Monday, August 23, 2004

Progressives’ View of Bush, And Everyman’s View Of Him.

Dear Colleagues:

A few weeks ago The Washington Post carried an op-ed piece by a sociology professor, Gary Alan Fine, who teaches at one of America’s eminent schools, Northwestern University. The subject of the piece is why "progressives" hate George Bush: why "a fair population of these bright and articulate Americans hate" him, why "so many thoughtful people hold a belief that is surprising -- and troubling -- to the vast majority of Americans."

To illustrate "the depth of this hostility," Professor Fine cited a discussion he had with "a distinguished social scientist. She explained casually, without preface or embarrassment, that she hates the president." Fine couldn’t believe she meant this literally; certainly she simply disagreed strongly with his policies, found his personality unappealing, was angry about the outcome of the election of 2000, etc. "But, no, she insisted that she viscerally despised George W. Bush. She felt nauseated and angry when she watched him. She was not just intellectually offended but morally so."

Subsequently in his piece, Professor Fine explained what he considered the emotional basis of such hatred on the part of "progressives." What he said is brilliantly correct (although it is only part of the story). One cannot do better than to quote his superb writing:

. . . George Bush is Forrest Gump. He has led a charmed life, in which
mediocrity, error and failure have had no consequences other than to produce
success. An indifferent student, Bush attended both Yale and Harvard, escaped
service in Vietnam, escaped disgrace despite drunken driving, failed as an oil
magnate only to be promoted to head the Texas Rangers baseball team and, lacking
political experience, became governor of Texas. His family and mentors paved the
way for this untalented scion of privilege. Bush was the frat boy who never grew

Indeed, the conclusion of the 2000 election contributed to this
perception. A week before the voting Bush seemed solidly in the lead, but then
Democratic operatives spread the story of Bush’s youthful DUI arrest, and his
support appeared to crumble. Once again, though, his irons were pulled from the
fire -- by his father’s Supreme Court. The outcome underlined Bush’s image as
undeserving heir. The frat boy triumphed; fecklessness was its own reward.

Fine was right as far as he went. Many of us learned -- mistakenly -- that the American Dream went to those who worked hard, were competent and intelligent, were honest, were modest and had other desirable qualities. George Bush is the living embodiment that what we were taught has become a fraud in a plutocratic society. If one looks around, one sees everywhere that the palm goes to the dishonest, to the incompetent who suck up religiously, to the shameless tooters of their own horns, and to those who start with the ineffable advantage of a rich, accomplished and/or famous Daddy (or, these days, Mommy). George Bush illustrates a few of these traits. Yet, though he was a serial failure in most of his life, he is now President of the United States, and is such by the grace of family and plutocracy.

To those who were educated in the American Dream in the ’40s and ’50s, in the rise from obscurity to greatness of a Lincoln, Bush is a living rebuke which tells them that their views are wrong and their values silly. Honesty, intelligence, competence, hard work -- they are not what count.

Read the word "progressives" as meaning liberal or leftist academics (as it seems to have been meant to be read), and the situation is even worse. For Bush does not read -- for practical purposes boasts of not reading. This asperses one of the fundamental canons of education -- and of thinking: that one should read, that one in fact must read, to be knowledgeable and intelligent about things.

Nor do some "progressives" -- or, I imagine, some business people -- think well of Bush’s alleged "style" of leadership, which is itself largely predicated on personal ignorance. He proclaims that he simply sets the overall policy, and then leaves its execution to others. This, frankly, can only be the style of the mentally inadequate. No leader of any successful institution of any type can adopt such a totally hands off policy with regard to execution, with regard to implementing details, and be successful. Generally speaking, it just doesn’t happen, and Bush’s war in Iraq is but one of infinite examples.

There is irony in this, too. About two years ago a member of Bush’s Defense Policy board, Eliot Cohen, wrote a book about leadership in warfare called Supreme Command. The essence of Cohen’s view is that successful wartime leaders -- Lincoln, Churchill, Clemenceau, Ben Gurion -- were very hands-on, were very involved in details, constantly questioned and pushed their military people to insure that their plans were well thought out and had been improved as much as possible. There was a rumor around that Bush had read Cohen’s book. Either the rumor was false or Bush ignored, failed to understand or could not implement Cohen’s view that the successful leader does far more than just set overall policy and then totally and unquestioningly rely on subordinates to carry it out.

So, as said, Fine is right as far as he goes. But he ignores a crucial point. Saying that "political animus" should not be "tied to issues that are removed from policy" and that "bitterness toward the follies of youth" should not "determine our politics," Fine says there is enough to argue about by considering a president’s successes, failures, misdeeds. But Bush’s failures and misdeeds are matters that have contributed -- mightily -- to "progressives" disliking him intensely. In particular, his defense and foreign policies have outraged them. From telling the rest of the world to lump it, to spurning international courts, to incredible misjudgments about Iraq from start to finish, to untruths and total unwillingness to admit mistakes about such matters, Bush has outraged those who now deeply, viscerally dislike him. It is not his feckless earlier years alone which cause this dislike. It is the feckless early years plus the serial failures as president, failures which, pace Professor Fine, were prefigured by the serial failures of those feckless early years.
* * * * *
Yet George Bush is likely to win the election. At least he stands an excellent chance. There are many reasons. Lots of people agree with his policies. Some people are diehard Republicans. The average American reads little, as does Bush, and cares not a whit about the views of "progressives" or intellectuals. John Kerry is a flip flopper and does not seem to have any fundamental principles (except a 40 year desire to be president). Kerry does not seem to be a particularly likeable guy. Ralph Nader may syphon votes from Kerry, especially because more and more people are coming to agree that both parties are simply vehicles of the plutocracy. And so on.

But there is one other point which seems terribly pertinent. It was driven home when Bush and his wife were interviewed by Larry King recently: During the small portion of the program that I watched, Bush came across as a charming, likeable guy, much as a few years ago. What has been called his frat boy personality, or his good old boy personality, was on display. He would so charmingly give answers that were non-answers that one didn’t even realize they were non-answers. Or one didn’t even realize that, against the evidence, he was refusing to admit he had ever been wrong, or that he was simply blaming others for his own mistakes. If memory serves, for example, when King asked him whether he would use more soldiers if he had the Iraqi invasion to do all over again, he shifted it onto Tommy Franks. Saying his own style (as said) is to set policy and let the experts take care of the tactics, he had asked Franks if he had everything he needed, and the answer was yes. Not a word about -- nor did the King of softballs ask about -- Eric Shinseki’s statement that it would take several hundred thousand men to pacify Iraq, not a word about Larry Lindsey’s correct prognosis of the costs, etc. Nope. It was all the fault of those charged with the mission. To give other examples, when King asked George and Laura about stem cell research, you would have thought Bush was 300 percent in favor of it. When King asked about the mission accomplished episode on the aircraft carrier, Bush insisted he actually had stressed that there was much more work to do.
It was all smooth and utterly charming. It almost made me want to vote for the guy. And 65 years of life make me just have to believe that that kind of charming, frat boy, good old boy personality is what most American like. Most people are not "progressives," let alone academics or intellectuals. Bush’s personality can play well with them. The only thing that might cause significant numbers of them to change their minds is a clear statement of the unvarnished truth about what Bush is saying. Unfortunately, clear statements of unvarnished truth are not what John Kerry excels at. So in one sense, in one very important sense, this election pits Bush’s personality, attractive to many even if not to "progressives," against John Kerry’s speaking style, attractive to few or none. So, unless somebody begins taking Bush on in clear, unvarnished ways, John Kerry had better start looking for a job*

*If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.

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