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Like a Rock

Behind the president's vaunted discipline and resolve lurks something else?a brittle inflexibility.

Administrations acquire collective personalities that flow out and down from the top: Kennedy's was cool, cerebral, and stylish; Nixon's was suspicious and vindictive; Carter's was homespun, earnest, and inept; Reagan's had the aura of glittering artifice. The Bush administration has from the start conveyed a single trait that, though it goes under different names, some flattering and some not, has the pervasive and unflagging quality of a monolith. Call it resolve, discipline, stubbornness, clarity, oversimplification, pigheadedness, will -- they all come down to the same frame of mind. You recognize it in the tough dismissiveness of the president's avowal that "I don't do nuance," or the claim of his national security adviser, shortly after being named to her post, that "I don't do life crises."

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"To do," used in this way, suggests that the speaker can't be bothered to do nuance even to the extent of coming up with a more descriptive verb. It borrows the terse bluntness of informal military phrasing: "We do deserts, not mountains," Colin Powell said of intervening in Bosnia. An adviser to the 2000 Bush campaign coined the widely repeated phrase "superpowers don't do windows" (an assertion that has since been thoroughly refuted by extensive nation-building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq). And the arrogance in Donald Rumsfeld's declaration last summer that "I don't do quagmires" may explain why, despite numerous warnings, he stuck to policies that led to troop shortages, a widening insurgency, and the prison abuse scandals.

This kind of language makes inarticulateness a badge of honor, proof that the speaker is too rough-hewn and just plain deter- mined to disguise or embellish the message with more sophisticated terms. Nor will he be blown off his fixed course by concessions to polls, criticism, or inconvenient facts. He says, like Popeye, "I yam what I yam and that's all that I yam." This is the content of an astonishing number of Bush's pronouncements, from "I believe God wants me to be president" to "I'll speak as plainly as I can. One thing is for certain about me, and the world has learned this: When I say something, I mean it."

It's worth noticing that, although the ten- or of these claims shows a sharp hostility toward introspection, the president ends up talking a great deal about himself. "I'm a war president," Bush told Tim Russert on Meet the Press in lieu of explaining his foreign policy. When asked about public opinion, he says, "As to whether or not I make decisions based upon polls, I don't. I just don't make decisions that way." Every discussion of the war on terrorism turns on an expression of firm resolve, as if the president had to pass only a test of will and not also one of judgment -- again, as if it's all about him. The speaker is so terse, so impatient with explain-ing himself, that his own personality seems to come down to the assertion of an intent.

Everything is personalized: "You tell your people that the president looked you in the eye and told you that he would stick with you," he said to Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf. "I'm here for a reason," he told Karl Rove after the terror attacks, "and this is how we're going to be judged." It puts presidential decision making beyond the reach of rational argument or even explanation. As a result, the administration famously never admits a mistake, never declares a policy change in response to failure or criticism, always had known all along what it has only just been obliged to start acknowledging now. Inflexibility has become a point of vanity with this presidency, but what begins in personality ends in ideology, from the war in Iraq to the single-minded pursuit of tax cuts.

The quality originates with the president, but it's remarkable how thoroughly it's colored his administration. The White House's communications strategy is based on open contempt toward journalists' desire for information; this is not a stone wall, which is bound to have cracks and flaws through which pieces of real news can slip, but a reinforced concrete blast wall. And, even beyond what's normal for presidential underlings, members of the Bush White House always seem bound to make deadly sure that the boss gets credit for everything. The tone set from the top is that of a mortal fear of failure, as if conceding a single error might cause the entire edifice to collapse.

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