What up with Bush?

There's been a lot of revived talk lately about just why exactly Bush is so much less articluate than he was only a decade ago. But the usual theories: that he is deliberately trying to sound dumb, that his cocoon of yes men has dulled his senses, and of course, mild cognitive dysfunction, just don't seem to add up.

I've watched this Frontline thing on Bush and Kerry twice now (I have no cable) and I'll agree that the difference really is remarkable. In nearly all the footage of Bush prior to the 2000 race, he comes off as smart, articulate, and aware, albeit in a cocky, self-assured way. He spins descriptions of policy with ease, flair and confidence, and while you might call him glib you certainly would not call him stupid or dense.

So what has changed since those early days? From all accounts, Bush is still just as charming and smooth in person, so why has his public persona veered so far off course? I think the trouble lies in the evolution of the unique political machine that surrounds him.

Perhaps Bush's greatest political asset has been a political operation tighter than perhaps any seen before in national politics. As guided by Rove, Karen Hughes, and others, the Bush team has an ability to maintain an absurdly high level of message discipline. Discipline (combined with cojones and a cowed press corps) that enables them to craft the most uncomfortable realities into a favorable narrative.

Bush understands the power of this strategy in a way that few other people did at the time. The trouble is, that sort of message discipline is incompatible with the kind of personality you see in his earlier appearances, as well as an increasingly hostile national audience. So while he understands the immense payoff to be had from chaining himself to the larger media strategy, an understanding that requires both shrewd patience and self-control, it doesn't leave him with a lot to talk about in extamporaneous situations, and makes him somewhat uncomfortable reading from a prepared text (although his genius speechwriters make up for this to some extent).

His public persona has far more constraints on it than Clinton's, constraints he most certainly appreciates the full value of, but he has never quite figured out how to make the actual being of that person work seamlessly.


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