I agree with Edward that Bush may or may not have known that the electricity that illuminated his speech was turned off after he left. More generally, though, I don't "wonder if the blame for the President's obvious disconnect from reality shouldn't be placed at the feet of his handlers." For one thing, the President is an adult, and he is perfectly capable of asking his handlers questions, or for that matter turning on the news. For another, as far as I can tell, his disconnection from reality is caused by his failure to take steps that any competent manager would take to ensure that he knew what was going on.
The bubble the President lives in is described in this passage from a Newsweek story:
"The reality, say several aides who did not wish to be quoted because it might displease the president, did not really sink in until Thursday night. Some White House staffers were watching the evening news and thought the president needed to see the horrific reports coming out of New Orleans. Counselor Bartlett made up a DVD of the newscasts so Bush could see them in their entirety as he flew down to the Gulf Coast the next morning on Air Force One.
How this could be—how the president of the United States could have even less "situational awareness," as they say in the military, than the average American about the worst natural disaster in a century—is one of the more perplexing and troubling chapters in a story that, despite moments of heroism and acts of great generosity, ranks as a national disgrace.
President George W. Bush has always trusted his gut. He prides himself in ignoring the distracting chatter, the caterwauling of the media elites, the Washington political buzz machine. He has boasted that he doesn't read the papers. His doggedness is often admirable. It is easy for presidents to overreact to the noise around them.
But it is not clear what President Bush does read or watch, aside from the occasional biography and an hour or two of ESPN here and there. Bush can be petulant about dissent; he equates disagreement with disloyalty. After five years in office, he is surrounded largely by people who agree with him. Bush can ask tough questions, but it's mostly a one-way street. Most presidents keep a devil's advocate around. Lyndon Johnson had George Ball on Vietnam; President Ronald Reagan and Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, grudgingly listened to the arguments of Budget Director Richard Darman, who told them what they didn't wish to hear: that they would have to raise taxes. When Hurricane Katrina struck, it appears there was no one to tell President Bush the plain truth: that the state and local governments had been overwhelmed, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was not up to the job and that the military, the only institution with the resources to cope, couldn't act without a declaration from the president overriding all other authority."
So we learn what we've heard before: that George W. Bush gets his information from his staff. For some reason, however, it wasn't clear to me before Katrina that all, in this case, really does mean all: that he is so completely insulated from normal news sources that he really didn't understand how serious Katrina was until that Thursday night.
I mean: that's really astonishing. I have a hard time understanding how it would be possible for someone not to have begun to grasp the magnitude of the catastrophe that struck New Orleans for three whole days. How exactly would someone manage that? And why would he want to? Thoreau thought that we should not concern ourselves with the ephemeral trivia that make up the news, but frankly,that has always been one of the (few) things that bothers me about him. Moreover, Thoreau was a hermit, not the President of the United States.
Moreover, to put it gently, George W. Bush has never been a President notable either for his store of knowledge or for his intellectual curiosity. Other Presidents might bring to the job a detailed knowledge of, say, trade policy or Chinese history or conflicts over water rights; this President does not.
While I would never recommend that anyone in a position of authority rely entirely on staff for information, however, I think it is possible to do so without disaster, if you take certain steps and stick to them religiously. First, of course, you need to have a very, very good staff whose judgment you trust. Second, you and your staff need to be very clear about the dangers of this approach. They need to be absolutely prepared to tell you anything, however unwelcome; and you need to do everything in your power to make sure that they feel free to do so. Because if you are completely dependent on your staff for all your information, the worst thing that could possibly happen is that they become afraid to tell you certain things. If that happens, your view of reality will become more and more distorted; and since that information is the basis for your decisions, those decisions will become less and less grounded in reality. And in a President, that's potentially disastrous.
The response to Katrina, and the reporting about it, make it clear that the Bush administration has not taken these sorts of basic precautions, which are absolutely essential for a President who gets all his information from his staff. In fact, Bush's staff are apparently terrified of bringing him bad news. From the same Newsweek story:
"It's a standing joke among the president's top aides: who gets to deliver the bad news? Warm and hearty in public, Bush can be cold and snappish in private, and aides sometimes cringe before the displeasure of the president of the United States, or, as he is known in West Wing jargon, POTUS. The bad news on this early morning, Tuesday, Aug. 30, some 24 hours after Hurricane Katrina had ripped through New Orleans, was that the president would have to cut short his five-week vacation by a couple of days and return to Washington. The president's chief of staff, Andrew Card; his deputy chief of staff, Joe Hagin; his counselor, Dan Bartlett, and his spokesman, Scott McClellan, held a conference call to discuss the question of the president's early return and the delicate task of telling him. Hagin, it was decided, as senior aide on the ground, would do the deed."
(I note with amazement that on Aug. 30, a day after Hurricane Katrina had ripped through the Gulf states, breached New Orleans' levees, and largely destroyed a great city, the 'bad news' was that Bush would have to cut his vacation short.)
Or consider this anecdote from a story by Time:
"Bush's bubble has grown more hermetic in the second term, they say, with fewer people willing or able to bring him bad news--or tell him when he's wrong. Bush has never been adroit about this. A youngish aide who is a Bush favorite described the perils of correcting the boss. "The first time I told him he was wrong, he started yelling at me," the aide recalled about a session during the first term. "Then I showed him where he was wrong, and he said, 'All right. I understand. Good job.' He patted me on the shoulder. I went and had dry heaves in the bathroom.""
It's a really bad idea to get all your information from your staff. It's also a really bad idea to react to criticism or bad news in ways that make people afraid to offer them. But together they are disastrous. Because what they mean is that the President's only source of information is the very same staff who are terrified to tell him anything he doesn't want to hear.
This is not managerial rocket science. It is not a deep and arcane mystery known only to a few. It is elementary common sense applied to running an organization. That Bush does not seem to have thought about it -- unlike most of his predecessors, who (as noted in the Newsweek story) all kept people around who would tell them bad news -- is just one more piece of evidence that he neither knows nor (apparently) cares what it takes to run an organization successfully.
It also explains a few stories that I had always found puzzling. For instance, Bush was still saying that representatives who voted against his Social Security proposal would pay a price with voters well after it was clear that that proposal was deeply unpopular. (I can't find a cite for this; it was on TPM, and as you might imagine, searching TPM for 'Bush' and 'Social Security' yields an impossible number of results.) I wondered at the time why he was doing that, but I didn't really credit the possibility that he might actually not know how unpopular it was. Now, however, that seems like the most likely explanation.
Ask yourself what else he might just not know. Until Katrina, I would have thought that there were limits to how out of touch he could be. Now, though, I really don't think that there are. With this set-up, he could easily think, for instance, that everything he does is incredibly popular, that Afghanistan is a model democracy, and Iraq is just brimming with newly painted schools and citizens whose enjoyment of their newfound liberties is interrupted only by the occasional rush of gratitude towards the President who made it all possible. For all I know, he could believe that faced with his implacable resolve, Kim Jong Il has decided that defeat is inevitable and resigned from power, or that Osama bin Laden has been captured. If this is how he gets his information, then believing things like this, which would be impossible for the rest of us, are possible for him. And that's a terrifying thought.
His response to Katrina also makes it pretty clear that Bush is not very good at a cognitive task that I'll describe as appreciating what things mean: the capacity that allows a person to hear a sentence and understand what its full import. The more you have this capacity, the less difference it will make whether you read a description of something or see it in real life or on TV: your mind will fill the gap between the words and the reality, and allow you to understand exactly what a sentence like "eighty per cent of New Orleans will be uninhabitable" actually means for those who are there.
We know that Bush was briefed on Katrina by the head of the National Hurricane Center on the Sunday before the storm made landfall. That was the day the NOAA put out the terrifying alert about "DEVASTATING DAMAGE" and "HUMAN SUFFERING INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS." While I don't know exactly what the head of the National Hurricane Center said in his briefing, it seems like a pretty safe bet that it should have been alarming, and that he said things like: New Orleans might be almost completely flooded, and rendered uninhabitable.
And yet, after hearing this, Bush did not cancel the rest of his vacation. (And, yes, I know that there are telephones and videoconferencing equipment in Crawford, but as a person who sometimes works from home, I also know that there is a difference between being in one's office and being in phone contact.) He did not cancel his appearances over the next few days, so that he could stay in touch with the relief and recovery efforts, and make sure that whatever needed to be done was being done. He did not, apparently, make sure that the Department of Homeland Security stood ready to declare Katrina an Incident of National Significance (although, as Josh Marshall points out, while the administration seems to have thought this was needed, it's not clear that they were right.) He doesn't seem to have done any of the things that one might imagine a President might do on hearing that there was a good chance an American city was about to be destroyed.
One might explain the President's failure to do any of these things by saying something like: he doesn't care about the sufferings of others, or the destruction of a city. But I don't think this is right. Whatever questions anyone might have about George W. Bush's capacity for empathy, there is no question about his interest in political spin. And that alone should have propelled him into action, or at least a photogenic facsimile thereof. But it did not.
The only sense I can make of this is that Bush is not very good either at moving from sentences like "New Orleans might be almost completely flooded, and rendered uninhabitable" to an appreciation of the reality they describe, or at understanding the implications of such a sentence. He can hear a sentence like that and genuinely not understand what it means: that a serious crisis is about to occur, one that will require his immediate attention, and in which his response will be very important. (This would also explain why, after hearing the Aug. 6, 2001 PDB -- the one that said 'Osama bin Laden determined to attack in US' -- he went out and cleared more brush.)
This is a bad capacity for a President to lack. A lot of what a President learns, he learns through such sentences. (As noted above. Bush probably learns everything this way, since he doesn't watch the news on TV.) Moreover, predictions of future events almost have to come in the form of sentences, rather than images of the actual events. A president who cannot fully appreciate what they mean, on whom they do not really register, will not respond to them appropriately. And this is really bad news.
When you put this together with what I discussed earlier, you get a President who often gets distorted information to start with, and does not fully appreciate the information he does receive. When you combine this with some of Bush's other failings -- his willingness to appoint idiots like Michael Brown to positions of great responsibility, his lack of intellectual curiosity, and his apparent indifference both to the details of policy and to the business of actually governing -- it's a recipe for disaster.
When you're an adult, you are responsible for knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, and acting accordingly. I, for instance, have thought about my strengths and weaknesses, and have concluded that I should spare the world the sight of me trying to play professional basketball. More seriously, I would never run for President, since I am absent-minded enough that I really might leave the nuclear football on a bus. George W. Bush should have known himself well enough to know that he wasn't suited for the job either. And so should we.
I'll close with one other snippet from the Time article:
"Bush has always said the Presidency is about doing big things, and a friend who chatted with him one evening in July said he seemed to be craving a fresh mission even though the one he has pursued in Iraq is far from being on a steady footing. "He was looking for the next really important thing to do," the friend said. "You could hear him almost sorting it out to himself. He just sort of figured it would come.""
Stop and think about this one for a second. Iraq is a mess. It needs Bush's urgent attention. Before Katrina, we were not by any stretch of the imagination in the sort of situation we'd have to be in in order for Bush's looking for the next big thing to do would make sense. Ezra Klein wrote this about the passage I just quoted:
"What worries me is that he's already extracted his Manichean satisfaction from that confrontation [Iraq] and, now bored by its inexorable descent into sectarian division, is willing to leave the Iraq cliffhanger floating and move onto the next cosmic clash. Little could be more dangerous. One of the requirements for holding the modern American presidency should be the possession of a serious attention span. If you want to engage in the sort of global remodeling that Bush does, it needs to be near inhuman -- they should be able to synthesize Ritalin from your nail clippings. That George seems more interested in knocking down the blocks rather than slowly, carefully, putting them back together is quite scary. That he seems ready to play Godzilla on another set is downright terrifying."
Terrifying is the word.