A Terrible Secret
The Psychology Behind George W. Bush's Decision-Making
By John P. Briggs, M.D. and JP Briggs II, Ph.D.
When we feel inadequate about some aspect of our lives, we work to submerge those feelings with compensations and defenses. Evidence is that in the case of George W. Bush, deep feelings of inadequacy and powerful defensive behaviors employed to submerge them and cover them up cripple the decision-making process he needs for his duties as president.
The dynamics of the president's cover-up involve a vicious psychological paradox: because he secretly anticipates the humiliating failure he has experienced all his life, he behaves in ways that ensure that he will fail. He makes hasty, risky, ill-informed decisions in which he relies on his defenses rather than judgment. When the decisions go bad, they reconfirm his inner feelings of incompetence and heighten his fear of being "found out." The feedback loop forces him into an ever deeper "state of denial" about the decisions and an ever-renewed tendency to make more flawed decisions.
If this dynamic is close to correct, then keeping the secret of his feelings of inadequacy has become a matter of life and death for the president. The stakes for him are higher than we can imagine because, by becoming president, he raised his expectations for the success he has sought for so long (the final escape from this secret fear), and he has inflated his worst fear to its grandest scale. He is a man working with all his resources to keep his sense of himself afloat--and he is in danger of drowning.
The Secret History
By applying to George W. Bush's well known history some basic principles of psychodynamics shared by different psychological and psychiatric schools, we can glimpse how incompetence came to be the central, driving issue for the 43rd President.
George W. Bush was born into a family environment where excelling was the quality most prized and the surest way to affection and attention.(1)
Young George's mother, Barbara, was the family disciplinarian, described by her friends as "sarcastic and mean," (2) while his father was the man on the rise, regarded within the family as successful and competent in everything he tried his hand at. The father was frequently absent during his son's early years. For the son, a resentment at those absences would have naturally competed with a desire for the approval of this distant, and therefore somewhat legendary, figure. We know that the elder Bush didn't go to his son's baseball games, for example. Coupled with the fact that, as a coach reported, the first son "wasn't that talented," this absence would likely have generated an early feeling in the young boy that he wasn't worthy of his father's time and attention, whether or not that was actually the father's sentiments. (3)
The senior Bush had been a star baseball player in high school and college, a high-performing student, a war hero, and a successful oil man. When the son was sent away to Andover Academy in Massachusetts, he found himself surrounded by images of his father's prowess. George senior had been Andover's "Best All-Around" fellow of his class, captain of the baseball team, secretary of the Student Council, president of the senior class and winner of the Johns Hopkins Prize.(4) The elder Bush was a phi beta kappa at Yale. During the time the younger Bush attended Yale, his alumnus father was frequently celebrated in the student newspaper.
The son discovered early that he couldn't conceivably measure up to such accomplishments, and we can only imagine his despair. Young George received poor grades and was not outstanding at sports. Some see evidence he may have been afflicted with Attention Deficit Disorder and Dyslexia that impeded his learning. He was a C-average student—the genteel form of failing at Yale.
Jeb Bush put the matter bluntly to an interviewer at the time of the presidential campaign in 1999. Referring to his older brother, Jeb said, "There might be more to it for him than the rest of us, because he is the oldest and it is his namesake, and he more directly followed my dad's path….A lot of people who have fathers like this, or moms, who have lived such extraordinary lives, feel a sense that they have failed because they haven't reached the same level of just being a human being as their predecessor—and it creates all sorts of pathologies." (5)
To compensate and defend against his feeling that he didn't measure up, George W. Bush began early to adopt the role of clown, the life of the party. In the prep school where the father had been a baseball star, the son assumed the identity of a parody sports hero. He was "high commissioner for stickball" and presided over meetings in a stovepipe hat. At Yale he became the president of the hard-partying DKE fraternity and, in his senior year, publicly defended the grim DKE hazing ritual of burning young pledges on their backsides. He became a heavy drinker, probably at least in part, to narcotize his feelings of being the disappointment, the black sheep, who didn't fit the Bush family high-achievement profile. He didn't have the ability to attain his father's approval, a prize which would have gradually become equated in the young namesake's psyche with gaining his own internalized sense of self-respect and self-worth. A comment by a second younger brother, Marvin, offers a snapshot of the dynamics between father and son. Marvin said he realized that George junior could be easily provoked by their father into feeling that he alone had broken all the rules. "He would be made to feel that he had committed the worst crime in history." (6) Compare this to what the son had to say about Billy Graham in 1985, when he claims Graham "planted a seed in my heart" that led him to end his substance abuse and focused him on his family and Christ. Graham, he explained, was a fatherly figure, who "didn't make you feel guilty; he made you feel loved." (7)
Though he gradually learned ways to compensate for his feelings of inadequacy, the son could never let go of his compulsion to simultaneously emulate and reject his father. He clearly joined the Texas Air National Guard after college to avoid fighting in the Vietnam war, but told his commander, "I want to be a fighter pilot because my father was." (8) His military stint contained none of his father's seriousness and dedication, however. It was a form of playacting, a send-up of his father's war service. These deformed attempts to mirror his father (or his image of his father) seem to go far beyond the usual struggles children undergo to establish their identity. For example, he became engaged to be married in his junior year in college at the same age his father had. The fiancée shied away, realizing that it was GWB, "just duplicating what his father had done," according to a friend from that period. (9) He followed his father into the oil wildcatting business (and lost millions where his father had made them). From early on, the son's emulation contained its opposite--a resentment, a need not just to gain his father's approval but a competing desire to rebel against him, beat him down, punish him—a resentment that came to the surface in the well known incident when, at age 26, drunk, he challenged his father to go "mano a mano right here." (10)
Over the years, the pattern continued. It showed up in his compulsion to re-fight his father's war against Iraq, but this time to topple Saddam. Salon's Laura Miller dramatizes the psychology of the situation when she imagines Bush thinking, "I don't want to kill my father, he does, and to prove that I'm devoid of such bad impulses, I'll take him out." (11) By re-fighting the war he could win a duel some thought his father failed to win with Saddam: so he could emulate his father, show his contempt for him, redeem him, and go "mano a mano" with him all at once. His father had been praised by allies for creating a "new world order" of cooperation among nations. The son pursued this second war by bullying the US Congress and the United Nations and creating a "coalition of the willing" that was a parody of the grand international alliance his father had forged to fight the first war. The irony, of course, is that instead of proving himself better than his father, the son tragically failed and showed his father had been wise to avoid stepping into an Iraq quagmire.
In the Roman era and in the histories of English kings, wars fought because of filial psychology were common enough, but for an entire modern democratic nation to be driven to war on such psychodynamics is thought provoking, to say the least.
We should not lose sight of the point, however, that GWB's emulation of his father and his opposite desire to punish him and step away from his image and become "his own man" revolve around the son's profound inner question about his own competence, adequacy and autonomy as a human being. He knew too well that his father and his father's name and influence had kept him afloat above the black depths of his own failure and incapacity. It was in his father's name that he went to elite schools and could claim their connections and prestige; his father set him up in business and his father's friends bailed him out and made him money when the businesses crashed; his father's connections got him out of the Vietnam war; his father's influence and his father's henchman, Karl Rove, made possible his election as Texas governor; there is good reason to think that early national poll numbers that raised the son as a major contender for the Republican nomination (above his better known, more accomplished, brother, Jeb) came from voters' confusing the son's name with the father's; later, his father's friend James Baker, along with his father's appointees to the supreme court, rescued his otherwise failed attempt to become president in 2000. From his father came his vice president and secretary of state in a widely acknowledged move by Bush 41 to encircle his son of questionable competence with the experience of old hands (and from his father's list of personal enemies came another old hand, Don Rumsfeld). Early in the son's administration the father dispatched his former National Security Agency director Brent Scowcroft to warn against invading Iraq. Then in November 2006 the father's agent was James Baker heading an "Iraq Study Group" to try and save the disaster the invasion had become. The list is partial.
Thus, there is special poignancy in what the son told a reporter during an exuberant moment during his second campaign for Texas governor: "It's hard to believe, but—I don't have time to worry about being George Bush's son. Maybe it's a result of being confident. I'm not sure how the psychoanalysts will analyze it, but I'm not worried about it. I'm really not. I'm a free guy." (12) A psychoanalyst would observe the opposite seems true. He has been worrying about his fate as his father's son quite a lot.
For a psychotherapist it's impossible to believe that GWB's private mind doesn't sting with a emotional awareness we might imagine as follows: My father's "aid" has repeatedly turned my failures into apparent success. He has repeatedly indicated that he has little faith in me. In my secret heart I know that I have had no success on my own. I am not capable of it. Yet I must never let on that I feel this way. In fact, I must refuse even to allow myself to feel this way. I must show my father and the world that I am own man though I am not. That is the inner conflict.
How, then, must this son react inside when his father breaks down in tears in December 2006 in front a meeting of Florida state administrators, rambling on about the courage and rectitude that brother Jeb displayed in his gubernatorial defeat of 1994? Meanwhile, according to reporting by Bob Woodward, dad is "in agony, anguished, tormented by the war in Iraq and its aftermath." (13) It's like a scene out of Sophocles or Shakespeare. Huffington Post blogger Thomas de Zengotita captures the psychodrama of dad's tears perfectly. It wasn't as much about Jeb as "it was all about W. Little George is hopeless, and always has been—and Big George knows it, and always has, and so has the whole family…. Jeb was always the heir apparent. He was supposed to be The One." (14)
Hopeless: The secret. GWB knows the secret; his family knows it. The trick is to keep the rest of the world from knowing it. Keep them from seeing what they see: that the emperor has no clothes. The trick, somehow, is to prove it isn't true. A difficult task.
In 2004 Senator Joe Biden told journalist Ron Suskind, ''Most successful people are good at identifying, very early, their strengths and weaknesses, at knowing themselves… For most of us average Joes, that meant we've relied on strengths but had to work on our weakness—to lift them to adequacy—otherwise they might bring us down. I don't think the president really had to do that, because he always had someone there—his family or friends—to bail him out. I don't think, on balance, that has served him well for the moment he's in now as president. He never seems to have worked on his weaknesses.'' (15)
Biden misses, of course, that Bush has in fact worked on his weaknesses by developing defensive maneuvers that make them seem to disappear (beneath an emperor's imaginary clothes). So GWB's public stage-show of competence and confidence disguising the private agony of his sense of inadequacy plays out now, not in the stickball league of Andover Academy or an "animal house" Yale fraternity, but on the world's grand stage.
Can we discern that secret sense of inadequacy and the defense mechanisms deployed to disguise it in the scenes that have flickered across our television screens and news pages these last few years? Can we detect in these scenes what the emperor is really (not) wearing?
A Few Scenes from a Secret
–––September 11, 2001. Bush himself describes his feelings at the moment when he learned the second plane hit the twin towers: "I'm trying to absorb that knowledge. I have nobody to talk to. I'm sitting in the midst of a classroom with little kids, listening to a children's story and I realize I'm Commander in Chief and the country has just come under attack." (16) The video tape shows the President's Chief of Staff stepping away from informing him and the president continuing to sit with the children, "blanched" as one observer later described it, with a stricken smile on his face. Seven minutes pass until he stands up. Michael Moore couldn't even run the whole seven minutes in Fahrenheit 9/11, but he runs it long enough to capture the terrible feeling that he has no idea what to do. Then the President vanishes from public view until his evening address. On "Meet the Press" that following Sunday Vice President Cheney leaves the distinct impression that he, not the president, was in charge that fateful day.
Shortly afterward, attempts to rewrite the President's reaction result in contradictory and improbable explanations to explain why the Commander-in-Chief failed to take charge. It takes three more days for Bush to arrive on the rubble pile of the World Trade Center. At that point, he seizes the bullhorn and issues bellicose statements about getting the terrorists who perpetrated the attack. He promises a "crusade," calls for Osama Bin Laden "dead or alive" and vows to rid the world of terror and "evildoers."
Bush was, and still is, universally praised by the media for showing resolution, bravery and strength following the attack. He has bristled at any suggestion that he was less than adequate in his response on that day. But can we detect the feelings of inadequacy and cover up at play in this scene?
——April 2004. Bush refuses to testify under oath before the 9/11 Commission on his most decisive issue, and refuses to face the commission alone. He says he needs Vice-President Cheney to come with him. Psychiatrist Justin A. Frank calls this "his ultimate expression of dependency " and says it seems impossible to justify. (17) Bush claims he needs Cheney there is so that commission members can "see our body language… how we work together." (18) Can we detect the feelings of inadequacy working here?
——May 2, 2003. Bush arrives in a fighter jet on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in full flight gear (its codpiece prominent) with a "Mission Accomplished" banner strategically plastered across the conning tower of the ship. He and his handlers carefully craft the illusion that he has flown and landed the plane and media reports blur the distinction that he was a passenger in the fight who was allowed to hold the stick for a few minutes. The host of a TV talk show, "Hardball," Chris Matthews bubbles, "He looks for real. What is it about the commander in chief role, the hat of that he does wear that makes him—I mean, he seems like—he didn't fight in a war, but he looks like he does." (19) Why does a man in his late fifties who ducked out of his generation's war and dribbled away his service in the Air National Guard feel the urge to dress up like Top Gun? (His father, of course, was a real combat pilot, and at 72 parachuted out of a plane.) As a strategy to cover a sense of inadequacy, the landing is brilliant. Most of the nation comes away with the impression that the president must be highly competent because he looks so good in a flight suit.
——April 2004. A reporter asks the President GWB if he would accept any responsibility for either the intelligence failures before 9/11 or the flagging Iraq war. His response: "I hope I don't want to sound like I've made no mistakes. I'm confident I have. I just haven't—you just put me under the spot here and maybe I'm not quick—as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one." (20) Not wanting to sound like he's made no mistakes, he reverses the double negative and actually says the opposite—he hopes that he does sound like he hasn't made mistakes He also combines two clichés, being put "under the spotlight" and "on the spot." Both give us the flavor of how he's feeling inside. In two sentences he presents himself as both a man who arrogantly thinks he doesn't make mistakes, and a man who feels inadequate and "under the spot" because he's not as quick as he should be about thinking of some. It's a confession and a denial of what it confesses all at the same time. Bush is also betraying here the sophisticated defense of appearing to laugh at himself. People find charming his willingness to make self-deprecating jokes about on his own verbal blunders and awkward moments. Here we can see, though, that there is both an aggressiveness and hopelessness in this defense.
——Some Bush scenes unfold over years. Early in his presidency, he pushes through his "No Child Left Behind" legislation. Cloaked in the language of helping students and schools improve, the program enacts a stringent testing regimen that soon forces teachers around the country to "teach for the test" and demotes the more subtle and individual aspects of education. Most educators believe the program is a disaster, particularly since the president's budgets fail to fund it, forcing school systems to divert scarce resources into compliance. People appreciate the irony of a president who was a poor student himself insisting on testing standards that might have failed him outright had he been without his family connections and resources. But is it more than ironic? What does the apparent cynicism of his sabotaging the program by failing to fund it mean? Why is the punishing aspect of testing and "failure" so prominent in the language and thinking of the law? Is this program Bush's attempt to help students learn where he failed to learn, or is he getting back at educators and education for his humiliating experience? Is he recreating for hundreds of thousands of students the despair he felt in front of the "tests" of his years as a student, being constantly forced "to measure up"? Consider the emotional overtones of the phrase "No Child Left Behind" as it might apply to the boy George Bush. Are enacting the program and then sabotaging the program gestures that express the sense of inadequacy and despair he felt as a student (so he identifies with these failing students and wants to lift them to success), his urge to become the tester who punishes others with standards as he must feel he was punished; or is it an attempt to disguise his own inadequacy with regard to education by showing, I'm not like them, I made it; even as an inferior student I was not a failure like they are?
"Is our children learning," the president famously asked.
——Early 2006. Reports say that behind the scenes the President's father has been trying to remove Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and find a replacement. Rumsfeld had interfered with the career path of the elder Bush and was the father's bitter enemy, so there are multiple motives here.(21) The president apparently rejects his father's efforts and when seven retired generals demand Rumsfeld's resignation, the younger Bush reacts by declaring, "I'm the decider and I decide what's best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain." Hard not to hear the echoes of a father and his teenage son arguing over who knows best, a father worrying that his son isn't up to the job and enacting an "I told you so" for taking Rumsfeld in the first place; a son insisting he's his own man. The sound of old buttons getting pushed. A few months later, after his party's stunning election defeat, the son takes on his father's new Rumsfeld replacement, his father's crony Robert Gates, all the while insisting that dad has nothing to do with the decision. When asked by Fox reporter Britt Hume about his father's influence on decisions, Bush replies with fist clenched and smile crooked, "I'm the Commander-in-Chief." (22)
The Christian Defense
Bush's evangelical Christianity has been a chief way he has sought to insulate himself from his father's disapproval and dispel any sense of his own inadequacy. Bush has carefully let it be known that he believes the decisions he makes in office are directed by God. His famous claim to make decisions by "gut" ("I'm a gut player," he told journalist Bob Woodward) (23) conflates with his claims of the spiritual inspiration he receives through his own and others' prayers. Whatever else it is, this equation of his choices with God's will has seemingly unparalleled advantages. It creates the perfect defense against any doubts he or anyone else might have that he is incapable of finding the absolute right answer. Questions about the importance of engaging in analysis and exploring alternatives come off the table. He doesn't need them. They're secondary, at best. He has his gut. He has God.
Being "born again" also allows Bush to present himself as having relegated to the past all those previously inadequate behaviors of his younger days: the poor academic performance, the drinking, the failed businesses. He's a new man, no longer incompetent but now supremely competent as a result of his faith.
The Christian defense can, as psychiatrist Frank has pointed out," replace doubt with certainty" and "ambiguity with dualism." And through it the president "cloaks himself in the certainty of being good, absolving the self of responsibility even for destructive acts, disregarding the possibility that he could make a mistake." (24)
We emphasize that to point this out is not in any way to make a statement about Christianity or spirituality. Profound and subtle religious ideas can be distorted by an individual psyche to defend itself against perceived threats. In another psyche the very same ideas can foster an openness, creativity and affection for the world.
Perhaps one of the attractions for George W. Bush of the Christian message is that God loves him with an unqualified love, as he had hoped his parents would. God is the perfect loving and accepting dad. One doesn't have to compete with this Sublime Dad; one only has to follow the rules of the Bible (selectively interpreted) and listen to the directions whispered into one's gut (though the directions may be in reality coming from the dynamics of one's own psyche).
When Woodward asked George W. Bush if he had consulted his father before invading Iraq, he replied, "He is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to." (25) How wonderfully that appeal must seem to resolve the internal conflict about adequacy we have described above.