Psychiatrist Justin Frank, author of Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President, says Bush's final speech revealed a fragile man still fighting imaginary enemies to battle his inner demons.
The president’s Thursday night swan song was upstaged by a flock of geese that brought down an airliner—and was foiled by a true act of heroism that Bush couldn’t acknowledge because it wasn’t in the script. The lame duck appeared for one last time, however, peddling the same story he first tried to sell the American people just after 9/11. His demeanor was presidential, but his facial expression retained his famous smirk for one last viewing. And he remained unchanged by his experience, save for looking older.
George W. Bush gave the speech he had to give, because nobody else would say it for him. We have always needed special cues when listening to a Bush speech, the most essential being an understanding that he means the opposite of what he says. Thus, the catalog of successes that he listed, was in fact a litany of his failures; his claims of the purity of his patriotic heart, actually belied the destructiveness he inflicted on the nation and the world. As Samuel Johnson wrote, “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” In Bush’s case, the scoundrel’s greatest enemy is himself.
Bush once famously remarked that he looks in the mirror only when he needs to comb his hair.
President Bush spent a lifetime trying to manage inner chaos, and he used many methods for doing so. For years this has included not listening to reality, and ignoring critics who might otherwise make him think, but the cumulative effect of all of this willed ignorance is that he has grown less and less able to think clearly. He resorts to living by his own reality, his own distortions. The more he tries to manage, the more he has to narrow his focus; keeping bad thoughts out of his consciousness requires donning psychological blinders—blinders that on Thursday night he revealed to the American people once again.
The song remains the same, just now sotto voce. He still externalizes fear, again saying that Obama’s biggest challenge will be an enemy attack. By that standard, he can lay claim to doing a great job, reminding us that there haven’t been more attacks on our homeland since 9/11—although more Americans have died in Iraq than died on 9/11, and far more are maimed for life. I am reminded of the saying “wishing makes it so.” The threat of an enemy attack proved useful to Bush, offering a means to organize his disordered mind, and he wishes the threat would continue: he needs an enemy on which to focus, even if he never mentions who the enemy actually is. He spoke of enemies in vague ways when he was running in the New Hampshire primary in February 2000 and his final speech was no different. But this time he was scripted. The chaos was contained, though the self-deceptions persist.
It is instructive to compare Bush the speech reader with Bush the improviser, both of whom were on display this week during his final speech and press conference. In both instances Bush tried to blind himself from who he was and from what he did. In Thursday’s speech, he hid behind having the best interests of America at heart, behind having good intentions. It’s as if he personally paved the road to hell—and ignominy, failure and national shame—with those intentions. He is the pavemaster in chief.
But if he did very well as a reader on Thursday, he fared much worse as an improviser two days earlier. In what was to me a disastrous press conference on Tuesday, he exhibited several characteristics of a chronic alcoholic. He confabulated, making up the story that he entered the White House during a recession and he left with one. He repeated familiar phrases to organize his inner world—an alcoholic process called perseverating—but he could not deal with direct challenges by thinking—only by reacting.
When he said, “the phrase ‘burdens of the office’ is overstated,” he began to speak the truth about himself. "I tell people that, you know, some days happy, some days not so happy, every day has been joyous....Even in the darkest moments of Iraq, you know, there was—every day when I was reading the reports about soldiers losing their lives, no question there was a lot of emotion, but also there was times where we could be light-hearted." Bush can find joy in the darkest moments because he lacks compassion; his feelings are so threatening to him that can’t even employ a personal pronoun (“there was a lot of emotion”) to admit them. As he reminded us over the years, he always slept well these past eight years.
One of the most telling moments of Thursday night’s address occurred when he named his being “willing to make the tough decisions” among his greatest achievements. This was also on his mind at Tuesday’s press conference, when he revealingly presented making hard decisions as the alternative to “worrying about the loud voices”:
"You know, presidents can try to avoid hard decisions and therefore avoid controversy. That's just not my nature. I'm the kind of person that, you know, is willing to take on hard tasks, and in times of war people get emotional; I understand that. Never really, you know, spent that much time, frankly, worrying about the loud voices. I of course hear them, but they didn't affect my policy, nor did they affect—affect how I made decisions.
Bush may consciously ascribe “the loud voices” to his public critics, but on Tuesday he revealed that the circumstances in which the voices bother him the most are tellingly private:
"I don't see how I can get back home in Texas and look in the mirror and be proud of what I see if I allowed the loud voices, the loud critics, to prevent me from doing what I thought was necessary to protect this country."
Bush once famously remarked that he looks in the mirror only when he needs to comb his hair; apparently he’s avoiding his reflection because he doesn’t want to be reminded of the voices he hears.
It was shockingly clear on Tuesday morning that the voices do get through—so much so that he proceeded to recreate them for us. More than his words, which look deceptively straightforward on the transcript page, what was particularly remarkable about Bush’s final press conference was his delivery, which included a surprising array of character voices. We were treated to Bush’s rendition of the loud voices of his critics, (such as the free market capitalists’ condemnation of the bailout’s betrayal of the economic principles that Bush himself long espoused), just as we heard in his raised timbre the voice of a hypothetical president who complained of the burdens of the office: “You know, it's kind of like, why me? Oh, the burdens, you know. Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch?”
Moments later, when he immediately condemned this perspective—“It's just—it's pathetic, isn't it, self-pity,” in a withering tone that would have made his mother proud—Bush made it painfully clear that the voices he has been hearing are his own—and what they’re saying is both a source and a confirmation of his shame.
Anyone familiar with the psychological profile put forth in my book, Bush on the Couch, shouldn’t be surprised. So much of what Bush has done—drinking, stopping drinking, and embracing faith, certainty, physical discipline, and ultimately sadism—can be traced to his desperate attempt to silence the voices that have plagued him since childhood.
On Tuesday morning, we heard both how profoundly those voices have troubled him, and how punishing they sound to his fragile, frightened self. On Thursday, back on script, the voices were silenced. The Bush who read the prepared remarks on Thursday exuded control as dramatically as the Bush who fended for himself on Tuesday lacked it.
And for Bush, the control he must exert pertains not just to style but to substance, as the unrepentantly one-sided narrow-minded perspective on his record made clear. Bush’s desperate need to maintain control has translated directly into his inability to admit mistakes, consider opposing points of view, or acknowledge the immorality of the torture and bloodshed that have taken place on his watch. As the consequences of his desperate need to be certain and correct have made tragically clear, the control with which he has saved himself from himself has come at a devastating cost to the rest of the world.
Justin A. Frank is a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical Center and a teaching analyst at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute. He is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and author of Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President.