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September 13, 2012

Imperial Hubris

Marc Thiessen on Obama's disdain for national security briefers:

It is apparently a point of pride in the White House that Obama’s PDB is “not briefed to him.” In the eyes of this administration, it is a virtue that the president does not meet every day with senior intelligence officials. This president, you see, does not need briefers. He can forgo his daily intelligence meeting because he is, in Vietor’s words, “among the most sophisticated consumers of intelligence on the planet.”

Truly sophisticated consumers of intelligence don’t see it as a sign of weakness to “be briefed” by the experts. Most of us, if we subscribed to a daily report on, say, astrophysics, would probably need some help interpreting it. But when it comes to intelligence, Obama is apparently so brilliant he can absorb the most complicated topics by himself in his study. He does not need to sit down for up to an hour a day with top intelligence officials, or hold more than 100 “deep dives” in which he invites CIA analysts into the Oval Office and gives them direct access to the commander in chief to discuss their areas of expertise. Such meetings are crutches this president does not need. Written briefings, questions and comments are enough. Obama has more important things to do — such as attend Las Vegas fundraisers.

No doubt the intelligence community has adapted to its diminished access to the commander in chief and is finding a way to get the president the intelligence he needs. Members of the community have endured a lot these past 3 1/2 years — accusations of torture from the Oval Office; more than 100 criminal investigations from the Obama Justice Department that resulted in zero — zero — criminal charges being filed; a president who is quick to claim credit for killing Osama bin Laden while denying credit to the CIA interrogators who made the mission possible. They’ll survive not being invited more frequently into the Oval Office.

But the hubris of a president who believes he does not need to meet regularly with them is astounding. When President John F. Kennedy gathered every living American Nobel laureate for dinner at the White House in 1962, he declared it “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Apparently, in this administration’s view, Kennedy had it wrong — the most extraordinary collection of talent and knowledge ever gathered in the White House is when Barack Obama reads his daily intelligence brief alone.

Imagine, if you will, the reaction had such a sentiment been expressed by the former occupant of the Oval Office or his spokesmen.
President Bush, who was continually accused of arrogance, rarely if ever missed a briefing. Obama, who seems to be judged on a curve, misses them more often than not...

...which, for this president at least, is not a sign of indifference or disengagement, but of his essential brilliance.

President Bush, continually accused of being intellectually incurious and close-minded, turns out to have had the incredible foresight to pretend to be a voracious reader of history with small "c" catholic tastes decades before he was in the public eye:

In Midland all those years ago, the normal distance between prominent source and reporter didn’t apply, and W. invited me out to a Mexican restaurant with Laura and their four-year-old twin daughters, who got in trouble for throwing chips, were threatened with a spanking, and went home without dessert. He also invited me to his house, where I found books by John Fowles, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and Gore Vidal lying about, as well as biographies of Willa Cather and Queen Victoria. A few years later, I might even have thought they had been purposely left there for the eyes of a reporter, but not on that unstaged evening.

...and The Big Fake is still at it now that he's out of the spotlight:

He certainly enjoys reading and talking about books. And his friends know it. On his desk is a stack of books that have come as gifts: All Things Are Possible Through Prayer; Basho: The Complete Haiku; Children of Jihad; and Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children. To the pile, I add my own gift, Cleopatra by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Stacy Schiff. Right now, Bush is reading Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life, a biography of the first president. “Chernow’s a great historian,” Bush says excitedly. “I think one of the great history books I read was on Alexander Hamilton by Chernow. But I also read House of Morgan, Titan, and now I’m reading Washington.”

He mentions David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter, a book about the Korean War that he read before a visit last year to Korea, to give a speech to evangelicals. “I stand up in front of 65,000 Christians to give a speech in South Korea … ,” he says, “and I’m thinking about the bloody [battles] fought in the Korean War.” Halberstam’s book—coupled with earlier readings of David McCullough’s Truman and Robert Beisner’s Dean Acheson, a biography of Truman’s secretary of state presented to him by Bush’s own secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice—gave the event deeper resonance. The decisions of the unpopular President Harry S Truman, he realized, made it possible for a former U. S. president to speak before freely worshipping Koreans 60 years later. “So history, in this case, gave me a better understanding of the moment, and … put it all into context—the wonder of the moment.”

I tick off a partial list of people Bush has read books about in recent years in addition to Washington, Truman, and Acheson: Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, Huey Long, Lyndon Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Mellon, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ulysses S. Grant, John Quincy Adams, Genghis Khan.

“Genghis Khan?” I ask incredulously.

“I didn’t know much about him. I was fascinated by him. I guess I’ve always been fascinated by larger-than-life figures. That’s why I’m looking forward to reading Cleopatra. I know nothing about her. … But you can sit there and be absorbed by TV, let the news of the moment consume you. You can just do nothing. I choose to read as a form of relaxation. … Laura used to say, ‘Reading is taking a journey,’ and she’s right.”

You've got to admit it - that degree of preparation is remarkable in a man who had to be told to chew his pretzels before swallowing. Yes, indeedy.

Meanwhile, Bush's successor, widely lauded as an intellectually distinguished UberMench is not ashamed to admit that his tastes run more to murder novels and fiction.

Thoughout all of this, one thing remains crystal clear.

A leader must be humble and listen to others. He must create dialogue with his opponents and seek advice from his advisors, lest he seem arrogant and insensitive. Unless, of course, he's way smarter than anyone else in the room. In that case, insulating himself from the so-called experts is a sign of superior intelligence.

A leader's choice of reading materials provides deep insights into his intellectual depth and curiosity. Unless, it turns out that he reads murder novels, in which case it's an irrelevant distraction from substantive issues.

Finally, a leader must stay informed about both domestic and world events. Unless there are more important things to do... like attending fundraisers in Las Vegas. Or filling out his March Madness bracket. Or posting beer recipes on the White House blog.

Priorities, people.

Posted by Cassandra at September 13, 2012 12:47 PM

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Well, you gotta understand: when you already know all the answers, you don't need to waste any time on actual facts.

It's only the dumb who study, or ask questions.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at September 13, 2012 03:33 PM

Information is like food to the intellegent. You don't require other people to digest *your* food, do you?

Posted by: The Smartest President Evah! at September 13, 2012 03:50 PM

"Information is like food to the intellegent. You don't require other people to digest *your* food, do you?"


Posted by: The_Soup_Michell at September 13, 2012 03:59 PM

Public Obama has been in most every instance a self-promulgated misrepresentation of private Obama. It is probably useless then to hope Obama's daily attention to PBDs would have any influence on him or force on him a reassessment of any kind. The President's malevolent aspirations are as easily achieved by insouciance and utter disregard as action, and in this the MSM shares his desires as much as it has his back. The only silver lining in all this may be that the electorate, though apparently blind to his destructiveness, and willing to suffer arrogance or narcissism, will draw the line at the compound disorder arrogant-narcissist.

Posted by: George Pal at September 13, 2012 04:04 PM

There might be another reason Democratic Presidential Candidate Barack Obama insists on reading his Intel briefings in private, and it's a frightening possibility.

That is that he's so ignorant about intel and foreign and defense policy that he simply doesn't know the questions he should be asking, and he does not understand the briefs. So he keeps it all to himself.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at September 13, 2012 05:31 PM

This president, you see, does not need briefers. He can forgo his daily intelligence meeting because he is, in Vietor’s words, “among the most sophisticated consumers of intelligence on the planet.”


I'm a pretty good consumer of intelligence myself, as well as an occasional producer of it. Still, I never failed to learn something useful from sitting down with the guy whose full-time-job it was to think about a given problem set that I had become interested in for some reason. No matter how completely I had understood the material, they just had more time to spend on the problems and had absorbed a level of intricacy that they could introduce to you through discussion.

I don't need slides read to me either, but I wouldn't think of blowing off the chance to talk it through with the analysts.

Posted by: Grim at September 13, 2012 08:28 PM

You're not a narcissist, though, Grim. You understand others might have some insight you don't. Obama? Apparently not so much...

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at September 13, 2012 09:33 PM

Reminds me of the time Kaiser Wilhelm II missed the opportunity to take a deep dive:

On Trusting Experts--and Which Experts to Trust

...although at least Kaiser Bill talked to the top-level expert rather than just reading the report, which is more than can apparently be said about Obama.

Posted by: david foster at September 13, 2012 10:07 PM

Sounds like a Johnny Carson sketch. Or 'Carsenio.'

What a moron. I am marking the days on my calendar to the election.

Posted by: Carolyn at September 13, 2012 11:09 PM

The Kaiser trusted his military expert, von Moltke--but the real expert in railway operations....disagreed.

Well, there's another problem, too, with this particular military expert, about which we know in hindsight, but von Moltke would have known in real time had he been a tad more introspective (a failing, also, of the guy who currently sometimes sits in our president's chair). And that is that von Moltke knew, from his own calculations, that there wasn't enough physical room on the roads and railroads--no matter the exquisitely scheduled movements--to fit the men and equipment that the Schlieffen Plan needed. Von Moltke couldn't get the numbers to the front within the required time window that the plan needed to succeed. And so with his insubordination, he sent in an attack that could not succeed, and indeed the initial rush fell short. And could not advance in any significant way for the rest of the war.

Even when you're willing to hear the intel, you have to be willing to hear all of it. And to listen to it. And to have the self confidence (which is not the same thing as the arrogance) to believe it.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at September 13, 2012 11:19 PM

I recall reading that President Obama does read some blogs regularly, such as Andrew Sullivan's "Daily Dish".

So there's that.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at September 14, 2012 10:51 AM

I recall reading that President Obama does read some blogs regularly, such as Andrew Sullivan's "Daily Dish".

Ah.... then he'll be well briefed on my countless crimes against humanity.

Posted by: Sarah Palin's Uterus at September 14, 2012 02:14 PM