W. Bushs followers hail his tough comments as proof of his
straight-talking style and his moral clarity. But his
often-insulting remarks about political and international adversaries
also raise questions about whether the presidents loose tongue is
becoming a national security danger to the American people.
Americans, for instance, face a greater risk of nuclear conflict
because Bush indulged in a rant last year that included calling North
Koreas leader a pygmy or of terrorism because Bush termed
U.S. military action in the Middle East a crusade, with its
Christian vs. Muslim overtones? Or does he exacerbate worldwide
suspicion that Washington doesnt care much about the global
environment when he mocks environmentalists to his White House aides
as green-green lima beans?
of the job of any leader is to avoid careless talk that can complicate
the always-tricky business of diplomacy. Publicly at least, effective
leaders take pains not to personalize issues. But Bush consistently
does the opposite, suggesting either a political tin ear to how he
sounds to people around the world or perhaps a personality disorder
that he can't control.
way, Bush's inability to make America's case to the world may become a
political issue as the American people approach the exit ramp of
evidence is now clear that Bushs bellicose statements have
contributed to a growing hostility toward the United States in all
corners of the globe.
opinions of the U.S. have increased in most of the nations where trend
benchmarks are available, reported the Pew Research Center for The
People & The Press in a recent study. Even worse is the
deterioration of U.S. standing in areas near the front lines of the
war on terror, such as Jordan, Turkey and Pakistan. [For details, go
International editor Fareed Zakaria has written that anti-Americanism
is emerging as the planets default ideology, which translates
into deepening threats against Americans, both as individuals and as a
people. But the anger may be less anti-American than anti-Bush.
Respondents to international surveys often stress that they like
Americans but oppose Bush administration policies.
toward Bush even is eroding U.S. standing among the staunchest of
allies. In Great Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair is derided
as a poodle for backing Bushs Iraq policy, politicians across
the ideological spectrum are feeling anxiety and antagonism
toward the U.S. president, reports Andrew Rawnsley, chief political
commentator for the London Observer.
a Jan. 15 dispatch, Rawnsley quotes a former Conservative Cabinet
minister as likening Bush to a child running around with a grenade
with the pin pulled out. [For details, see Why
We Don't Trust Bush.]
image of Bush is now solidifying around the world and is creeping into
the consciousness of the American public as marked by Bush's weakening
poll numbers. But there have long been warning signs about Bushs
lack of discipline over the words coming out of his mouth.
the scene in 1986 when Bush was miffed about a prediction made by Wall
Street Journal political writer Al Hunt that Jack Kemp not
then-Vice President George H.W. Bush would win the Republican
presidential nomination in 1988. At a Dallas restaurant, the younger
George Bush spotted Hunt having dinner with his wife, Judy Woodruff,
and their four-year-old son.
stormed up to the table and started cursing out Hunt. You
[expletive] son of a bitch, Bush yelled. I saw what you wrote.
Were not going to forget this. [Washington Post, July 25, 1999]
thin-skinned about criticism of himself or his family, Bush regularly
pokes fun at others. While Texas governor, Bush lined up for a photo
and fingered the man next to him. Hes the ugly one! Bush
laughed. [NYT, Aug. 22, 1999]
one of Campaign 2000s most memorable moments, Bush uttered an aside
to his running mate Dick Cheney about New York Times reporter Adam
Clymer. There's Adam Clymer -- major league asshole -- from the New
York Times, Bush said as he was waving to a campaign crowd from a
stage in Naperville, Ill. Yeah, big time, responded Cheney.
Their voices were picked up on an open microphone.
recall Bush making a joke about the condemned murderer Carla Faye
Tucker pleading for her life to the Texas governor. Please dont
kill me, Bush whimpered through pursed lips in an imitation of the
woman whom Bush had refused clemency.
the second presidential debate, Bush continued to make light of people
facing the death penalty in Texas. While arguing against hate-crimes
laws, Bush said the three men convicted of the racially motivated
murder of James Byrd were already facing the death penalty.
going to be hard to punish them any worse after theyre put to
death, Bush said, with an out-of-place smile across his face. Beyond the inaccuracy of his statement -- one of the three
killers had received life imprisonment -- there was that smirk again
when discussing people on Death Row.
pleasure with jokes at other peoples expense hasnt changed much
since he became president. For instance, at a press conference on Aug.
24, 2001, after stumbling through an answer about his stem-cell
research policy, Bush turned to a reporter who had covered him as
Texas governor. Bush called the Texas reporter a fine lad, fine
lad, drawing laughter from the national press corps.
Texas reporter began to ask his question, You talked about the need
to maintain technological
But Bush interrupted the reporter to
deliver the punch line. A little short on hair, but a fine lad.
Yeah, Bush said, provoking a new round of laughter. The young
reporter paused and acknowledged meekly, I am losing some hair.
many of Bushs backers find his biting humor refreshing the sign
of a politically incorrect politician some critics contend
that Bushs clumsy use of words and off-handed insults fit with a
dynastic sense of entitlement toward the presidency.
the GOP machine has spun his elementary goofs as signs of kinship with
the Common Man, they are in fact an insult to the people, writes
Mark Crispin Miller in The Bush
Dyslexicon. Every bit of broken English, every flash of comfy
ignorance, reminds us of a privilege blithely squandered: Bush
attended Phillips Andover Academy, then Yale olympian institutions
that would never have admitted him if he were not a Bush.
continues, Thus, in
the matter of his education, this president, despite his folksy
pretense, is something of an anti-Lincoln one who, instead of
learning eagerly in humble circumstances, learned almost nothing at
the finest institutions in the land. When he comments on how many
hands hes shaked, or frets that quotas vulcanize
he is, of course, flaunting not his costly education but
his disdain for it much as some feckless prince, with a crowd of
beggars watching from the street, might take a few bites from the
feast laid out before him, then let the servants throw the rest
Bushs short temper and imperious treatment of those under his power
have become hallmarks of his governing style during his two years in
the White House, according to recent accounts of insiders and others
who have dealt with him.
the new book, The Right Man,
former Bush speechwriter David Frum paints a generally flattering
portrait of Bush and his leadership skills, while acknowledging
Bushs autocratic behavior. Bush is impatient and quick to anger;
sometimes glib, even dogmatic; often uncurious and as a result ill
informed; more conventional in his thinking than a leader probably
describes environmentalists as green-green lima beans and has
built a White House staff with a dearth of really high-powered
brains, Frum writes.
seldom heard an unexpected thought in the Bush White House or met
someone who possessed unusual knowledge, Frum writes, adding that
by comparison the TV show, The West Wing, with its dialogue
imbued with sophisticated political thinking might as well have
been set aboard a Klingon starship for all that it resembled life
inside the Bush White House.
who drafted the phrase axis of evil for Bushs State of the
Union speech in January 2002, resigned from the White House after a
flap over an e-mail that his wife sent to friends boasting of Frums
authorship of the phrase. Since then, Frum has defended his former
boss when Bushs motives for starting a war with Iraq have been
questioned in other countries.
October, Frum dismissed rumblings in the British press that Bush was
engaged in a family vendetta against Saddam Hussein. Bush had brought
on this suspicion himself in September by calling Saddam a liar and
adding, After all, this is the guy who tried to kill my dad, a
reference to an alleged assassination plot against former President
Bush in Kuwait in 1993.
word vendetta soon became common in the British press as one of
the reasons for Bushs obsession with Saddam and Iraq. Frum tried to
refute the claim in an article he wrote in Londons Daily Telegraph.
I'll concede that, like the others, this myth also contains its
particle of truth, Frum wrote. But the idea that an outburst of
family pique and pride can move the gigantic and sluggish American
democracy to the edge of war is simply - why be polite? - nuts.
[Daily Telegraph, Oct. 23, 2002]
a president who consistently shows a lack of discipline in his choice
of words creates unneeded hazards for the country.
sloppiness can have real consequences, including an erosion of
international support if war with Iraq or North Korea proves
necessary. That, in turn, can mean more danger to U.S. soldiers in the
field, a higher cost borne by U.S. taxpayers and a greater likelihood
that anti-Americanism will lead to more terrorism.
is an obvious reason why the rest of the world takes the words of a
president seriously, even if many Americans make light of Bushs
so-called gaffes. More than any other single person, the U.S.
president has the power to wage war anywhere in the world. What
presidents say and how they say it can dampen tensions or enflame
the current crisis with North Korea. Early in his administration, Bush
signaled that he wanted a harder approach toward North Korea than
President Clintons. But Bush and his foreign-policy team caused
confusion and anger from the start.
March 6, 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated that Bush
would use Clintons North Korea policy as a jumping-off point. We
do plan to engage with North Korea to pick up where President Clinton
and his administration left off, Powell said. Some promising
elements were left on the table, and well be examining those
next day, however, Bush met with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung
and had a different policy in mind. After the meeting, Bush
embarrassed Kim, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who had promoted a
sunshine policy toward North Koreas communist government.
Bush declared that the U.S. would not be resuming talks with North
not certain as to whether or not theyre keeping all terms of all
agreements, Bush said, also expressing some skepticism about the
leader of North Korea.
following week, on March 13, North Korea abruptly postponed meetings
with South Korea that had been planned for a few days later. Rather
than following Powells strategy of seeking improvements in
Clintons negotiated restrictions on North Koreas nuclear weapons
program, Bushs decision heightened tensions on the Korean
peninsula. Ever since, the U.S.-North Korean situation has
than a year later, in his State of the Union address, Bush included
North Korea in the axis of evil, a point that raised eyebrows
among some foreign policy experts who wondered what North Korea had to
do with al Qaedas Sept. 11 terror attacks or, for that matter, with
Iran and Iraq, the other members of the axis.
the decision to include North Korea was made without consulting the
State Department and Powell, who was told about it only shortly before
the speech. On CNBCs Hardball (now on MSNBC), Newsweeks Howard
Fineman reported a few days after Bushs speech that the decision to
include North Korea came at the last minute more as a way to balance
the axis than as well thought-out policy.
didnt want to single out Iraq for fear that the world would expect
daisy cutters to start falling right away, Fineman said. Bush
first added Iran, but was then concerned that the axis would be
perceived as simply an anti-Islamic construct. So, Fineman said, North
Korea was included because it was not a Muslim country. [Hardball,
Feb. 11, 2002]
Korea didnt treat Bushs memorable line as just a rhetorical
flourish, however. The Foreign Ministry called Bushs warning
little short of declaring a war.
axis of evil speech also came about the same time as reports
that Bush had put North Korea on a list of countries that would be
possible targets of a U.S. nuclear attack. This decision, which was
made in Bushs nuclear posture review sent to Congress in late
2001, reversed Clintons policy against targeting non-nuclear states
with nuclear weapons.
at a meeting with Republican senators last spring, Bush launched into
a disjointed, lectern-pounding tirade on issues ranging from the Sept.
11 attacks to the Crusader weapons program. Bush ended with a
denunciation of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
starving his own people, Bush said about Kim Jong Il. Bush compared
Kim to a spoiled child at a dinner table and called him a
pygmy. The senators were stunned, with one of them telling
Newsweek magazine that it was like in church, when the sermon goes
on too long and youre not sure what the point is. Nobody dared look
at anybody else. [Newsweek, May 27, 2002]
interviews with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward taped a few
months later in August 2002, Bush grew agitated again in talking about
Kim Jong Il. In Bush at War,
Woodward reported that Bush began shouting and wagging his fingers as
he vented, I loathe Kim Jong Il I've got a visceral reaction to
also talked about his policy toward North Korea as part of a plan to
reorder the world, if necessary through preemptive and unilateral
remains unclear why Bush has such a visceral reaction
defined as intensely emotional to Kim Jong Il, as opposed to
scores of other unsavory leaders around the world who oppress and
abuse their own people. Perhaps Bush is projecting frustration and
impatience with a situation he can't control.
Bushs reasons, most world leaders are careful about using personal
and racially charged insults against other leaders because such
comments can complicate or even poison government-to-government
the interviews with Woodward, Bush also described how he viewed his
judgments as beyond questioning. Bush said, I am the commander,
see. I do not need to explain why I say things. Thats the
interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to
explain to me why they need to say something, but I don't feel like I
owe anybody an explanation.
Bush also described himself to Woodward as fiery,
impatient, instinctive, and a gut player.
fiery and impatient Bush was on display again at a New
Years Eve question-and-answer session with reporters while Bush
vacationed at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
The situation on the Korean peninsula was escalating into a
full-blown crisis as Kim Jong Ils government renounced its 1994
nuclear arms agreement with the Clinton administration. In the Middle
East, Bushs showdown with Iraq was progressing toward what looked
like inevitable war.
reporter asked Bush a simple question: Mr. President, looking ahead
here, with a possible war with Iraq looming, North Korea nuclear
conflict [sic] as well as Osama bin Laden still at large, is the world
safer as we look ahead to 2003?
vagueness of the question made it one of those softballs that skilled
politicians hit out of the park. It was an easy opportunity for Bush
to reassure the American people and the world that everything will
turn out just fine and that he had everything under control.
its a lot safer today than it was a year ago, and its going to
be safer after this year than it was this year because, Bush said,
the United States of America will continue to lead a vast coalition
of freedom loving countries to disrupt terrorist activities, to hold
dictators accountable, particularly those who ignore international
norm and international rule.
as he continued to emphasize his commitment to peace, Bush suddenly
veered off into challenging the reporter. You said were headed
to war in Iraq -- I dont know why you say that. I hope were not
headed to war in Iraq. Im the person who gets to decide, not
you, Bush said.
jarring comment had a whiff of megalomania to it, an echo of past
royalty when monarchs declared, letat, cest moi, as New
York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted. [NYT, Jan. 3, 2003]
other parts of the remark raised potentially more substantive
questions. Bushs declaration of holding dictators accountable,
particularly those who ignore international norm, suggests an even
broader scope of potential military interventions than had been
understood from his West Point speech in June declaring his intention
of using preemptive attacks to stop rogue states from obtaining
weapons of mass destruction.
sweep of Bushs news conference language which could apply to
dozens of world leaders including U.S. allies recalled his
open-ended post-Sept. 11 pledge to rid the world of evil.
covering Bush are inclined to treat these remarks as insignificant,
simply examples of Bushs fondness for imprecise and melodramatic
rhetoric. But these comments can have real consequences in the
capitals of other countries.
one thing for a president to challenge U.S. adversaries by speaking
about American ideals of freedom and democracy, such as President
Reagans famous call in Berlin to then-Soviet President Mikhail
Gorbachev. In addressing Gorbachev rhetorically, with a deft
diplomatic politeness, Reagan said, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this
is altogether different to announce, off-the-cuff, a plan to lead a
vast coalition that will hold dictators accountable. The
language conveys a threat of war, especially when added to a long list
of other comments threatening preemptive strikes. Countries on
Bushs enemies list can be expected to react accordingly. In the
cases of North Korea and Iran, that likely means a speed-up in plans
to build nuclear bombs while the U.S. is distracted by Iraq.
policy concerns, Bush's comments raise questions about whether Bush
may suffer from what psychiatrists call a narcissistic personality
disorder. This disorder has the following characteristics: arrogant,
haughty behaviors or attitudes; sense of entitlement; preoccupation
with grandiose fantasies; need for excessive admiration; a grandiose
sense of self-importance; inability to recognize or identify with
feelings of others; exploitation of others; and envy. [This definition
comes from the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - Fourth Edition.]
Whether Bush suffers from a personality
disorder or not, his behavior does convey a sense that even issues of
war and peace are really all about him. Commenting on the use of
inspections to restrain Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Bush displayed his
personal impatience. "This looks like a rerun of a bad movie and
I'm not interested in watching it," Bush said at the White House
on Jan. 21.
much of the North Korean crisis is attributable to Bushs statements
may never be known. Nor is it clear how much of the swelling
anti-Americanism around the Iraq crisis comes from the worlds
visceral reaction to Bush. But what is increasingly clear is
that Bushs loose tongue is adding to the many dangers now
confronting the American people.
reality seems to be dawning on a growing number of Americans. The
CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll of mid-January found Bush's overall approval
rating slipping to 58 percent, down from a high of 90 percent after
the Sept. 11 attacks. But more strikingly, the poll showed only 36
percent of voters in favor of a Bush second term, with 32 percent set
to vote against him and 31 percent undecided, remarkably low re-elect
numbers for an incumbent.
now, however, the American public is like a passenger riding in a
speeding car with a dangerous driver. As he weaves through traffic
shouting and gesturing at other drivers on the highway, theres not
much to do but tighten the seat belt and urge more responsible
behavior. There may be no reasonable chance to wrestle the steering
wheel away without making a bad situation worse.
the next time an exit ramp comes along in, say, 2004 a growing
number of Americans appear to be thinking about easing the driver off
the highway and into a rest area, where they can leave him behind and
drive off with a more responsible president behind the wheel.