely resembles Jackson, Reagan, and Harding, but is very unlike his father, George H.W. Bush.
The “Bush is dumb” meme was always unfair. Those who’ve known him, and not just his loyalists, have always disputed such a characterization. First off, something I didn’t know, “Bush scored a 1200 on the SAT (roughly equaling 1300 on today’s re-normed SAT), placing him in the top 16% of all college applicants.” We also know he had better grades than the smarter-seeming John Kerry at Yale. The authors also peg the best estimate of Bush’s IQ at 120-125, in the top 10% of the population and above average for a college graduate — about the same as estimated for Eisenhower and Ford.
The problem with Bush’s leadership style was never lack of intelligence. It was something much closer to intellectual laziness or lack of curiosity. As the authors put it: “Critics charge that President Bush does not seek out information or opposing viewpoints; disdains complexity, nuances, and expert opinion; views policy issues in black-and-white terms based on his own preconceptions; and, refuses to rethink problems or change his views. The research largely bears out these popular perceptions.”
In summary of the president’s personality, the authors write, “Bush is an extraverted, domineering, and somewhat adventurous and impulsive individual, lacking in conscientiousness, who is intelligent but relatively superficial and unreflective.”
It’s not all bad news for Bush, though. Extraversion and a domineering personality can be a good thing. In fact, the authors credit these traits with what they consider Bush’s biggest domestic achievement, education reform. It’s just that, in a different context, these traits can lead to disaster:
President Bush’s bold, ebullient personality and bias for action helped bring together Democratic and Republican elites to fundamentally reform American public schools. This may be his greatest legacy. The President’s boldness in Afghanistan seemingly succeeded, though his disdain for details limited the scope of that success. Finally, on the signature decision of his administration, President Bush’s tendency to make quick decisions, reluctance to admit error, disdain for details and experts, inability to entertain dissenting opinions, and tendency to categorize opponents as enemies, meant that his administration did not sufficiently plan the invasion of Iraq. Further, he failed to systematically review occupation policy even as countless voices both inside and outside of the administration urged such a review.
Of course, any study like this will have major limits. As the paper notes, “Bush has not submitted himself for a psychological examination,” so we must rely on things like “interviews, statements, news accounts, biographies … and/or the opinions of experts.” But, as much as possible, this analysis was based on scientific evaluations of Bush’s statements, rated by people who didn’t know who made the statements they were rating — stripping the personality assessment of anti-Bush (or any) political bias.
What’s the lesson of an exercise like this? The leader has to match the time. Bush’s traits may well have made him an excellent (or at least decent) president in a time of peace, focused on domestic policy, and restrained by Congress. And, in 2000, that’s what we thought we were electing him to preside over. But in a time of war, in a system where the executive can act decisively and autonomously, his decision-making style was a disaster.
What’s more, his inability to vary his decision-making style was a disaster. The authors make the point that Reagan was often just as black-and-white as President Bush. He thought of the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire.” But, when circumstances changed — when Gorbachev came to power — he adjusted his thinking and his actions quickly.
If only president Bush could have demonstrated half that flexibility and agility.
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