Democrats & Liberals Archives

A Thin Skin

Politics is a tough business. It’s not at all like a corporation, where the CEO takes the input of trusted advisors and the bulk of the employees remain silent at their desks. In many ways, politics turns that model upside down. The employess have the final say, the trusted advisors are expendable and the work of the CEO is under constant scrutiny by an outside force: the media.

Politics takes a pretty thick skin. Add that to the growing reasons to send George Bush back to the world of private enterprise.

George W. Bush's thin skin doesn't seem obvious at first blush. He is, in his own way, affable. Even as a Democrat, I'd probably much rather kick back and share a cold beverage with Bush than with John Kerry. I simply cannot picture Kerry as personable even in one on one situations.

More than his affability, though, I'll always connect the younger George Bush with a deep arrogance, a mystic aura of inborn and absolute correctness.

In some, that arrogance is rather charming, even inspiring. Few presidents believed more deeply in the rightness of their own decision-making process than John Kennedy, yet we found his arrogance to be a strength, an asset necessary for dealing with the Soviets and Castro. Ike was no less strong in his beliefs and no more tolerant of dissent. Yet history has placed Ike and the Eisenhower years among some of the strongest and most stable in US history. And Lyndon Johnson. Johnson's arrogance was legendary, his tolerance for differing voices very, very small. Yet, when looking at the bulk of Johnson's legacy (if you can look beyond the fiasco of "escalation" in Vietnam to the domestic issues), we can marvel at the positive impact his five years in the presidency had on the country.

Bush's arrogance is very different. It seems to take on a two-fold role: as both an indication of and a mask against a deep seated insecurity. The attitude is less of one who's merely certain he's right and more of one who's afraid that, in fact, the questioner may have exposed Bush's wrongness. His short-tempered responses, which often have the feeling of talking down to the questioner, seem much more a defense than an explanation. Just watch the response the next time the question of WMD or Dick Cheney or a creeping lead by his Democratic opponents is raised by a member of the media. What the arrogance lacks is a fundamental self-assurance - a tolerance of the questioner that quietly conveys the depth of Bush's beliefs. The sideways grin, the jabbing finger, the narrowing eyes, and the rising tone all provide much more insight than the words themselves. If you challenge George W. Bush, he wraps his own uncertainty inside an arrogant response. When in the presence of the citizenry, most of whom are awed simply by a presidential presence, Bush is safe. His arrogance finds that missing charm, that sense of being in charge. Yet put him in a room of skeptical journalists or pols from the other side of the aisle, and the charm disappears, replaced with a steely protection of his worst secret - that he himself isn't so confident in his own abilities.

Bush's refusal to speak before the NAACP stands as a strong case in point. In a race recognized by all as too close to call, Bush chose to further alienate himself from the African-American community rather than face their criticism. He even disregarded the potential political capital to be gained by taking the boos and criticism while addressing the issues in a reasonable way. Rather than face the criticism of the nation's largest African American organization, Bush simply passed, assuring he'll gain very little in the way of the 2004 black vote.

In an interesting way, the undying loyalty to staff is another indication of insecurity, this thin skin that wraps George Bush. To fire a subordinate would represent a subtle admission of error in hiring or, worse yet, an inability to properly manage the staff. To ask Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney to step down would represent just such an admission, a recognition of misplaced trust and an inability to read the motives of those closest to him. As a Democrat, I hope that stubborn refusal to admit an error continues in the case of both Rumsfeld and Cheney. I've already waxed philosophical about my own fear of the addition of John McCain or even Colin Powell to the ticket. The insecurity could be Bush's undoing in this election. His loyalty, borne in that insecurity, may be seen as supporting actions on the part of both Cheney and Rumsfeld that are becoming less and less acceptable to the American public.

We need look no further than 10 Downing Street for an example of leadership, of arrogance born in certainty rather than uncertainty. While Britain's Butler Report certianly presented the classic stiff upper lip in criticizing any individual over Britain's role in Iraq, it still presented strong and compelling criticism for the process and the decisions made in Tony Blair's government. In diametric opposition to the Bush response to the Senate Intelligence Committe report of a week ago, Tony Blair shifted the responsibility from his confidants to himself. He accepted the full responsibility for the British intelligence community's failings with charm, with grace, and without questioning the judgement of those who'd been appointed to investigate. He clearly and congruently accepts the correctness of his own judgement and position. Though I've had my differences with Blair's support of Bush in the past three years, he re-earned my respect by this unambiguous act of leadership. I simply can't imagine the same from Bush or the Bush administration.

In a way, arguing is what we do best in America. We spend the vast majority of our collective time criticizing, cajoling and bemoaning the faults of "the others." And, it's all out there for the rest of the world to see, because it can be. We exercise our freedom of speech, our right to argue and reason, to a level unprecedented in modern civilization. America is clearly not a corporation where the decisions are made at the top and the underlings are expected to do their jobs and go home. The presidency requires a self-assuredness based in confidence, not an arrogance based in insecurity. It requires a thick skin, a tolerance and an understanding of the diversity of opinion that's made us so strong.

George Bush simply doesn't have the thick skin required of a true leader. He's a CEO, not a president. Come November, we should return him to the insular world of private enterprise.

Posted by Tony Steidler-Dennison at July 15, 2004 8:08 PM