Oedipus Bush? Slate’s Jacob Weisberg Puts President on Couch
2008-01-15 01:21 (New York)
Review by Charles Trueheart
Jan. 15 (Bloomberg) — Political realists may find it
reductive or even absurd to paint the failure of a U.S.
presidency as the consequence of a son’s unresolved relationship
with his father.
Yet the approach was good enough for William Shakespeare, as
Jacob Weisberg argues in “The Bush Tragedy,” an unexpectedly
compelling piece of armchair psychoanalysis.
“The term `competition’ doesn’t begin to do justice to the
Oedipal complexities of this particular relationship,” Weisberg
writes. “George W. Bush has been driven since childhood by a
need to differentiate himself from his father, to challenge,
surpass and overcome him. Accompanying those motives have been
their precise opposites, expressed through a lifelong effort to
follow, copy and honor his father.”
Weisberg is the editor of online magazine Slate and of six
popular collections of “Bushisms,” as he calls the president’s
stream of malapropisms. In his view, Bush is “a son who tried to
vindicate his family by repudiating his father’s policies,”
notably by waging a catastrophic war in Iraq. He instead proved
“his father’s wisdom and brought shame to his name.”
This psychology has two distinct ancestral roots, Weisberg
says. The president’s grandfather, Connecticut Senator Prescott
Bush, hewed to his forebears’ ethic of “self-restraint and
public service,” while his grandmother’s family, the Walkers,
were known for “masculine risk-taking, conquest and
domination.” The current president is a “Walker through and
through,” Weisberg says.
Men from both families, he adds, subscribe to three
prevailing myths, which they may on some level believe: “I made
it on my own,” “I’m not really rich,” and “I’m running to
serve my country.”
Weisberg traces the ascent of George W. Bush by emphasizing
the religious awakening that followed his decision to stop
drinking two decades ago — the same rebirth that shaped his
political profile in Texas. Though “The Bush Tragedy” isn’t
hostile to Bush’s faith, it does unsparingly dissect how Bush
turned his beliefs to political use.
“His is an instrumentalist, utilitarian faith,” the author
writes, a “self-help Methodism.” It allowed him to win the
White House, after which “the religious aura” of his presidency
became “mostly atmospherics.”
Weisberg introduces his chapters with quotations from
Shakespeare’s plays about another famous father and son who ruled
the realm, “Henry IV” (Parts I and II) and “Henry V.” Here
and there, Weisberg veers from his narrative to stretch literary-
historical comparisons around the Bush presidency.
He’s closer to the facts, and more persuasive, in
psychoanalyzing the co-dependent relationships that developed
between Bush and the two men most responsible for the tragedy
that ensued: his political Svengali and egger-on, Karl Rove, and
his vice president and substitute father, Dick Cheney.
Rove had an egomaniacal obsession with lasting Republican
Party dominance, Weisberg says. He steered the impressionable
Bush “away from being the president he originally wanted to be
— the kind of center-right consensus builder he was as governor
of Texas — and into a too-close alliance with people both of
them found a bit nutty.”
As for the “seemingly egoless” Cheney, he appreciated that
“Bush needed to make himself his father’s antithesis,” Weisberg
writes. He “grasped that Bush’s overconfidence concealed an
abiding intellectual insecurity.” On the blank slate of his
boss’s mind, Cheney drew a master plan to restore the authority
of the chief executive — a plan that blew up in their faces.
The war in Iraq flowed from all of the above. The book
closes with a smart and damning analysis of the disparate motives
and ideologies that drove Bush to war: He yearned to show up his
father’s seeming irresolution during the first invasion of Iraq,
yet also wanted to avenge Saddam Hussein’s plot to assassinate
Bush senior in the early 1990s, Weisberg says.
“The Bush Tragedy” occasionally twists itself into a
pretzel in trying to fit Bush and his entourage into the
paradigms of Shakespeare and Freud. Even so, Weisberg is right
that we will need their help and more to comprehend the magnitude
and complexity of this botched presidency.