Column: The Public Eye: The Politics of Bush’s Machiavellian Presidency By Bob Burnett

Tuesday October 25, 2005

In his Oct. 14 New York Times column, “Questions of Character,” Paul Krugman lamented the media’s failure to discern the true character of President Bush. Krugman observed that in 2000 the press portrayed George as an “honest, likable guy” and in 2004 as “a strong effective leader.” 

By blaming his fellow journalists, the columnist glossed over the reality that for the past six years the American public has been assaulted daily by a permanent political campaign; one whose morality is not that of Jesus of Nazareth but instead that of Machiavelli of Florence. If Lorenzo de Medici was the Italian political theorist’s prince, then George W. Bush is Machiavelli’s president. 

The media certainly shares some of the blame for five years of dreadful leadership. Why did pundits on both coasts ignore the warnings of Molly Ivins and Lou DuBose who had seen Texas Governor Bush in operation? Why did the press fail to listen when Ivins and DuBose noted that George W. had been a failure as a CEO? When they observed that his touted Christian faith appeared to stem from convenience rather than conviction? Why did the media look away when Ivins scoffed at Bush’s claim to have been the Environmental Governor, noting that Texas had the worst pollution in the nation? 

The answer is that journalists were among the millions of Americans who were taken in by a presidential campaign scripted from the pages of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. The father of Realpolitik famously observed that “politics have no relations to morals,” and this aphorism serves as the motto for George Bush and company. 

From the moment that Bush decided to run for president, his staff—principally Karl Rove and Karen Hughes—fabricated a image of George W. as a successful CEO, born-again Christian, effective governor, and all-around nice guy. 

Bush played to these themes when he accepted the Republican nomination, depicting himself as “a uniter not a divider,” setting out his goals in a business-like manner, and vowing to, “usher in an era of responsibility … to uphold the honor and dignity of the office to which I have been elected, so help me God.” 

The cornerstone of Bush’s propaganda campaign has been the assertion that he is a decisive, seasoned executive able to confront problems and make tough decisions. As our first MBA President, CEO Bush promised to bring the good ship America back on course. Famed management theorist Peter Drucker once observed that a successful CEO does not start by asking, “What do I want to do?” but rather “What needs to be done?” Instead, CEO Bush focused on his own agenda from the moment he took office and, in the process, ignored America’s most pressing problems. This myopia was tragically apparent in the invasion of Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 

Political historians acknowledge that there are two competing standards used to evaluate any American president. One is to grade him strictly as America’s chief executive. The other standard views the president solely as a politician. From the Machiavellian perspective, Bush’s primary goal was to increase his power, rather than to confront America’s problems—to maintain the appearance of leadership while strengthening his position.  

Each president confronts a variety of challenges. In his 2000 convention acceptance speech, Bush identified two perennial issues: bolstering America’s defenses, and strengthening the citizenry. Since taking office George W has been confronted with many new tests, including a faltering economy and global climate change. 

On all four of these challenges, Bush the CEO has not fared well. America continues to spend far more on national defense than does any other nation, yet our overall security has deteriorated. Rather than strengthen the American family, the administration’s policies have weakened it. Bush the 43rd inherited a strong economy and a surplus, yet now there is stagnation and a steadily increasing deficit. Despite overwhelming evidence that global warming threatens the planet, the president stubbornly insists that there is no scientific consensus on the subject and, therefore, supports business as usual. 

On the other hand, George W. has been remarkably successful as a politician. He was elected to two terms and kept his primary campaign promises: he’s cut taxes, brought his version of accountability to elementary education, massively increased funding to the military, and shrunken entitlements. His core constituencies strongly support him, and Republicans control Congress. 

If Niccolo Machiavelli were to evaluate the Bush administration, he would find much to approve of. Machiavelli paid great attention to appearances and advised his prince to “strive to make everyone recognize in his actions greatness, spirit, dignity, and strength.” An essential ingredient was steadfastness, “he must insist that his decisions be irrevocable.” Machiavelli advised his prince to use cunning and “always [employ] religion for his own purposes.” 

History will not judge Bush the CEO kindly. Rather than being seen as a responsible president, George W. will be viewed as someone who relentlessly avoided the crucial issues of his era, to the lasting detriment of the nation. On the other hand, Bush the politician, will gain high marks from all those for whom Machiavelli’s teachings remain the final word in effectiveness.  

Richard Nixon once remarked, “You can’t fool all of the people, all of the time, but if you fool them once, it lasts for four years.” Amazingly, George W. Bush managed to bamboozle the electorate twice and now, despite his fallen ratings, we’re stuck with Machiavelli’s president. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at bobburnett@comcast.net.