George W. Bush preserves his self-confidence by shutting out other points of view. Barack Obama's openness is possible, on the other hand, because of his genuine self-confidence.
Outgoing President George W. Bush's farewell speech put on display, once again, the psychology of a man who is incapable of self-examination, whose mind simply does not permit him to reflect on his actions. As though added by a speech writer, Bush recited the words, "There are things I would do differently if given the chance." Other than a few flights of verbal fancy, however, Bush has never been able to identify anything he would do differently.
His Bush-version of a mea culpa was immediately followed by the real Bush philosophy: "I have always acted with the best interests of our country in mind. I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right." Bush is confident that people respect him simply for making the "tough decisions." Nowhere does his world view permit him to question the quality or consequences of these decisions. Laura Bush describes the time George crashed their car into their garage after she once criticized him -- presumably, she never did it again.
After the speech, Chris Matthews on MSNBC correctly identified the relevant aspects of Bush's biography -- that he was resolutely anti-intellectual and disdained the "pointy heads" at Yale and Harvard. Unequipped with book knowledge or a philosophy of his own -- or, more important, the intellectually ability to evaluate the perspectives of others -- Bush simply latched onto the neoconservative ideas of Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby and Paul Wolfowitz. Once he adopted these men's world views, he didn't have the tools to question them.
Two nights before, President-elect Barack Obama dined with a number of prominent conservative columnists, including such sharp minds as George Will, William Kristol and David Brooks. Questioned the next morning about the dinner on Fox and Friends, Kristol made light of the meeting, saying nobody changed their minds during the evening. But the correct question to ask Kristol would have been, "What does it say that Barack Obama met with a group of intelligent political opponents while George Bush would never think of doing so?"
Paul Krugman described how he was received at the White House after winning the Nobel Prize for economics during the current economic break-down. "Did Bush speak with you?" he was asked. "He made small talk with my wife, who is also from Texas," Krugman answered.
What Obama's dining with the opposition shows is that -- while Bush is impervious to other points of view -- Obama doesn't find alternative ideas challenging. He is capable of assessing and integrating them with his own secure and well-considered slant on things. We are reminded of Thurlow Weed's assessment of Lincoln (Weed was campaign manager for Lincoln's chief opponent for the Presidential nomination, William Seward): "He sees all who go there, hears all they have to say, talks freely with everybody, reads whatever is written to him; but thinks and acts by himself and for himself."
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