Sanity, Competence, And The Latest Washington Crock About Iraq

Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

Following is an introduction to a much longer article by Dean Velvel. Click here to link to that article.

To my surprise, the recent post raising the issue of George Bush’s sanity received a reasonable amount of response.  The posting questioned his sanity on the ground that he is in denial about Iraq -- that he is living in an Iraqian dreamworld that exists only in his head, not in the real world.  Much of the response went much further.  Responses simply said Bush is nuts, had been for a long time, and had long been thought to be by the responders.  One response called attention to two, three and four year old articles and books by people with training in psychiatric or psychological matters.  Those writers pointed to several reasons for doubting Bush’s sanity.  Most interesting perhaps was the idea that he suffers from a condition called ‘“dry drunk.’”  Essentially, this means that even if one eventually stops drinking, as Bush did, years of alcoholism cause irreversible damage to brain chemistry.  Results of this damage include such Bushian traits as rigid judgmentalism, irritability, impatience, grandiosity, obsessive thought patterns, incoherent speech and other unlovely characteristics.  Bush also seems to have characteristics that, whether or not they are characteristic of “dry drunks,” are symptomatic of people who don’t fully have a grip.  These include immense anger, exploitativeness, arrogance, lack of empathy, and difficulties arising from relationships with one’s father.

Aside from writings in former years questioning Bush’s sanity, it was fortuitous that, a few days after my posting, Frank Rich wrote a long piece in the Sunday New York Times in which he said that Bush is not merely in denial about Iraq, but is “untethered from reality” regarding it.

Now, this writer doesn’t know much about psychiatry, so I can’t opine on the correctness of those who wrote two, three and four years ago that Bush has symptoms associated with lack of sanity.  Their points do seem to make common sense, at least to one who is uninitiated, and one does know that living in a dream world disconnected from the actual world is not usually regarded as the quintessence of sanity.  Frankly, if legislators, the press, or doctors had any guts -- which they usually don’t -- they would be discussing the question of Bush’s sanity.  Naturally, such discussion would be blasted by Bushian supporters as being opinions arrived at without personal examinations of or conversations with the subject, and sometimes by mere laymen.  But these days, with the vast amount of information available or attainable about persons, doctors, at least, do opine in lots of medical areas even without personal examinations.  And it’s not as if the subject is unimportant, you know.  On the contrary, it is entirely possible, maybe even very likely, (1) that what has gone on with regard to Iraq has been driven by psychological factors far more than by anything rational; and (2) that citizens and legislators would more readily curb our government’s wacked out actions if they began to understand them to be the product of (misshapen) psychological characteristics, not of fact and logic.  Indeed, one suspects that, 50 or 75 or 100 years from now, historians will see the last four years in terms of psychological phenomena regarding Bush, other leaders and the general body politic, not in terms of alleged imperatives of fact and reason.  Today, after all, we think there was a certain amount of insanity -- a certain amount of psychological malfunction and malformation -- that drove characters like Hitler, Stalin, Mao and other evildoers.  Why can’t the same be true of Bush and his crowd -- and of some of their followers too?  

To one trained in arts of thought, the amazing thing was that a man like this could become President.  One wondered how he could have been picked as the nominee and then elected.  After all, it was clear early-on that he not only had been a long time drunk, but had failed at every business venture, so that time and again he had to be rescued by Daddy’s friends and wanna be friends.  Recently, I read a claim that conservative Republicans, desperate to win in 2000, picked him to be the nominee early-on because they thought him a good salesman.  This could make some sense, especially given his family background and his good ol’ boy personality, a type of personality Americans love even when divorced from brains, about which Americans usually care very little.  (Bush’s good ol’ boy, salesman persona stood him in particularly good stead four years later against the unlovely Kerry.)  But better knowledge of why and how Bush got to be the nominee in 2000 will have to await future research by historians.  It is an interesting question, though.

Less amazing than Bush’s selection, but remarkable nevertheless was that in mid 2004 an academic, an apparently very well known sociologist at the prestigious Northwestern University, wrote a piece expressing puzzlement that persons he called “progressives” despise Bush, puzzlement at why “a fair population of these bright and articulate Americans hate” him and why “so many thoughtful people hold a belief that is surprising - - and troubling - - to the vast majority of Americans.”  The professor then answered his own puzzlement thusly:

. . . George Bush is Forrest Gump.  He has led a charmed life, in which mediocrity, error
and failure have had no consequences other than to produce success.  An indifferent
student, Bush attended both Yale and Harvard, escaped service in Vietnam, escaped
disgrace despite drunken driving, failed as an oil magnate only to be promoted to head
the Texas Rangers baseball team, and lacking political experience, became governor of
Texas.  His family and mentors paved the way for this untalented scion of privilege.  Bush
was the frat boy who never grew up.

To the professor all this was not reason enough for progressives to dislike Bush.  Rather, they should make judgments based on Bush’s policies.  But the professor seems to have ignored the policies.  As said here in a blog, dated August 23, 2004, on the professor’s view:

Saying that “political animus” should not be “tied to issues that are removed from policy”
and that “bitterness toward the follies of youth” should not “determine our politics,” [the
professor] says there is enough to argue about by considering a president’s successes,
failures, misdeeds.  But Bush’s failures and misdeeds are matters that have contributed - -
mightily - - to “progressives” disliking him intensely.  In particular, his defense and foreign
policies have outraged them.  From telling the rest of the world to lump it, to spurning
international courts, to incredible misjudgments about Iraq from start to finish, to untruths
and total unwillingness to admit mistakes about such matters, Bush has outraged those
who now deeply, viscerally dislike him. 

To my mind, it is remarkable that an apparently renowned professor of sociology (no less) at an eminent school should have had so little appreciation of the distaste intelligent people have for the fact that Bush’s life refutes fundamental values we grew up with:  hard work, competence, intelligence, modesty.  His life, with its drunkenness, serial failures, lack of competence repeated salvation via Daddy and Daddy’s friends, all followed by the presidency no less, and by disastrous ill-considered policies, makes a joke of the values we absorbed as youths and still try to live by.  That “the vast majority of Americans” may have been “trouble[ed]” by our distaste for Bush two and a half years ago is, if true, simply symptomatic of a point made earlier; they don’t care about brains.  Nor are they put off by the spectre of the brainless advancing via family rather than talent, work, and honesty.

Of course, today, with the situation in Iraq having descended to where it now is, even “the vast majority of Americans” may now by troubled by the idea that the brainless can advance by privilege alone, or at least that this one example of the mentally inept could do so.  Academics are perhaps no longer alone in their contempt for the man these days.  And one wonders what the Northwestern professor himself thinks now.  It would be a cheap shot, I suppose, to say that one has seen or heard of no more op eds by him.

Now, the fact that we’ve seen the harm that can be wrought by the unintelligent and the incompetent ought to have a bearing on our politics in the future.  (Although whether it will or not is unknowable.)  We should in future make it a sine qua non for high office that a candidate have shown intelligence and judgment at something, somewhere.  Maybe high intelligence could be suitably shown by great academic success, at least if unencumbered by failure in the practical world.  Or perhaps high success in the practical world in a position that truly requires brains for success, not just a pleasant personality, could be a sufficient talisman.  However a judgment may suitably be made, intelligence, coupled with judgment, should affirmatively be an object of inquiry and assessment.  And so should honesty, because dishonesty has produced as much disaster as sheer stupidity and incompetence (with a combination of them being deadly, viz. Bush).

Naturally one might object that a requirement of intelligence, judgment and honesty would eliminate most politicians from running for high office.  That could easily be true today given the way the political game is now played.  If so, the answer is to demand that the game be played differently, not to elect the dumb or dishonest out of despair over the possibility of doing better.

Click here to link to the full article.

This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel.  If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at  Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.

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Harvard Square Commentary, December 18, 2006