How Bush thinks: intuition over intellect
AS SOMEBODY WHO doesn’t have the slightest feeling one way or another about baseball star Rafael Palmeiro, I have to say that it seems pretty clear Palmeiro has used steroids. Palmeiro recently tested positive for steroid use. And then there’s former teammate Jose Canseco’s allegation that he and Palmeiro both used steroids, which is impossible to verify but would seem to explain why Palmeiro’s annual home run total nearly doubled after Canseco joined him on the Texas Rangers. None of this is ironclad proof, but it seems the simplest way to reconcile the available data.
President Bush, though, doesn’t see it this way at all. When asked about Palmeiro’s positive steroid test, Bush -- who knew Palmeiro when the president owned the Rangers -- replied, “Rafael Palmeiro is a friend. He testified in public and I believe him. He’s the kind of person that’s going to stand up in front of the Klieg lights and say he didn’t use steroids, and I believe him.”
This statement perfectly crystallizes Bush’s thinking. Facts don’t matter to him. What matters is how he feels about the person in question. In 2001, for instance, Bush met with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, and the two hit it off. As Bush later told Peggy Noonan, Putin recounted to him a story involving a cross given to him by his mother.
“I said to him, ‘You know, I found that story very interesting. You see, President Putin, I think you judge a person on something other than just politics. I think it’s important for me and for you to look for the depth of a person’s soul and character. I was touched by the fact your mother gave you the cross.’ ” Bush publicly testified of Putin, “I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
Personally, I put less weight on the fact that Putin got a cross from his mother, and more on the fact that Putin has smothered Russian democracy by outlawing opposition parties, shut down any remotely skeptical media outlet and subjected his critics to political show trials. Yet this sort of evidence has had barely any effect on Bush. Two years later, he was still praising Putin’s desire for “a country in which democracy and freedom and rule of law thrive.”
Bush is even apt to apply this particular brand of illogic to his own character. In one of the 2000 presidential debates, Al Gore pointed out that Bush as governor of Texas opposed a measure to expand children’s healthcare and instead used the money for a tax cut. The debate moderator then asked Bush, “Are those numbers correct? Are his charges correct?” To which Bush replied, “If he’s trying to allege that I’m a hardhearted person and I don’t care about children, he’s absolutely wrong.”
The style of Bush’s reply is telling. Gore was trying to make a point about Bush’s moral priorities by establishing a series of facts about Bush’s behavior. Rather than deny having chosen tax cuts over children’s healthcare, or explain his rationale for having done so, Bush changed the subject to more comfortable ground: judging people’s hearts. He asked the audience to intuit, based on the way he carries himself, that he is a warmhearted person, and thus to reject out of hand any facts that might clash with this impression.
The point isn’t just that Bush refuses to engage with facts he finds inconvenient. (Many fail that test.) It’s that Bush rejects reason itself. Reason is a process by which we draw our broader conclusions from an accumulation of specific evidence. When the evidence changes (“Hey, this Putin guy seems to be squelching dissent”), our conclusions can also (“Perhaps he doesn’t love democracy as much as he said he did!”). Bush, on the other hand, arrives at his beliefs through intuition. His supporters marvel at the unshakeable certainty of his convictions. Well, no wonder.