POLITICS
04/25/2013 11:21 am ET | Updated Apr 25, 2013

George W. Bush, From 'Tree Man' To Cheney: A Study In Lack Of Curiosity

WASHINGTON -- In the winter of 1996, forest fires were raging across a tinder-dry Texas. Then-Gov. George W. Bush met the press to outline the state's response.

He told reporters assembled in an ornate meeting room in the capitol that he was, of course, on top of the situation, but that the man in charge of operations was an official from the forestry department.

Bush called him to the microphone. "Come on up here, Tree Man," said Bush.

He didn't know the man's name, let alone the details of the man's position. George W. Bush had been governor for more than a year.

Bush's executive obliviousness seemed harmlessly funny at the time. And a case can be made for proper, even aggressive, management by delegation. So what if he didn't know the guy's name? In the end, the state got the job done -- with, by the way, substantial federal aid for the disaster that the fires created.

But the passage of years and the preliminary judgment of history show a straight line from the Tree Man to "Brownie" to Dick Cheney. Only in the last case, the result was a disaster known as the war in Iraq.

This week is Bush Week in the media, and analysts are looking back at his legacy as he opens his presidential library on the campus of SMU in Dallas. Which is as good a time as any to remember -- and acknowledge -- the bottom line: That as unaffected as he was, as charming as he could be, he gave us Iraq (and Katrina) because of his stubborn, even proud, lack of curiosity, his refusal to pay close attention to details, his instinct to delegate power, and his faith in simple answers.

Bush lived in a world of black and white. He said that it was because of his deep moral beliefs -- and perhaps it was. It is hard to gainsay the fact that Saddam Hussein was "evil," although for many years he wasn't so evil that America declined to side with him against Iran.

But knowing Bush as I do -- I covered him from 1994 to 2008 for Newsweek -- I can say that there was another reason for his Manichean view: It was easier for him to deal with. It gave him further reason to offload key decisions to the men around him, to men he didn't really know and whose motives he never really quite understood.

For Bush, "idle curiosity" was a redundancy. He saw no reason to know anything more than what he needed to know at the precise moment he needed to know it to survive in the business that had been chosen for him more or less from childhood: politics. His desktop in the governor's office in Austin was immaculately clean. There was literally nothing on it the day I interviewed him there.

He wanted to sense just enough about people to make sure that they were not a threat, or to suss out how to initiate them into his informal tribe. Ever the fraternity president, he gave everyone a nickname, not out of affection but to keep them at a safe distance.

Bush once told the queen of England that he was the "black sheep" in the family, and in many ways he was, even though (or, I always thought, because) he was first born and his father's namesake. He was both drawn to and repulsed by the world into which he was born.

As a young man, Bush found it hard to focus. The term ADD had not yet been invented, but he may well have suffered from it. Later, when he prepared for debates, he wrote on large legal pads with a Sharpie pen, only a few words per page in a big, looping scrawl.

He was a product of Andover, Yale and Harvard, but so far as I could tell, he hated them all. He fit in socially but not academically. The professors were liberals, so he could dislike them for that. But mostly he seemed to fear them because they had the power to test his mind.

The result of his upbringing and his education was a combustible mix and a combustible man. His "aw shucks" demeanor hid a sense of entitlement -- and yet he was full of resentment at the intellectual, managerial and personal demands that fate had handed him.

The result was his stone-cold refusal to change or to be curious about the world beyond what he already knew of it once he became president.

There is a durable myth in American history about presidents "growing" in office once they face its unique challenges. It's a convenient myth in a democracy, where we place faith in our own judgment. And sometimes it is true: Harry Truman; JFK was well on his way until an assassin cut him down; Ronald Reagan, the oldest person ever elected president, transformed himself from saber-rattler to epic peacemaker.

Not so with George W. Bush. He was oblivious to the warning signs of 9/11. He turned control over to Cheney and the neocons. He told "Brownie" that he was doing a "heck of a job" in New Orleans.

We went to war in Iraq -- arguably the biggest mistake we have made as a nation since the Vietnam War -- on what turned out to be made-up evidence. Perhaps the best thing one can say about Bush and Iraq is that he wasn't curious enough or closely involved enough to have judged the evidence, or lack thereof.

But he didn’t really want to.

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