The Limitations of Self-Assessment

The first time you heard about it you thought it was a joke – employees will write their own performance appraisals. That didn’t seem right. You want your boss to tell you how you’re doing, what you should do more of, or do less of, and how you fit in. Then you get your increase, or you don’t, and you know why either way. Basically, you want some guidance. If you’ve been being a jerk and didn’t know it, you want to know that. If you’ve done fine work, well, you want to hear that said – just to know you weren’t just pretending you were, hoping you were, to keep your spirits up. Hell, everyone has their delusions. You want to know if yours are even close to reality. Of course you’re looking for a raise, or if not, some praise, or if not praise, at least some guidance, some sort of map for the territory. In short, you’re looking for comfort.


But no, you’ll write up something about what you’ve done, and then some goals for the coming year, and fill in the slots marked Areas for Improvement, and come up with some bullshit action plan to meet your goals. You’ll turn it in, wait a week are two, and then the boss will sit down with you and say something like “sounds about right to me” – while you sit there, resentful and bored, thinking you could have puffed yourself up and the boss would have had no clue. But that would have been dangerous – there’s always the slim chance the boss actually knows what’s going on. And you know you screwed up here and there, but you left almost all of that out – brutal honesty regarding those matters would be beyond foolish. So you present yourself slightly above competent – what you think you can get away with – and the boss agrees. The whole thing seems absurd – and you did all the work.


But when you get to be a boss yourself, you do understand. This is how you figure out what’s going on with your folks, as you’ve had other things to worry about – and their fear of bragging too much, or admitting too much, makes the whole thing both amazingly informative and nicely non-threatening, even if a bit boring. You mutter a few things and file the paperwork. Management above you decided on the raises, so you deliver the disappointing news. And everyone goes back to work. And the same thing happens to you with your management.


This is common practice now. Everyone explains themselves, justifies themselves, and hopes for the best – with as much puffery as you think you can get away with, and admitting as little as possible. Everyone become a master at spin, as best they can. Objective assessment from others is now limited, and if offered, somehow quaint. Aggressive self-promotion, as much as you can get away with before people laugh in your face, is the American way, after all.


All that might explain President Bush at his last formal press conference, on Monday, January 12 – he was deep into self-promotion. It’s the legacy thing, and the Washington Post covered it in Bush Defends His Tenure, America’s Moral Standing:


A wistful and introspective President Bush devoted a valedictory news conference yesterday to a robust defense of his “good, strong record,” going further than he has gone before in conceding errors – but making it clear that he has few major regrets about his handling of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and the other major events of his eight years in office.


The tone of the news conference – the “ultimate exit interview,” as Bush jokingly called it – was in keeping with a stream of recent speeches and interviews that appeared to be aimed at setting the record straight after years of relentless pounding from critics in the media, the Democratic Party and elsewhere. But Bush, seemingly freed to speak his mind as his tenure draws to a close, offered a bit more nuance and soul-searching than he usually does in such settings, pounding the lectern for emphasis at certain points and bantering with some of the reporters with whom he has sparred.


Well, there may have been a bit more nuance and soul-searching, but there was nothing but spin. He was asked about mistakes he had made, and unlike that last time he was asked that question, and just couldn’t think of a single one, this time he said he regretted his decision to focus on Social Security reform after the 2004 elections – he should have tackled immigration issues first. And he finally said that hanging that “Mission Accomplished” banner on the aircraft carrier back in 2003 might have been a bad idea. But that was about it. Other things were not exactly mistakes:


He described the scandal surrounding the treatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq as a “huge disappointment,” as he did the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in that country, which the administration had claimed, based on faulty intelligence.


Disappointments aren’t the same things as mistakes. And he played victim:


Throughout the 47-minute session, the president’s fundamental point was that he had done the best he could under trying circumstances – two wars, a natural disaster and the biggest economic calamity since the Great Depression – and that history will be the final judge. “I don’t think you can possibly get the full breadth of an administration until time has passed,” Bush said at one point.


And then he didn’t:


At another point, Bush pursed his lips and mocked the suggestion that the burdens of office are too great. “It’s kind of like, why me? Oh, the burdens, you know. Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch? It’s just – it’s pathetic, isn’t it, self-pity?” Bush said.


And then he got angry:


One question that seemed to touch a nerve involved the suggestion by some of his critics that America’s moral standing in the world has been damaged by harsh interrogation tactics, the creation of a detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the decision to go to war in Iraq without a mandate from the United Nations. “It may be damaged amongst some of the elite,” Bush replied, “but people still understand America stands for freedom, that America is a country that provides such great hope.”


“You go to Africa, you ask Africans about America’s generosity and compassion; go to India and ask about their view of America. Go to China and ask,” Bush went on. “Now, no question, parts of Europe have said that we shouldn’t have gone to war in Iraq without a mandate, but those are a few countries.”


He’s still mad at the French, it seems.


But it’s just about over now:


The president said he looked forward to his life after next Tuesday, when he will return to Texas to divide his time between a new home in Dallas and his ranch in Crawford, though he admitted he was not sure what to expect after eight years of being consumed by the presidency.


“I’m a Type A personality,” Bush said. “I just can’t envision myself, you know, the big straw hat and Hawaiian shirt sitting on some beach.”


So much for the self-generated performance appraisal, and perhaps each of us is supposed to say “seems about right to me.”


That’s unlikely, given he said this:


“Do you remember what it was like right after September the 11th around here? People were saying, ‘How come they didn’t see it, how come they didn’t connect the dots?’ Do you remember what the environment was like in Washington? I do. When people were hauled up in front of Congress and members of Congress were asking questions about, how come you didn’t know this, that, or the other? And then we start putting policy in place – legal policy in place to connect the dots, and all of a sudden people were saying, ‘How come you’re connecting the dots?’ ”


Andrew Sullivan laughs in his face:


Translation: we were so frightened of another 9/11 and we had so little idea of what was out there that I decided to torture anyone we captured and ordered my flunkies to write memos saying it was legal.


Abu Ghraib was a “huge disappointment” because it revealed exactly what they had authorized: Gestapo and Communist Chinese torture techniques that were never originally designed to get intelligence, but to provide false confessions to buttress police states. We do not yet know how much damage Bush and Cheney did to reliable intelligence-gathering; but we do know that even after Abu Ghraib, Bush and Cheney insisted on maintaining Abu Ghraib methods, and insisted they could be used on American citizens in the US if need be.


Kathy at Comments from Left Field sees it this way:


Actually, people were fine with connecting the dots. What people objected to was the fact that the president, the vice-president, and the vice-president’s chief of staff exploited the grief, anger, and fear Americans felt in the aftermath of the worst single attack on U.S. soil to basically stage a coup against our system of government, against the Constitution and decades of legal precedent, against the foundation of law that defines who we are as a people, and against international protocols to which our country had committed itself for much of the last century. What people objected to was, and is, our government using shoddy legal arguments to justify and embrace acts that the U.S. government defined as war crimes 60 years ago and hanged people for having done.


None of that had, or has, anything to do with “connecting the dots.”


You can watch the whole press conference here and decide what you think, but it is that process of admitting as little as possible and bragging as much as you think you can get away with. But the man is just not very good at finding the balance.


And it was unsettling, as James Fallows at the Atlantic explains here:


I didn’t think I could empathize for even a second with GW Bush, but for at least the first fifteen minutes of his final press conference still underway, I did. I think it is because the internalized sense of defeat and unease was so patent that any human being would have at least an initial impulse of feeling sorry for him. More, he seemed to have dropped any of the masks he normally wears, and seemed to be expressing his real thoughts, emotions, and feelings, at least for a while. …


The switch was thrown when someone asked him about tax cuts and he gave a little standard speech. But this is the first time I can remember when I could imagine why people who knew him earlier in his career considered him “likable,” or at least appealingly self-aware.


Later, Fallows says this:


I think even people who oppose the Bush Administration’s policies would find it somewhat harder to dislike him viscerally after this performance – rather than getting angrier the more they see him, as with most of his appearances over these last eight years…. Everything in his posture, expression, and body language – even his emphasis on the word defeat in talking about the 2008 results – indicated that he has taken in the fact that things have not gone well.


Kevin Drum will have none of that:


I haven’t yet watched the press conference myself, so all I can say is: I sure hope Fallows is wrong. It is human nature, of course, for anger over a botched job to recede with time, and perhaps it’s also true that anger naturally morphs into other, more complex emotions anyway. How many people today are really angry at Herbert Hoover?


Still, I sure hope that the public doesn’t forgive Bush for a very, very long time. To this day I don’t understand how such a manifestly unqualified candidate got either nominated or elected in the first place, and the damage this man-child has done to the country during his eight years in office is hard to even put into words. If Barack Obama is lucky, he might – might – by 2016 be able to get us back to where we were in 2000. The last eight years have taken us backward by almost every metric that matters, and as he heads off to Texas, hopefully never to be heard from again, Bush will go down in history as one of the very few presidents to have left the country in demonstrably worse shape than when he got it. It’s an elite group indeed.


Well, Fallows isn’t all that sympathetic, as he says the idea that the president seemed unusually “self-aware” may have not been quite right:


On matters of policy, he revealed himself to be as isolated and out of touch as his critics (including me) would have assumed all along. Two illustrations: he hotly challenged the premise of one question that his policies had made America less prestigious and respected around the world, saying that was just the view of some “elites” and other pantywaists in part of Europe. Go to China! he said. They still respect us there. Yes, sort of. As I’ve written many times in the Atlantic, China does not seem in any deep way “anti-American,” and they generally think US-China relations are good. But no thinking person has the slightest doubt that the Iraq, Guantanamo, and Abu Ghraib policies, in particular, have hurt America’s image badly here as they have in most other places. To say what the President did indicates how carefully he has been protected from any unfiltered feedback from the real world.


But wait! There’s more!


So too with his wistful, regretful-sounding comments about the “harsh tone” in Washington DC. He was completely believable in saying that he hoped things would go better for Barack Obama. But does he recall the name Karl Rove? Does he remember which Vice President told a U.S. Senator from the other party to fuck off, on the Senate floor? There is no point refighting these wars. I’m simply saying: the very sincerity of the President’s comments indicated how isolated he has been, or what he has chosen to forget.


Still, Fallows is feeling generous about Bush:


It is true, he can hardly express himself in anything resembling sentences. But he displayed none of the little moue of pride when he got out a tricky name or a big word, a tic very familiar from his past speeches. To me, he helped rather than hurt himself with this last performance. And to recognize what an achievement this is: think how it would be to hear a valedictory hour’s worth of Dick Cheney.


That’s sympathy and praise? It will have to do.


But some were appalled, particularly by this passage about Hurricane Katrina:


Don’t tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed.


You know, I remember going to see those helicopter drivers, Coast Guard drivers, to thank them for their courageous efforts to rescue people off roofs – 30,000 people were pulled off roofs right after the storm moved through. That’s a pretty quick response.


Could things have been done better? Absolutely. Absolutely.


But when I hear people say the federal response was slow, then what are they going to say to those chopper drivers or the 30,000 that got pulled off the roofs?


Yep, if you criticize him you’re really insulting the Coast Guard, and that’s just not fair, or something like that. And if you oppose making the current massive tax cuts for the extremely wealthy permanent, you hate the troops. It’s an old trick, and rather tiresome.


David Neiwert, at Crooks and Liars, argues here that the Katrina disaster “was directly related to the failures of conservative governance” and cites Kevin Drum on what had happened:


So. A crony with no relevant experience was installed as head of FEMA. Mitigation budgets for New Orleans were slashed even though it was known to be one of the top three risks in the country. FEMA was deliberately downsized as part of the Bush administration’s conservative agenda to reduce the role of government. After DHS was created, FEMA’s preparation and planning functions were taken away.


Actions have consequences. No one could predict that a hurricane the size of Katrina would hit this year, but the slow federal response when it did happen was no accident. It was the result of four years of deliberate Republican policy and budget choices that favor ideology and partisan loyalty at the expense of operational competence. It’s the Bush administration in a nutshell.


And Neiwert cites Paul Krugman explaining that “what happened with Katrina wasn’t that the administration started to fail; what happened was that for the first time its failures were visible to all.”


Neiwert adds this:


Even more revealing, perhaps, is Bush’s explanation for the misleading rationalizations under which we invaded Iraq: “Not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment.” Bush, we know now, was determined to invade Iraq and “take out Saddam” no matter what. His disappointment, as he tells it now, clearly was not that he relied on deliberately skewed intelligence that told him what he wanted to hear, but rather simply that Saddam didn’t have the damned things. It’s all that darned Saddam’s fault we invaded Iraq under false pretenses.


Perhaps you don’t want to go into a performance appraisal discussion where your key talking point is that whatever it was, it wasn’t your fault. The New York Times ran this headline – In Final News Conference, Bush Strikes Elegiac Tone.


That was generous.


But you don’t want others to appraise you. That can be devastating:


President Bush has presided over the weakest eight-year span for the U.S. economy in decades, according to an analysis of key data, and economists across the ideological spectrum increasingly view his two terms as a time of little progress on the nation’s thorniest fiscal challenges.


The number of jobs in the nation increased by about 2 percent during Bush’s tenure, the most tepid growth over any eight-year span since data collection began seven decades ago. Gross domestic product, a broad measure of economic output, grew at the slowest pace for a period of that length since the Truman administration. And Americans’ incomes grew more slowly than in any presidency since the 1960s, other than that of Bush’s father.


Self-promotion often collides with facts:


One constant for Bush has been an optimistic, even rosy, economic outlook. Throughout much of past year, even as the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve began preparing for the worst behind closed doors, Bush and his aides trumpeted the fundamental strength of the U.S. economy and dismissed Democratic proposals for a second stimulus package. A White House fact sheet released on Sept. 5 was titled: “American Economy Is Resilient in the Face of Challenges.”


Two days later, the administration announced the federal takeover of Fannie and Freddie, setting in motion the most sweeping government intervention in the economy since the Great Depression.


That takeover, experts widely agree, was necessary. But even those sympathetic to the president’s ideas are skeptical of his overall legacy.


The highest praise Hassett offers for Bush’s economic legacy is that “the economy was caught up in a storm while he was president, but it wasn’t his fault.”


“In the end, to the extent there ends up being a defense of the Bush presidency” on economic issues, “that’s about the best you can get.”


That would be Kevin A. Hassett, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was an adviser on Bush’s reelection campaign.


Self assessments are always more positive.


Also see Jacob Weisberg with W.’s Greatest Hits (the top 25 Bushisms of all time) – Weisberg has collected all the odd quotes in a series of books:


People often assume that because I’ve spent the past nine years collecting Bushisms, I must despise George W. Bush. To the contrary, Bushisms fill me with affection for the man- and not just because of the income stream they’ve generated. I find the Bush who flails with words, unlike the Bush who flails with policy, to be an endearing character. Instead of a villain, he makes himself into an irresistible buffoon, like Mrs. Malaprop, Archie Bunker, or Homer Simpson. Bush treats words the way he treated recalcitrant European leaders: When they won’t do what he wants them to, he tries to bully them into submission. Through his willful, improvisational, and incompetent use of language, he tempers (very slightly) his willful, improvisational, and incompetent use of government. You can’t, in the end, despise someone who regrets that, because of the rising cost of malpractice insurance, “[t]oo many OB/GYNs aren’t able to practice their love with women all across the country.”


It helps his case that Bush, like Yogi Berra, is in on the joke. This was clear from the first White House correspondents’ dinner, in March 2001, when the new president read from the first collection of Bushisms, which he described as like Mao’s “little red book,” only not in Chinese. “Now ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “you have to admit that in my sentences I go where no man has gone before.” Of course, he bumbled his speech, claiming that he’d invented the term misunderstanding. He meant to say “misunderestimated.”


Being able to laugh at yourself is a rare quality in a leader. It’s one thing George W. Bush can do that Bill Clinton couldn’t. Unfortunately, as we bid farewell to Bushisms, we must conclude that the joke was mainly on us.


Indeed it was. Read all twenty-five quotes, but note this one:


“I’ll be long gone before some smart person ever figures out what happened inside this Oval Office.” – Washington, D.C., May 12, 2008


So much for self-generated performance appraisals.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Assessing the Bush Legacy, Bush and Reality, Bush Legacy Project, Bush's Last Press Conference, Bush's Self-Assessment. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Limitations of Self-Assessment

  1. Kathy says:

    Thanks for the link! :-)

  2. Pingback: Introspection « Just Above Sunset

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