GW Bush and Character

GW Bush and Character
by Don Williams

George Bush’s character is the issue in this election—his character and all the deceptions, abuses, failures, and tragedies that follow from it. To hold Bush’s character to the light, E.L. Doctorow wrote a short essay called “The Unfeeling President.” He writes:

“But this president does not know what death is…. He does not mourn. He doesn’t understand why he should mourn. He is satisfied during the course of a speech written for him to look solemn for a moment and speak of the brave young Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice…. But you study him, you look into his eyes and know he dissembles an emotion which he does not feel in the depths of his being because he has no capacity for it.”

George Bush doesn’t and never did understand grief. He wasn’t supposed to. Nor were his parents. When George was told of the death of his younger sister, he had no words or memories to contain grief. His parents gave him no preparation for the loss, no vocabulary for suffering and death.  They hid their grief. When George was 6, his 3 year old sister, Robin, was diagnosed with leukemia. He was not told about her illness, nor were her absences explained to him when she was sent East for treatment. Robin died 6 months later in New York. Her parents spent the next day golfing; they attended a small memorial service  and flew back to Texas. George learned of Robin’s cancer at the same time he was told of her death.  Don’t feel, don’t speak! In this family atmosphere George learned to not feel what what others didn’t feel. He learned nothing about his own feelings and nothing about empathy. How is it possible, then, for George Bush to “hug and weep and console” the families of soldiers who died in Iraq? “Weep” was his word. Can you imagine George Bush welling up with natural, uncontrived tears?  Doctorow was right when he said, “you look into his eyes and know he dissembles an emotion which he does not feel.”

Judging by his remarks during the April 14 press conference, Bush consoles families by reminding them “that the sacrifice of their loved ones is — was done in the name of security for America and freedom for the world.” Abstractions like “security” and “freedom” don’t console, but, then, how would he know. Grief is one of the tender emotions he learned not to know.

“It’s been really tough for the families. I understand that,” he says. But that’s precisely the problem—he doesn’t understand and doesn’t know that he doesn’t understand. Self-reflection is an unfamiliar and unwanted practice for the Bush family, and their money renders it unnecessary. “It’s been tough on this administration. But we’re doing the right thing.”  The stage direction should read, “Cut to sober expression of resolve.” It’s been hard on him too—some consolation.

Because George Bush has no capacity for empathy, he stumbles shamelessly when attempting to feel for others. Consider this verbatim statement from the same April press conference:

“One of my hardest parts of my job is to console the family members who’ve lost their lives.”

When he wants his audience to imagine his depth of feeling, he stupidly tells us that it’s hard to console people who… who are dead. But he doesn’t hear his words as we do. Unfortunately, many people reporting on the press conference spoke as if they had not heard the President say what he said the way he said it. Television reporters either dissembled to keep their jobs or they dissociated like the President.

If Laura Bush has a greater emotional and empathic range than her husband, how does she tolerate him?  Money helps. And the church and family. But she looks depressed to me. Depression can be a great “enabler;” if a person can tolerate depression adequately, it will mute the healthy impulses to flee an oppressive marriage or degrading work. This attribute of psychological suffering used to be called a “secondary gain.” I believe Laura’s got it.

The President’s emptiness makes it virtually impossible for him to understand how he sounds. Only at the end of his April press conference and only after repeated assualts on his character and repeated dissociative flights did he begin to question himself. As the press conference was coming to a close and he could see the exit ramp, Bush must have felt emboldened to risk a little exposure.

A reporter asked:

“After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say? And what lessons have you learned from it?” George had a flicker of self-reflection but no insight into the impression he was making: “Hmmm. I wish you’d have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it…. You know, I just — I’m sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn’t yet.”

There was this moment of self-reflection but “with all the pressure” he dissociated and spoke more nonsense about weapons of mass destruction:

“See, I happen to believe we’ll find out the truth on the weapons…. I look forward to hearing the truth as — exactly where they are. They could still be there. They could be hidden, like, the 50 tons of mustard gas in a turkey farm.”

He couldn’t possibly know how ridiculous he sounds as he talks about the weapons that could be, like, hidden on a turkey farm…, like, like they were in Libya. Colonlel Qaddafi showed him the farm.

The President continued, explaining how the Iraqi people were afraid to talk for fear of being killed:

“You know, there’s this kind of, there’s this terror still in the soul of some of the people in Iraq. They’re worried about getting killed. And therefore, they’re not going to talk.”

Doesn’t this begin to sound like symbolic communication, like the kind of language psychoanalysts listen for?

First there is the triggering event—Bush is questioned in front of the world about hiding his failures.  Next, we hear his “disturbed”—indicating conflict—speech and symbolic references to fear, murder, terror, deception. I think Bush unconsciously perceived the questions about his mistakes as terrifyingly hostile. And he was right—he was not safe, and the more he denied responsibility, the more aggressive the questions and charges became. And like the Iraqis he described, Bush was afraid of being slaughtered and he refused and continues to refuse to speak.

Saddam Hussein is a ready symbolic representation for the projected aggression Bush fears: “I have no doubt in my mind that he would like to have inflicted harm or paid people to inflict harm or trained people to inflict harm on America because he hated us.” What?! Saddam Hussein was never a threat to Americans…except to George’s father.  He wasn’t plotting to “harm America.” Osama bin Laden caused earthshaking harm and presumably still intends to, but he’s Saudi, not Iraqi. So whom does the former Iraqi dictator represent in Bush’s psyche?—this question deserves headline news.

At the end of the press conference there were a few honest moments when Bush showed some self-awareness, some vulnerabilty:

“You know, 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.”

He finally admits that he is “on the spot” and that he doesn’t know how to respond. Even here, though, his cramped and contorted moment of reflection (not clarity, mind you) will not last beyond his first steps away from the podium. What does he mean when he says, “I hope I don’t want to sound like….”? He’s confident he’s made a mistake but just doesn’t know what it is…?  I don’t think he can possibly know how ridiculous he sounds. And no one will tell him. Then there’s the voting public—many don’t see or feel this President’s shameless deceit and those who do see manage somehow to forget. How dangerous.


Transcript of President Bush’s April 14, 2004, news conference as recorded by The New York Times.
“Guestwords:  The Unfeeling President” by E.L. Doctorow as published in the Easthampton Star, September 9, 2004.
Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President by Justin A. Frank, MD. Regan Books. New York, 2004.

© Don Williams 2004