Palin is more like Bush than Bush himself, Part I: Lack of curiosity

Curiosity is one of the most important traits in a president

Posted Oct 03, 2008

Palin has energized the bases, both of them. On the right, she has been greeted as a rock star, while on the left she has been described as reason to move to Canada, if she wins. But how much do we know about Palin and how she thinks? Palin bears an eerie resemblance to George Bush, and psychologically, she is even more extreme than Bush himself on the many of the dimensions that have made him arguably the worst president in US history. As bad as things are now, someday, under President Palin, we may look back upon today's bleak times as the good old days.


Palin is an ideologue who is not interested in varied ideas and opinions, but only the views of her church and her inner circle. She values loyalty above competence, faith above science, and she is animated by a messianic, indeed an apocalyptic Christian faith.


Lack of intellectual curiosity

One factor former president Bill Clinton has mentioned in interviews as one of Obama's most important qualifications is his curiosity. Intellectual curiosity was one of Clinton's greatest assets as president. While he is well known as a "policy wonk," most people have no idea how widely he read, and how much he retained. And Clinton recognizes the same essential trait in Obama. Clinton stopped mentioning curiosity, perhaps because it sounded vaguely condescending-but Clinton knows what a very important qualification it is. Look at the consequences of having a president who is deficient in curiosity: George Bush. Bush, the decider, knows what he knows (even when it's wrong) and he isn't interested in contradictory facts or arguments. The contrast between the two men couldn't be starker on this dimension, and it explains a lot of why Clinton's presidency was a success and Bush's a huge failure.


Palin by contrast appears to read almost nothing at all. She was recently interviewed by Katie Couric who asked what newspapers she read. She asked three times, and Palin could not mention one. Not one! She didn't even just fake it and say Washington Post or New York Times.


"I've read most of them," she said.

"What, specifically?" Couric responded.

"Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me all these years."


"Can you name a few?"


"I have a vast variety of source where we get our news," Palin said. "Alaska isn't a foreign country, where it's kind of suggested, 'wow, how could you keep in touch with what the rest of Washington, D.C., may be thinking when you live up there in Alaska?' Believe me; Alaska is like a microcosm of America."


There is a longstanding anti-intellectual streak in the Republican Party that derides Democratic eggheads going all the way back to Adlai Stevenson in favor of people of action with supposedly good values and instincts. But the truth is, running America is complicated. And simplistic ideology based policies can have disastrous consequences on a global scale. In a rare self -lampoon at a press club dinner Bush joked that one of his professors wrote a book at Yale, and he read one. But this reading deficit is no joke. No child left behind? What about a nation left behind?


Not only does Palin appear to read few books or newspapers, she doesn't want anyone else to read them either if they are the wrong type of books. She tried to have the Wasilla librarian fired for refusing to ban books. This raises anti-intellectualism to a new low.


In group-groupthink

Even if she's not a reader, would Palin at least entertain a diversity of ideas if they were presented to her? Not likely. In a highly publicized public letter, Palin's Wasilla neighbor, Anne Kilkenny wrote, "She's not very tolerant of divergent opinions or open to outside ideas or compromise. As Mayor, she fought ideas that weren't generated by her or her staff. Ideas weren't evaluated on their merits, but on the basis of who proposed them." In this she mirrors the decision making process of George Bush, the "decider," who makes up his mind quickly, in response to input from a few key ideologically driven neo-conservative advisors, and then never reviews, reflects or revises his views in response to contradictory information or arguments. This decision making style makes for orderly brief staff meetings, a disciplined on-message team and catastrophic decisions.


Bill Clinton' decision making style was the opposite extreme, involving marathon meetings where contrasting opinions were argued endlessly, testing the participants' patience and even physical endurance. Alan Blinder, a member the economic team, admitted that the process had the "superficial appearance of chaos." Indeed, "if one peered into the room, they would see open pizza boxes, wastepaper baskets full of trash, and lots of people milling about talking at once." The proof was in the pudding. The economy soared under Clinton, and Alan Greenspan gives Clinton much of the credit. The messy creative process was not a weakness, as it was portrayed, but a strength. "That was a strength of the meetings, not a weakness, because governments make bigger mistakes when the president is kept in a bubble and only hears one opinion." When a leader forms opinions in bubble, as Bush and Palin do, then big mistakes are more likely to get made.


When George Bush took over the White House he campaigned as a fiscal conservative. However, by doggedly pursuing an ideologically driven tax cut policy, he turned record surpluses into record deficits. And now the taxpayers will be responsible for a 700 billion dollar bailout. In this way also, Palin is Bush's twin. According to Kilkenny, "Sarah campaigned in Wasilla as a ‘fiscal conservative.' She inherited a city with zero debt, but left it with indebtedness of over $22 million."


But never, at any point did Bush or Palin ever seem to wonder: What if I'm wrong? Is there a better way to grow the economy? It's the failure to question, the failure to be curious that is so dangerous. One can be utterly certain, and utterly wrong, while driving the country over a cliff.

John D. Gartner is author of In Search of Bill Clinton: A Psychological Biography