Sunday, September 17, 2006

Cancer on the Presidency

Mo Dowd from yesterday's NYT:

I wish W. would let me help crystallize him.

But, alas, I’m not one of his chosen crystallizers, because he is loath to be exposed to anyone who doesn’t agree with him. He roams the country but never strays from Bushworld, going from military bases to conservative powwows to Republican Hill allies to sworn Bush supporters to sympathetic columnists.

“It helps crystallize my thought to answer your questions,” he told conservative columnists called to the Oval Office this week. But he made it clear that his thoughts were contentedly calcified: “Let me just first tell you that I’ve never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions. I’m oftentimes asked about, well, you’re stubborn and all this. If you believe in a strategy, in Washington, D.C., you’ve got to stick to that strategy, see.”

After reading this I couldn't help thinking about another President and the sort of people he reached out to. Writing in The Jesus I Never Knew, Christian evangelical author Philip Yancey recalls an occasion in which he, and a number of other evangelical Christians met with President Clinton to voice their concerns. Yancey wasn't specific about who exactly besides himself were in this delegation, but it seems safe to say that among them were people who hadn't voted for the Big Dawg and who weren't supportive of his policies. Still, whatever effect they had on him, Clinton chose to meet with them and at least hear them out.

W doesn't do this. In the David Brooks column I referenced last week, the NYT columnist made two points about Bush: (a) the President is very sure of himself and (b) the President doesn't seem to have the fetish common to almost all politicians of wanting or needing to be liked.

I suspect Bush's proclivity about meeting only with admirers and fellow ideological travelers is strongly related to the two personality traits Brooks identifies. His company tends to reinforce his sureness of himself and provide him with the necessary public acceptance he desires, without having to consort with the enemy, as Clinton felt the need to do.

In one sense, if we didn't know about the private visits Bush hosts with conservative bloggers and writers, Bush's seeming imperviousness to polls and public opinion could almost be a virtues. Presidents--and their constituents--of the world's lone super-power would seem to benefit from having the proper sort of emotional distance from dramatic turns of events and frequent, arbitrary changes in polls. Some steadiness of leadership under trying and changing circumstances is, I think, highly critical and valuable.

Among the complaints his critics raised about him, Clinton's seeming need to be liked and applauded have some validity.

But in Bush's case, as even some die-hard, dead-enders are starting to recognize, his insulation from the public and alternative points of view is becoming a liability and may border on the psychotic.

But perpectives on Bush that emphasize his self-assurance and his unflappability in the face of negative circumstances and polls also shields the reality that rather than being self-contained, Bush is actually a highly "handled" executive. The most telling example of this I thought was the first presidential debate, where Bush was suddenly out on the stage with competition, on his own for the first time in four years. And the comparison to Kerry that night was I think highly distinctive. That night it was almost a surprise to see a befuddled president in contrast to the cool, calm, choreagraphed, (and limited) images we had been given of him over his first term.

So who is our president? Self-assured and self-motivated (albeit stubbornly and unreflective), or sheltered and handled, the front-man of a partisan cabal, personified by Dick Cheney and propped up by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and James Dobson?

1 comment:

Steve M. said...

the President doesn't seem to have the fetish common to almost all politicians of wanting or needing to be liked.

I don't think that's quite right. He needs to be liked -- and he has a tremendous gift for seeing only what he wants to see. And what he sees is a world of people who like him. (The people who don't like him -- e.g., any reporter who asks him a tough question -- are regarded as weirdos and aberrant beings.)