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Old 10-17-2004, 08:25 AM   #5
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pg.3

''I've never lived around poor people,'' Wallis remembers Bush saying. ''I don't know what they think. I really don't know what they think. I'm a white Republican guy who doesn't get it. How do I get it?''

Wallis recalls replying, ''You need to listen to the poor and those who live and work with poor people.''

Bush called over his speechwriter, Michael Gerson, and said, ''I want you to hear this.'' A month later, an almost identical line -- ''many in our country do not know the pain of poverty, but we can listen to those who do'' -- ended up in the inaugural address.

That was an earlier Bush, one rather more open and conversant, matching his impulsiveness with a can-do attitude and seemingly unafraid of engaging with a diverse group. The president has an array of interpersonal gifts that fit well with this fearlessness -- a headlong, unalloyed quality, best suited to ranging among different types of people, searching for the outlines of what will take shape as principles.

Yet this strong suit, an improvisational gift, has long been forced to wrestle with its ''left brain'' opposite -- a struggle, across 30 years, with the critical and analytical skills so prized in America's professional class. In terms of intellectual faculties, that has been the ongoing battle for this talented man, first visible during the lackluster years at Yale and five years of drift through his 20's -- a time when peers were busy building credentials in law, business or medicine.

Biden, who early on became disenchanted with Bush's grasp of foreign-policy issues and is among John Kerry's closest Senate friends, has spent a lot of time trying to size up the president. ''Most successful people are good at identifying, very early, their strengths and weaknesses, at knowing themselves,'' he told me not long ago. ''For most of us average Joes, that meant we've relied on strengths but had to work on our weakness -- to lift them to adequacy -- otherwise they might bring us down. I don't think the president really had to do that, because he always had someone there -- his family or friends -- to bail him out. I don't think, on balance, that has served him well for the moment he's in now as president. He never seems to have worked on his weaknesses.''

Bush has been called the C.E.O. president, but that's just a catch phrase -- he never ran anything of consequence in the private sector. The M.B.A. president would be more accurate: he did, after all, graduate from Harvard Business School. And some who have worked under him in the White House and know about business have spotted a strange business-school time warp. It's as if a 1975 graduate from H.B.S. -- one who had little chance to season theory with practice during the past few decades of change in corporate America -- has simply been dropped into the most challenging management job in the world.

One aspect of the H.B.S. method, with its emphasis on problems of actual corporations, is sometimes referred to as the ''case cracker'' problem. The case studies are static, generally a snapshot of a troubled company, frozen in time; the various ''solutions'' students proffer, and then defend in class against tough questioning, tend to have very short shelf lives. They promote rigidity, inappropriate surety. This is something H.B.S. graduates, most of whom land at large or midsize firms, learn in their first few years in business. They discover, often to their surprise, that the world is dynamic, it flows and changes, often for no good reason. The key is flexibility, rather than sticking to your guns in a debate, and constant reassessment of shifting realities. In short, thoughtful second-guessing.

George W. Bush, who went off to Texas to be an oil wildcatter, never had a chance to learn these lessons about the power of nuanced, fact-based analysis. The small oil companies he ran tended to lose money; much of their value was as tax shelters. (The investors were often friends of his father's.) Later, with the Texas Rangers baseball team, he would act as an able front man but never really as a boss.



pg.4

Instead of learning the limitations of his Harvard training, what George W. Bush learned instead during these fitful years were lessons about faith and its particular efficacy. It was in 1985, around the time of his 39th birthday, George W. Bush says, that his life took a sharp turn toward salvation. At that point he was drinking, his marriage was on the rocks, his career was listless. Several accounts have emerged from those close to Bush about a faith ''intervention'' of sorts at the Kennebunkport family compound that year. Details vary, but here's the gist of what I understand took place. George W., drunk at a party, crudely insulted a friend of his mother's. George senior and Barbara blew up. Words were exchanged along the lines of something having to be done. George senior, then the vice president, dialed up his friend, Billy Graham, who came to the compound and spent several days with George W. in probing exchanges and walks on the beach. George W. was soon born again. He stopped drinking, attended Bible study and wrestled with issues of fervent faith. A man who was lost was saved.

His marriage may have been repaired by the power of faith, but faith was clearly having little impact on his broken career. Faith heals the heart and the spirit, but it doesn't do much for analytical skills. In 1990, a few years after receiving salvation, Bush was still bumping along. Much is apparent from one of the few instances of disinterested testimony to come from this period. It is the voice of David Rubenstein, managing director and cofounder of the Carlyle Group, the Washington-based investment firm that is one of the town's most powerful institutions and a longtime business home for the president's father. In 1989, the catering division of Marriott was taken private and established as Caterair by a group of Carlyle investors. Several old-guard Republicans, including the former Nixon aide Fred Malek, were involved.

Rubenstein described that time to a convention of pension managers in Los Angeles last year, recalling that Malek approached him and said: ''There is a guy who would like to be on the board. He's kind of down on his luck a bit. Needs a job. . . . Needs some board positions.'' Though Rubenstein didn't think George W. Bush, then in his mid-40's, ''added much value,'' he put him on the Caterair board. ''Came to all the meetings,'' Rubenstein told the conventioneers. ''Told a lot of jokes. Not that many clean ones. And after a while I kind of said to him, after about three years: 'You know, I'm not sure this is really for you. Maybe you should do something else. Because I don't think you're adding that much value to the board. You don't know that much about the company.' He said: 'Well, I think I'm getting out of this business anyway. And I don't really like it that much. So I'm probably going to resign from the board.' And I said thanks. Didn't think I'd ever see him again.''

Bush would soon officially resign from Caterair's board. Around this time, Karl Rove set up meetings to discuss Bush's possible candidacy for the governorship of Texas. Six years after that, he was elected leader of the free world and began ''case cracking'' on a dizzying array of subjects, proffering his various solutions, in both foreign and domestic affairs. But the pointed ''defend your position'' queries -- so central to the H.B.S. method and rigorous analysis of all kinds -- were infrequent. Questioning a regional supervisor or V.P. for planning is one thing. Questioning the president of the United States is another.

Still, some couldn't resist. As I reported in ''The Price of Loyalty,'' at the Bush administration's first National Security Council meeting, Bush asked if anyone had ever met Ariel Sharon. Some were uncertain if it was a joke. It wasn't: Bush launched into a riff about briefly meeting Sharon two years before, how he wouldn't ''go by past reputations when it comes to Sharon. . . . I'm going to take him at face value,'' and how the United States should pull out of the Arab-Israeli conflict because ''I don't see much we can do over there at this point.'' Colin Powell, for one, seemed startled. This would reverse 30 years of policy -- since the Nixon administration -- of American engagement. Such a move would unleash Sharon, Powell countered, and tear the delicate fabric of the Mideast in ways that might be irreparable. Bush brushed aside Powell's concerns impatiently. ''Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things.''
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