Team Bush would not have worked, however, without Bush’s knack for nurturing his personal links with his team members. As mentioned previously, there’s no better sign of that knack than his habit of bestowing nicknames on friends, staffers, government leaders, and journalists. Virtually anyone could be a fair target. One high-ranking Bush aide, known as “French” for reasons he can’t fathom, joked that “internal communications are in turmoil,” because aides sometimes can’t figure out the nicknames.
Bush has christened Vice President Dick Cheney “Big Time.” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is “Guru.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is “Rummy.” Communications Adviser Karen Hughes was “High Prophet,” while political strategist Karl Rove is “Boy Genius.” The nicknaming started inside the Bush family, where George W. Bush is “W” and his father is “41” (for the forty-first president—which makes W’s alternate nickname “Number 43”). His mother, tellingly, is “Number One.” Bush refers to his wife, Laura, as “First” (short for “First Lady”). Along the way, as mentioned earlier, Bush has collected his own nicknames: “Georgie,” “Little George,” “Bushtail,” “Tweeds,” “Lip,” “Temporary,” “Bombastic Bushkin,” “Bushie,” and of course “Dubya.”
The informal nicknames can hide a sharp edge to Bush. Aides report that his face signals when he’s engaged (with a smile and a laugh) and when he’s not happy (with a piercing, unmistakable look of displeasure). If Bush is comfortable in his own skin, as everyone who knows him agrees, some of that is because he’s made the White House itself part of his skin as well. He’s tailored the inner working of the position to fit his style, not the other way around.
As a reporter who knew him well from Texas explained, “Bush speaks louder in body language than any politician I have ever seen.” Slouching in a chair means confidence. He emphasizes his message by bobbing his head when he talks. His eyes light up when preparing a joke. His eyes and brows narrow when he is unhappy. Aides know his chuckle, “Heh,” as a sign of irony. Quite simply, “He is formidable in these informal settings.”
He insists on short memos. Aides quickly find that greatly raises the stakes. It’s hard to boil complicated problems down to short summaries. When they begin their presentation to Bush, they often find Bush boring into the central issues and raising global questions far beyond the scope of the options memo. More than one aide has described the process as intimidating. Bush is often impatient—not because he’s bored, but because he wants to identify and focus on what he considers the fundamental questions.
Bush recognizes his own impulsiveness. One way he insulates himself from the risks of rapid-fire decision-making, he told Bob Woodward, “is to make sure you listen” to experienced advisers. Such aides, he believed, were an important counterforce to his own spontaneity. He’s said:
“If I have any genius or smarts, it’s the ability to recognize talent, ask them to serve, and work with them as a team.”
He expects his aides to cut to the heart of the issue, to focus on answers instead of complex questions, to get to solutions, to catch and correct possible flaws in a plan. Bush himself plays provocateur in such debates: “One of my jobs is to be provocative, to force decisions, and to make sure in everybody’s mind where we’re headed.”
There long have been questions about Bush’s intelligence. Frank Bruni, a New York Times reporter who followed him for months on the campaign trail, said, “It was never clear how much he really knew and, perhaps more to the point, how diligently he was trying to amass the knowledge he might need.” As Bruni put it, “This was always the rub with Bush, the great big question mark at the heart of the man.” Indeed, Bush’s aides have carefully managed the events at which he publicly appeared. He tended to avoid prime-time news conferences and unscripted media events. In describing one executive order, Bruni found him “so vague and off-kilter it was almost wiggy.”
Bush himself makes no pretense about his intelligence. He has never presented himself as a master of facts and detail. Indeed, his opponent used his Yale and Harvard degrees against him in his first political race, and he’s been careful since about pointing to his academic training. It’s never quite clear whether he has little intellectual curiosity about the details—or whether he simply doesn’t believe that the details are as important as the overall strategy. His MBA training—along with his fundamental instincts—have taught him that strategic, big-picture decisions matter most for top managers.
The manner in which a president digests information doesn’t necessarily determine success. Details have devoured some presidents (like Carter), and detailed knowledge of the facts haven’t always focused presidents on the key strategic choices they faced (like Clinton). What does matter is whether the president makes the right decisions. That is the central task of the manager and of his team.
This frames the central puzzle of Team Bush: Just how does the team work?
In practice, the team operates on a platform supported by four legs: a sharp strategy, a clearly defined message, discipline in carrying it out, and effective leverage of the assets at hand. Understanding how those four legs support the Bush platform provides the key clues for how Team Bush works—and what lessons they teach.