Stelzer is very generous, perhaps due to his personal audience with the president. Consider the origins of the surge. Josh Bolten, the White House chief of staff, had to "shock" Bush into recognizing that his Iraq strategy had failed after the GOP rout in the midterms. A less serene president might have interpreted Bolten's message to mean that it was time to, at the least, seek a path to extrication. Instead, Bush's "extraordinary self-confidence," in Stelzer's words, led him to... escalate the war. Bush shows every sign of believing that the GOP midterm massacre was, in reality, a mandate for him to deepen the U.S. commitment to the war.
Even the outside scholars Bush invites to the White House seem like enablers. Consider this frightening exchange:
Stelzer said Bush seemed smarter than he expected. The conversation ranged from history to religion and touched on sensitive topics for a president wrestling with his legacy. "He asked me, 'Do you think our unpopularity abroad is a result of my personality?' And he laughed," Stelzer recalled. "I said, 'In part.' And he laughed again."
Much of the discussion focused on the nature of good and evil, a perennial theme for Bush, who casts the struggle against Islamic extremists in black-and-white terms. Michael Novak, a theologian who participated, said it was clear that Bush weathers his difficulties because he sees himself as doing the Lord's work.
The piece doesn't list Stelzer or Novak's reactions to the way Bush conceives of the question of the world's rejection of the U.S. under Bush. But it would be a great credit to both men if they had said that the issue isn't so much Bush's "personality" but instead the way that he's taken America on a violent, imperial course, further destabilizing the Middle East and South Asia, without any ability to mitigate or even understand the consequences.
Conservatives are starting to understand as well that Bush's solipsism turns blunders into quagmires. A case in point is the president's take on the U.S. attorneys scandal:
Bush remains convinced that his old friend did nothing wrong ethically in firing U.S. attorneys, and senior adviser Karl Rove angrily rejects what he sees as a Democratic witch hunt, according to White House officials. Yet beyond the inner circle, it is hard to find a current or former administration official who thinks Gonzales should stay.
"I don't understand for the life of me why Al Gonzales is still there," said one former top aide, who, like others, would speak only on the condition of anonymity. "It's not about him. It's about the office and who's able to lead the department." The ex-aide said that every time he runs into former Cabinet secretaries, "universally the first thing out of their mouths" is bafflement that Gonzales remains. ...
Beyond Gonzales, the discontent with the Bush presidency is broader and deeper among Republican lawmakers, some of whom seethe with anger. "Our members just wish this thing would be over," said a senior House Republican who met with Bush recently. "People are tired of him." Bush's circle remains sealed tight, the lawmaker said. "There's nobody there who can stand up to him and tell him, 'Mr. President, you've got to do this. You're wrong on this.' There's no adult supervision. It's like he's oblivious. Maybe that's a defense mechanism."
If a consistent thread ties these episodes together, it's that, for Bush, his poor fortunes are the faults of lesser beings. One of his last remaining allies, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), describes Bush as concerned with how "100 years from now people will decide if he was right or wrong." Bob Woodward first captured that aspect of Bush in Plan of Attack, when Bush parried a question about history's verdict on Iraq by remarking, "We don't know. We'll all be dead." Like all truisms, it missed the point: history looks most kindly on those who correct their mistakes, rather than entrench themselves. It will take an energetic approach to historical revisionism to explain away the George W. Bush on display in Baker's piece this morning.