This past weekend, I caught the last fifteen minutes of what looked like a long interview with President Bush by Bill O’Reilly on Fox.
This was a different president from what I’ve seen before. He was with one of his own: a fellow far-right conservative. He smiled a lot. He spoke in an unbuttoned, less guarded way than usual, although he was still the typically defensive politician who refused to be drawn into any controversy not of his own making. He ducked a few questions – “what interrogation methods are we talking about?” and “is waterboarding torture?” – but this was all part of the expected cat-and-mouse pantomime of a politician playing the media. He was enjoying himself. His answers shot out easily. Conveniently, all his answers were rote. One had heard them before. (This habit gives Bush the quality of a wind-up doll. It can also make him a total bore. Question: has America become as boring as our president?)
Nevertheless, what I saw changed my whole view of Bush and his presidency.
For one, I’d never seen him this real before. Here at last he was appearing as himself. The actual Oz. Authentic. What you saw was who he was. All natural, relaxed and friendly, shooting the breeze with a confidant. In this informal atmosphere, one big difference stood out between him and any other current politician of a similar standing — Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, John Kerry, John Edwards, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair.
A Big Bang difference. A cosmic gulf.
Bush was a gulf away from them because of one big quality, or lack thereof: he came across as utterly unsophisticated. He was to a different manor — nay, universe — born. So much so, he bordered on the simple-minded. He conversed on the level of a high-school C student. My companion was so disgusted by what she called this “low-end” quality that she left the room.
Maybe it was because Bill O’Reilly ain’t all that sophisticated himself. Still, O’Reilly looked like the smarter guy, which was pretty bizarre, given that Bush is the president.
There is literally no intellectual depth or curiosity or layers to Bush. The man is perfectly uncultured. He said he had read three biographies of Washington, but he said it as if he was reporting on assigned high-school homework. He didn’t make any interesting remarks about Washington, as you’d get from a Clinton or a Gore or a Blair. He merely said historians are still arguing over Washington’s legacy, like they will one day over his. Washington was not a separate figure; no more than a measure. For the rest, Bush’s level of language and thought was as low and flat and empty as a denuded prairie.
I thought to myself: how can this unsophisticated man come from the Bush family? His father is sophisticated. The family is a blue-blood, Yale-bred, upper-class lot.
Yet W comes across as some kind of simple-pieties-type above-his-station yokel. Why? My companion pointed out that Bush was rebelling against the sophistication of his dad.
Then I wondered: how does such an unsophisticated man manage to boss around a sophisticated man like Tony Blair? How does he lead others? What is it about him that makes people follow him? On the evidence of the interview, if he worked in the same company as me, my co-workers would never single him out as our leader, because he’d be the most unsophisticated fella among us – a candidate for a low-level job that suited his level of intellect. Yet plainly, people follow Bush. He became our President. How? How come? I would like to attempt a couple of tentative answers.