Thursday, October 06, 2005

Lincoln's melancholy, Bush's anger, Truman's decisiveness

Last week, in comments on my post Lincoln's melancholy, Bush's anger, Rasselas and Earl Bockenfeld expressed discomfort with any comparisons between our worst President and one of our greatest.

They saw leveling, as though just putting Bush's name in the same paragraph as Lincoln's demeaned Lincoln or egregiously aggrandized Bush. Possibly they were thinking of how Right Wing idolators of George W. Bush have trouble distinguishing him from Teddy Roosevelt, except for the ones who see Teddy as the weakling.

Rasselas wrote:

Lincoln was great, and Bush is so small that comparing him to the Railsplitter, even to his disadvantage, is too bitter even for gallows humor.

then he made the case that dignifying Bush's behavior with the word depressive gave the man too much credit and did him favors he in no way deserves.

And Earl sounded to me as though he may even have scented blasphemy:

It's troublesome to compare/contrast the greatest president and the worst president at the same time. Lincoln's melancholy seems totally different than George's personality quirks like hostility, meanness, lying even when not self-serving, delusions, narcissism and casual indifference to ideas and matters of state. I look at Lincoln's eyes and see a man crying on the inside, I look at Bush's eyes and see no one at home there.

Of course both Earl and Rasselas knew that I didn't mean to suggest that Bush was anywheres near the President Lincoln was or close to be being as great a man. I was just wondering if Bush and Linclon might have shared the same affliction. I think that comparing Presidents is a good and useful exercise. It can help us make decisions about who deserves our vote and, I'm thinking of Clinton and Carter here, that being a good President isn't a matter of always doing the right thing and never making mistakes.

I used to think that if the Media had been in the habit of judging Presidential candidates against past Presidents we wouldn't be subjected to such idiotic notions that a qualification for the job is being a regular guy or that it's ok if a candidate isn't all that smart, what matters is what's in his heart and his gut.

Quickly: None of our best Presidents were regular guys and very few of the rest were either. And while smart men have turned out to be bad Presidents, no good President has been less than brilliant, and I include FDR with his supposed "second-rate intellect."

But then truths that are self-evident to me are apparently not so to Harvard Law professors.

In the New Republic, William J. Stuntz manages to compare Bush to Harry Truman to Bush's credit!

Creative, insightful people are scattered through the world of government service. But they don't always rise to the top. Some of the people who do rise to the top are better at impressing the boss than at generating innovative ideas.

Harriet Miers may be one of those people. If so, we can chalk this bad appointment up to the governing style of a president who makes decisions easily but not always well, a president who has seen steep highs and deep lows, a president who trusts his intuitions even when he shouldn't. A president who, on his bad days as well as his good ones, looks a lot like Harry Truman.

Stuntz asks how Bush could have followed up appointing John Roberts by nominating Harriet Miers and concludes that it's because Bush is Truman-like in his decision-making style. After all, Truman, like Bush, appointed political cronies to the Supreme Court as well as learned and experienced judges.

Truman didn't believe in deferring to experts; as the sign on his desk said, the buck stopped with him. Though an ex-senator, he had a very un-legislative disdain for decision-making procedure. Mostly, he just called 'em as he saw 'em, with little reflection and no second-guessing...

Like Truman, George W. Bush makes decisions easily. He obviously trusts his own intuitions, especially about people--remember, this is the man who looked into Vladimir Putin's soul. Also like Truman, Bush does not readily admit mistakes, and hence rarely corrects them.

Also, both of them "fought badly improvised wars." See, because they were badly improvised, Korea and Iraq are exactly alike so nevermind that in Korea we were coming to the defense of an ally who'd been invaded and in Iraq we were the invaders, and nevermind that for Korea we asked for and secured the help of the United Nations and for Iraq we didn't quite do that, and nevermind that Truman told us why we were going into Korea and Bush lied and continues to lie about why we went to Iraq, and nevermind that when the Korean War ended the allies we came to rescue were rescued and when the War in Iraq ends the Islamic Fundamentalists who are our enemies will likely be in charge and the Iraqi people, especially Iraqi women, won't feel the least bit rescued, and nevermind that there are really no good comparisons between the two wars, they were both badly improvised and that makes Bush Trumanesque.

Without making direct comparisons, Stuntz also manages to imply that Condoleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz are in the same league as Dean Acheson, George Marshall, and George Kenner.

Even if you accept that their decision-making styles are alike---and I don't. There's a difference between calling 'em as you see 'em based on years of hard experience, a lifelong habit of hard work and hard study, and long, hardheaded conversations with smart advisors, and calling 'em as you see 'em because you can't be bothered---that's about the only way only the two men resemble each other.

In fact, a random scan of their biographies shows that it's not just that Bush isn't much like Truman, and it's not just that he doesn't measure up. Bush is practically the anti-Truman.

Truman_senator Truman: Voracious reader; checked out half the Library of Congress.

Bush: Married a librarian.

Truman: Oversaw the birth of the United Nations.

Bush: Appointed John Bolton as UN Ambassador.

Truman: Fired MacArthur.

Bush: Gave Paul Bremer a medal; hired Michael Brown back as a consultant.

Truman: Enlisted in the National Guard. Served 37 years! Saw combat as a Captain of Artillery in World War I.

Bush: Do we need to go into it?

Truman: Stood up to the Klan; desegregated the military.

Bush: Spoke at Bob Jones University; let Karl Rove smear John McCain by spreading racist lies.

Truman: As US Senator took on war profiteers.

Bush: As President gave no bid contracts to Haliburton.

Truman: Served as FDR's Vice-President; carried on the New Deal after Roosevelt died.

Bush: Wants to destroy Social Security.

Truman: Worked a real farm.

Bush: Vacations on a toy ranch.

Truman: Played the piano.

Bush: Pretends to play the guitar.

Truman: With George Marshall, rebuilt post-war Europe.

Bush: Let New Orleans drown.

Truman: The buck stops here.

Bush: Buck?

This could go on and on. But I guess this explains why it's taken so long for the American People to see Bush for what he is. They look at the White House and they keep being told by smart guys like Stuntz that Harry Truman or Teddy Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, or even, absurdly---See Rich Lowry on Bush's bold new ideas.---Franklin Roosevelt still lives there.

Bush himself sometimes thinks that he's either Abe Lincoln, FDR, or Lyndon Johnson.

He's a War President, you know.

And no President has done as much for Civil Rights as he has.

Post script: My copy of Joshua Wolf Shenk's Lincoln's Melancholy has arrived. I started it last night. And it opens with an anecdote about Leo Tolstoy that Earl Bockenfeld will enjoy.

Tolstoy visited a Cossack village and met with the young chieftan who wanted to know the news about the great wide world. The chief was especially interested in learning more about a man that he'd heard was "the greatest general and greatest ruler in the world."

The young chief continued:

"He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds as strong as the rock and as sweet as the fragrance of roses...He was so great that he even forgave the crimes of his greatest enemies and shook brotherly hands with those who had plotted against his life. His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived. Tell us of that man."

Tolstoy told them all he knew about Lincoln and he managed to find a photograph of Lincoln to give to the chief.

"It was interesting," Tolstoy said, "to witness the gravity of his face and the trembling of his hands when he received my present. He gazed for several minutes silently, lie one in a revernet prayer: his eyes filled with tears. He was deeply touched and I asked him why he became so sad."

The young man answered with a question of his own. "Don't you find," he said, "judging from his picture, that his eyes are full of tears and that his lips are sad with a secret sorrow?"


Post a Comment

<< Home