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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Countdown-in-chief

A strange event is happening. The most powerful person on the planet for the last eight years has seemed almost powerless for a while now. President George W. Bush is almost an afterthought. He has been conspicuous by his absence. In truth, he has become irrelevant.

For President Bush, his time in office, from his disputed 2000 electoral victory to the history-altering attack of 9/11, must have at once been equally shocking and surprising. The events that occurred under his watch have been monumental. His responses, however, have not.

To be sure, President Bush wasn’t solely responsible for America’s many predicaments – events are the consequence of confluent, independent motivations, from historical to cultural to accidental – and 9/11 occurred arguably due more to the built-up intellectual and religious antagonisms than any single failure to heed specific warnings. Moreover, the set of challenges he confronted, including global terrorism and climate deterioration are historically and uniquely novel. These factors, allied to the hyper-magnification and instant dissonance that the information age presents, meant that he was a president in an age without precedent.

But the very greatest leaders rise to the grandest occasions. The greatest presidents adapt to the problems, devise unique responses and implement solutions. Here, President Bush was a disaster. He was rigid as the times demanded flexibility and dynamism. This rigidity has roots in his life experiences.

Bush apologists often cite his embrace of faith and the subsequent born-again moment from serious alcoholism as the defining character behind the man. For many, life-changing events are a deep touch on their deepest vulnerabilities. Some resign and falter; others struggle with recovery. Some embrace faith – often a demand for a personal, complete abdication to a divine inspiration. For Bush, he found solace, strength and salvation in Christianity. He persevered, then ascended to the highest office in the land.

But he practiced his faith in a dangerously monolithic way. He lived a regimented life, subscribed to certain fundamental tenets and stopped doubting himself. Consequently, he ignored scientific reports. He disdained opposition to his authority. He sought constant affirmation; as Richard Cohen suggested, Bush read a lot – contrary to popular caricature – but his range was limited. He was narrow in a realm that was wide.

He didn’t want to be challenged.

For some, this unyielding conviction in a world that is often menacing, fluid and contradictory was admirable. But the repercussions of this certitude to the national economy, foreign reputation and military power were negative, lasting and widespread.

Bush, furthermore, was a broader expression of his party. Like an idealism that succeeds and is constantly repeated until it crystallizes into dogma, the Republican Party’s fixity with Reagan’s policies had come to symbolize rigidity. Bush perpetrated it. He was the participant of the Republican Party’s moral and ideological bankruptcy and partisan zealotry, scorning dissent in favor of loyalty.

Politically, as Frank Rich remarked, Bush thrived. His policies weren’t outstanding, but because of the Republican’s strength for identifiable narratives, he managed to tear down opponents. He practiced the politics of personal destruction, winning votes. But he didn’t win minds and hearts.

The media often lambasted him for his inept reactions to events. Many are not justified; as one president once suggested, observers are detached, mere onlookers. They lack the information and intensity of the moment, a situation that frequently demands courage. For a president, knowing that every choice can affect and implicate the lives of billions, the pressure is tremendous. But Bush failed to translate the pressure into incisive decisions.

President Bush will probably be recorded as a historical failure. But for all that we blame him for, he was a man with certain beliefs and flaws who served in the Office of the President. It was just unfortunate he was unprepared for the job.

 

ZACH HAN is counting down the days … send him your countdown number to zklhan@ucdavis.edu.

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