Alex Massie

When the Oval Office meets “The Office”...

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David Frum has an interesting piece in this month's Prospect on the lessons Barack Obama (or, I suppose, John McCain, will learn from the structural short-comings of George W Bush's White House organisation. Frum makes the useful point, often overlooked these days, that though Bush was inexperienced in traditional political terms, he was well-versed in the internal office politics dynamics of the White House. Alas, he drew lessons that made it easier for the White House to function, at the expense of its ability to operate effectively. As Frum puts it:

McClellan was not alone in being deficient at his job. George W Bush brought most of his core first-term White House team with him from Texas. Except for Karl Rove, these Texans were a strikingly inadequate bunch. Harriet Miers, Alberto Gonzales, Karen Hughes, Al Hawkins, Andy Card (the last not a Texan, but a lifelong Bush family retainer) were more like characters from The Office than the people one would expect to find at the pinnacle of the world's most powerful nation.

That early team was recruited with one paramount consideration in mind: loyalty. Theoretically, it should be possible to combine loyalty with talent, but that did not happen often with the Bush team. Bush demanded loyalty not to a cause or an idea, but to himself personally. He tested that loyalty with constant petty teasing, sometimes verging on the demeaning. (The journalist Robert Draper tells the story of a 1999 campaign strategy meeting at which Bush shut Rove up by ordering him to "hang up my jacket." The room fell silent in shock—but Rove did it.)

These little abuses would often be followed by unexpected acts of generosity. Yet the combination of the demand for personal loyalty, the bullying and compensatory love-bombing was to weed out strong personalities and to build an inner circle defined by a willingness to accept subordination to the fluctuating needs of a tense, irascible and unpredictable chief.

This is telling stuff, surely, lending support (it if is still needed) to the idea that, at bottom, Bush is a small man in a big office. Paradoxically, one might even suggest that his rock-solid certainty is borne of a deeply-buried lack of confidence. The results, alas, are there for all to see.

The "hang up my jacket" anecdote Frum cites above is, of course, typical of the playground bully and might, even if other evidence weren't so easy to find, suggest that Bush was fundamentally, temperamentally unsuited to the Presidency. Then again, the demands of the job are so preposterous that one might wonder how anyone can actually perform it effectively unless they were to take an unfashionably moderate, restrained, laissez-faire approach to the office. Absent that, and bearing in mind the audacity of ego required to even contemplate tilting for the office, one might conclude that the desire to be President should in many ways, act as a fundamental disqualification from ever actually being President. Over to you Gene Healy...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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