The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The White House at Bush Corner

Then, suddenly, Christopher Robin, who was still looking at the world with his chin in his hands, called out, “Pooh!”

“Yes, Christopher Robin?” said Winnie-the-Pooh.

“I'm not going to do Nothing any more.”

“Never again?”

“Well, not so much. They don't let you.”

– A.A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner, 1928

With only one week left in the Presidency of George W. Bush, many people, including the President himself, are reflecting over his deeds and endeavors and the motivations behind them.

Bush leaves the White House an extremely unpopular President. So did Richard Nixon. So did Harry Truman. Contemporary opinion polls, it would seem, are not always reliable indications on how history may come to view a particular Presidency.

Historians like to look for a “defining moment” in a Presidency – an event or incidence that reveals a President’s character in a nutshell and positions their place within the unbroken line of individuals to occupy the office.

Where George W. Bush is concerned, we can pinpoint that moment to September 11, 2001. In fact, we can say with authority it occurred at exactly 9:06 AM and took place in Sandra Kay Daniels’s second-grade classroom of the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota Florida. That was the moment when everything changed for Bush, most especially the nature of his Presidency. It was the moment when the world demanded he grow up and quit “doing nothing.”

Bush was reading with the class in a photo-op. He heard before entering the classroom that a plane had struck a tower of the World Trade Center in New York, in an incident initially assumed to be pilot error. As he read along with the children, his Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, entered the room and whispered into his ear –

“A second plane hit the other tower and America is under attack.”

The television cameras show Bush reacting with disbelief and befuddlement. After long seconds of staring blankly, he returns to reading with the second-graders. They are reading a story called “The Pet Goat.”

“A–girl–got–a–pet–goat. But–the–goat–did–some–things–that–made–the–girl’s–dad–mad,” the children chanted in unison.

Bush listened with interest, asking questions occasionally to encourage them. It was a story to which he could doubtless relate. His own Presidency had just become rather like that out-of-control goat.

George W. Bush had run for President in 2000 as part of bizarre combination to avenge and show up his father. The son of loving but distant parents who encouraged independence in their children, Bush was the oldest but not the brightest promise among his siblings. As such, he grew up with a need to prove himself combined with a need to insulate himself from disapproval.

The antithesis of an intellectual, Bush was intelligent but incurious about abstract ideas. Friends from childhood through his years at Andover and Yale agree he studied hard when he chose to study but that he placed greater emphasis on socialization. Bush was often the popular center of a crowd, based more on his easygoing manner and people skills than his accomplishments. He placed supreme emphasis on loyalty (to him), rather than on knowledge or talent, when choosing his most trusted associates.

There was a dark side to his personality. His laziness and love of fun led to excessive partying and dangerous addictions that offset his strengths. More ominous, when Bush felt strong and in control, he had a tendency to bully and enjoyed doing so.

Most of the time, however, he was doing nothing – breezing through life on his family name and using revelry and carousing as a means to escape responsibility.

When he found redemption through religion at age forty, he used his faith not only as a support or tool to help him through difficult times but also as a shield and bulwark from anything and everything that frightened him.

And so, Bush continued on through life doing nothing, much as he had before, but in politics he finally found the success that had eluded him in the oil business and baseball ownership.

Like any Republican his age, his idol was not his father but his father’s boss, Ronald Reagan, who demonized big government, lowered people’s taxes, and out-stared the Soviet Union. As his Vice-President, Bush Sr. was supposed to be Reagan’s heir. Instead, he failed and turned control of the White House back to Democrats after a single term.

The reasons for the father’s failure were twofold in the mind of the son. First, he had allowed Congress to raise taxes after promising never to do so. Second, he had failed to destroy Saddam Hussein in Iraq after pummeling his forces in the 1990 Gulf War. Both occurred because Bush Sr. was willing to listen to divergent opinions and compromise his views. The son was determined not to follow him in any of these “mistakes.”

He won the Presidency, albeit controversially, following a period of unprecedented prosperity. Then fundamental weaknesses in the economy began to appear. Bush did not falter in his principles. If Reagan gave out tax cuts, he would give out bigger ones – the largest in history.

Saddam would prove a more difficult goal to get past Congress and the American people. Bush did not know that morning he had just been given the opening he needed. Instead, he felt like the goat in the story, complete with disapproving father figure overseeing all.

Now he was being forced to redefine his Presidency to the exigencies of the moment. “They're coming after us,” he said over and over again of the terrorists in the days following the attacks. “If we leave [where we are fighting them now], they will follow us here.” For a person who had feared failure all of his life, that moment must have been paralyzing.

President Bush’s own words about that moment are most insightful.

“I am very aware of the cameras. I’m trying to absorb that knowledge. I have nobody to talk to. I’m sitting in the midst of a classroom with little kids, listening to a children’s story and I realize I’m the Commander-In-Chief and the country has just come under attack.”

Alone, with nobody to reinforce him, Bush was left sitting with his fellow children. He had to grow up instantaneously and on his own. So he adopted the bully persona, which has always been confused by the males within his family as synonymous with strength.

Instead of doing nothing, he now redefined himself as all purpose along a single mission – to fight terrorism as he defines this threat. He will never deviate.

At an anti-war rally in Washington D.C. on January 27 2007, Moriah Arnold from Harvard Massachusetts, who had organized a petition drive at her school, told the crowd about Iraq, “Now we know our leaders either lied to us or hid the truth. Because of our actions, the rest of the world sees us as a bully and a liar.”

Moriah was twelve years old at the time. When the Iraq War began, she would have been a second-grader. It took her only four years to learn her lesson. The man who was her leader had not learned his in his own six year journey from a second-grade classroom. He never learned it.

In the story Bush read that day, things turned out well for the goat. The girl that owned it was loyal, much like his own Laura, and defended it. In the end, it became a hero when it butted some would-be car robbers.

George W. had the same chance but was so convinced of his inherent heroism he ended up the goat instead. The White House at Bush Corner, rather than being the shining beacon as Bush envisioned, has instead become a bunker and a monument to fiasco and collapse.

And it all began in Ms. Daniels’s class on a bright September morning of that tragic day.

In the concluding words of his children’s story, A.A. Milne reassures us, “But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”

The sentiment is far from reassuring in this case but there, in that classroom, we will leave George W. Bush, forty-third President of the United States of America. We have no fear to leave him there. For when history does finally come calling for the final judgement regarding his legacy, this is exactly where it will find him again.

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