Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Let's Talk About Bush

[posted by Callimachus]

People love to talk about Bush. Love it like a babe, love it like it was all that mattered on earth. Being able to talk disgustedly, mockingly about Bush is the only bona fide that will pass muster with half of America and nine-tenths of the world. Otherwise, you're a "fascist." Global warming? All Bush's fault! He single-handedly started the industrial revolution, you see. Alternate answer: Nothing contributed to climate change that didn't happen in America AND after January 2001.

Pretty good work, wouldn't you say, for a "failed businessman?" That was one of the few things I knew about him in 2000. I wasn't studying him closely then. I had seen enough to know I thought he'd be a terrible president, and I had no inclination to cast a vote for him, even though I was a registered Republican.

Not that "failed businessman" was one of those reasons. American history features a long list of private-life mediocrities and failures who became wonderful presidents and statesmen. Ditto men who don't read a lot of books. Of course, failing with your own money and failing with other people's are two different things.

Now I know more about him. Now I think I see what kind of failed businessman he is. He's the kind of boss you'd love to have -- if you don't really care about your job. He's loyal to his people, not matter how bad they screw up.

He reminds me of Ernie, the amiable rotund Peruvian immigrant who managed the books-and-electronics department of an Abraham & Strauss store where I took a job in the early 1980s. It was all about the workday. You came in, you were cheerful, you tried to not screw up, but if you did, oh well, we'll fix it somehow. Tomorrow's another workday. It was great if you were only in it for the dope money, not a career, and you knew you were moving on eventually to something better. Abraham & Strauss is long gone.

There were, and are, many aspects of my dislike of George W. Bush as a president. In retrospect, the ones I weighted most in deciding whom to vote for in 2000 turned out to be the least important. His scary social conservative qualities turn out to not amount to a hill of beans, and were about as authentic as Reagan's -- thank God. Who would have thought his biggest positive legacy so far would be "spent more money on AIDS in Africa than Clinton did"?

But those qualities, if taken sincerely into the brain, might have served him better. So many social conservatives shuddered to their core when they saw what had happened at Abu Ghraib. They did it quietly, as is their way in such matters, and they didn't pour out of their homes to pick up the picket signs and slogans that International A.N.S.W.E.R. was ready to hand them, as some fools did. But they felt it, and they felt it as a betrayal of something essential. Would that Bush had felt that, too, when he had the chance to prevent it.

In retrospect, I should have paid less attention to how he prayed and more attention to his business history. And in retrospect, Bush wasn't too much of a Christian patriot: He wasn't enough of one.

What else did I know about him then? The Bushes were ruthess campaigners. They won, and they won dirty, and they surrounded themselves with the sort of characters -- Roger Ailes, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove -- who fight ruthless, scorched-earth wars against their opponents and bring them down hard.

I hated that quality in American politics, and it might have been the biggest reason I rejected Bush as a candidate. But in part that helped turn me around on the notion of toppling Saddam in 2002. I knew Bush was going to war for a different mix of reasons than I would use to justify it. But it seemed if there was one thing he knew how to do it was win, at all costs, with the help of an intense and creative team of generals. Paradoxically, one of the reasons I didn't want him as president in 2000 became one of the reasons I assented to his leading the country into a risky war.

Perhaps I should have paid more attention to Bush the First, and 1992. How, in spite of the aggressive team, he seemed to just lack the will to win. His fire was gone and he waged a desultory campaign, whose few sparks were nasty but feeble ones.

Yet there it was, in early 2003: The chance I had been waiting all my adult life for: To see America use its power and good will to clear a path for millions of people who had done nothing to earn the suffering that had been visited on them as a side-effect of the Cold War. To give them a chance to take hold of part of our lucky legacy of wealth of freedom. I had watched the grimy experience of Carter and Reagan's late Cold War policies around the world, seen and read the results of Kissingerite realism. I had traveled behind the Iron Curtain and had no illusions about our enemies. Yet I never resigned myself to a lifetime of simply backing our bastards, with guns and money and from a safe distance, just because I knew theirs were worse.

We ought to be better than that, or give up the notion and name of "America" and just settle for being Belgium or something. I don't think I'll see the chance again in my life. How that came about and how I feel about it is a matter between me and a great many people -- including Bush. How much I choose to say about it in public is my choice; it's not a sign of how I think you ought to live, it's how I choose to live.

But turn my back on all I've stood for, since I first followed the fall of Saigon in the "Inquirer" at age 13? Since I heard Desmond Tutu, then little known outside South Africa, speak at a college graduation? Since I saw the crosses at the Berlin Wall and drank with Kurdish refugees hiding out and waiting for black market passports? Just because some fool president also embodies the other great American virtue of mental laziness and screwing up a lot?

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