George Bush, the Gothard Man

Originally posted 26 April 2006.  I’m reposting it as it’s relevant not only for evaluating George Bush’s legacy, but Bill Gothard’s as well.

George Bush is in a tight place these days, with poll numbers falling as fast as gas prices are rising (the two, unfortunately, are related.) So how did this come about, especially after his post-9/11 strong showing? There are several explanations to this.

The liberals, of course, first claim that he is provincial and stupid. But then again they say that about anybody that doesn’t agree with them. If they are right, they need to close the Ivy League schools and restore educational democracy to this country again, as not a little of their legitimacy comes from having gone to the “right school.” (The conservatives need to get off this bandwagon, too.)

When they can’t make that charge stick, they then say that he is a liar and got us into war through lies and deceit. This makes no sense either; if he were that, he would have taken a far more Machiavellian view of the Middle East and not “done it the hard way” by trying to bring democracy there. And that would have gotten us out of Iraq—or wherever else we were trying to be—a lot sooner. People who take that tack are trying to make him into another Richard Nixon, but he is anything but. Nixon drew up plans to trash the left for good; Bush can’t bring himself beyond sicking Karl Rove on them from one election to the next.

To get at the weaknesses of George Bush in a meaningful way—and thus to suggest meaningful solutions—we need to stop and consider how he organises his staff, which is in a state of flux. In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, Peggy Noonan—herself a Reagan White House veteran—noted the following:


To an extraordinary degree this is George W. Bush’s presidency. Its strengths are his strengths and its weaknesses his weakness. This White House is him. The decisions it makes are him.

This is true to some degree in all presidencies–all presidents set direction or, at the very least, a certain mood, certain administration tendencies. But I’ve never seen a president who controlled the facts and personality of his White House as Mr. Bush has.

But Mr. Bush’s feelings, assumptions and convictions set theme, direction and mood. All decisions as to declared destination go to him. He seeks a sense of control by making and sticking to the decision. When he won’t budge, the White House won’t budge. When it clings to an idea beyond evidence and history, it is Mr. Bush who is doing the clinging. When he stands firm, it stands firm.

And this is true of this president to an unusual degree, and makes him different from his recent predecessors…

George W. Bush, on the other hand, does not tolerate dissent, argument, bitter internal battles. He is the decider. He decides, and the White House carries through. He is loyal to his aides, who carry out his wishes. (It is unclear whether this is a loyalty born of emotional connection or one born of calculation: Do it my way and the tong protects you.) His loyalty means they will most likely not be fired or leaked against, no matter what heat they take from the outside. And so his aides move forward with the sharpness and edge of those who know their livelihoods and status are secure. Bruce Bartlett has written of how, as a conservative economist, he was treated with courtesy by the Clinton White House, which occasionally sought out his views. But once he’d offered mild criticisms of the Bush White House he was shut out, and rudely, by Bush staffers. Why would they be like that? Because they believe that as a conservative, Mr. Bartlett owes his loyalty to the president. He thought his loyalty was to principles.

There are many stories like this, from many others. It leaves friends on the outside having to self-censor or accept designation as The Enemy. It leaves a distinguished former government official and prominent Republican saying, in conversation, “Those people aren’t drinking the Kool-Aid, they’re sucking it from a spigot!”

Anyone who has been around evangelical Christianity since the 1970’s and who remembers what he or she experienced more than fifteen minutes ago—and that’s becoming a rarity in our fast-moving world—will recognise and understand what is going on here. George Bush is a Gothard man.

Bill Gothard is unarguably one of the most influential teachers of evangelical Boomers that has ever lived. Had he not been eclipsed by “happier faces” such as James Dobson and the innumerable Charismatic preachers and teachers, he would still be pre-eminent—and remembered—today. However, his influence is still considerable. There is no telling how many young people who attended his Institute of Basic Youth Conflicts in the 1970’s are now pastors, teachers, and influential leaders in evangelical Christianity today.

The leitmotif of Gothard’s teaching was and is authority—starting with God, and working down through the family, church and state. Gothard hammered into his students the importance of both finding a place in the authority structure as one’s “umbrella” of protection and in exercising one’s authority as a father, husband and pastor. He rightly observed that the Bible was written in an era when top-down hierarchical authority was the only way of life and basically translated this into the concept that, if we’re going to be truly Biblical, we must return to this authoritarian structure of life, family, church and nation.

His impact was immediate. Many of the significant movements of American Christianity in the 1970’s—the “headship” or “covering” movements, the covenant communities of the Catholic Charismatics, and even many of the communal movements had Gothard as their inspiration, either direct or indirect. It was the obvious response in an era of barely controlled anarchy. It was also a recipe for failure, as most of these ended up dying out or going into permanent retreat, to be replaced by a more traditional American church model which itself has slid into consumerism.

It is unlikely that George Bush ever attended an Institute; if he had, Laura wouldn’t have had to put up with a drunk for so long. But his White House organisation looks like it was taken straight out of Gothard’s handbook—no dissent, blind and rigid obedience to authority, etc. It’s easy to dismiss all of this as a failure. But before we do we need to first look at the plus side.

George Bush came to power in adverse circumstances, without a clear electoral victory and without a clear majority in both houses of Congress. The left was itching to trash his presidency from the start, and may have well done so without 9/11. Having good group cohesion in his staff was indeed an “umbrella of protection” for him and those around him in a hostile environment.

That became even more evident after 9/11 and the beginning of the “war on terrorism.” His staff’s ability to stick together, stay under their President’s authority and move the war the way they wanted to is really remarkable in the face of a political system that is very centripetal (centre-fleeing) in nature.

But time revealed the weaknesses in the Bush/Gothard system. The first weakness was ignoring the fact that “top-down” systems are inevitably patronage-driven, not just loyalty-based, as Gothard has advocated and Bush has practised. The Romans understood that better than anyone else; their whole system was based on patron-client relationships, and it can be shown that even the early church drew some of its organisation from this dynamic. The closest thing that Bush has even done in this regard is to let Congressional Republicans run wild with spending, because they certainly understand the importance of patronage. But in the end it has worked against the G.O.P., not only because it has compromised the principles of the party but because it has been diffused to solely benefit individual members rather than advance the party as a whole and Bush himself.

The second weakness is that top-down systems inevitably create a “power holder/power challenger” dialectic. We have beaten this theme to death on this site, but it bears repeating. Gothard’s concept of an authoritarian system is an idealisation, and George Bush’s implementation of same is certainly that. Bush should have taken more time and effort not only to neutralise the terrorists/careerists in the Middle East but those careerists on the left as well. His failure to do so will be the epitaph of his presidency. Bush cannot understand that, just because people are duly elected or appointed Americans, that they are not as great a threat to the country’s survival as those from outside. His attitude also leads him to underestimate the power challengers he faces every day in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And this leads us to a point where Gothard may have it over Bush. With his love of authoritarian structures, Gothard might not consider democratising the Middle East a worthy goal. That certainly draws an interesting parallel between Gothard and his Islamic counterparts. As we noted above, skipping that goal would have both been more consistent with Bush’s internal practice and easier to implement.

But Bush’s concept of democracy and Gothard’s ideal world may not be as far apart as one would like to admit. Gothard reached out to a generation which had thrown its own world into the sea with student revolts, and found fertile soil. We have had two Boomer presidents, one of which ruled through chaos by turning the White House into Animal House, and the other who popped open the umbrella of protection through rigid authoritarianism. Both of these extremes are Boomer hallmarks, characteristics of a generation which careens between revolt and tyranny, even sometimes using the former to achieve the latter. It’s frankly hard to know how a functioning, representative democracy is going to work with such extremists constantly jockeying for dominance, giving us only the choices of blind obedience and security or endless anarchy.

Gothard’s system, for its strengths, is a system for bureaucrats, not leaders. Gothard emphasised headship when the world cried for leadership. Fortunately for the U.S., real leaders such as Ronald Reagan came forth to deflect our course from left wing nirvana, saving the legal status of Christianity in the bargain. Leadership requires a much more flexible approach to things. We only need to look at the life of David, the man after God’s own heart, to see that.

We think the George Bush is capable of such leadership. To get there, he too is going to have to follow the example of a David rather than a Bill Gothard. He’s going to have to read his Bible for himself, both as guide to greatness in general and as a guide to the Middle East in particular. But he’s going to have to hurry: his opponents are moving to finish the job once again, and, if they play their cards right and Bush lets them slip through, they might just pull it off.

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