Human, but Not to a Fault

I thought I’d start the year with some thoughts on George W. Bush, for he soon reaches his two-year mark as president, and we have learned some things about him. Some people I love, mostly Democrats but some Republicans, have taken to asking: Why do people like Bush? They know the obvious reasons—9/11, an administration suddenly given serious purpose, a president who seemed to wobble a bit like everyone else the first hours and quickly collected himself like most everyone else.

The whole world was watching, and America was watching with keen concentration, when he did his best work: his visit to ground zero and “I can hear you; the world hears you”; his Oval Office interview a few days after the attack when he said, “I am a loving man, but I have a job to do”; his speech to Congress in which he described the nature of the menace we face and spoke of American resolve; his spectacular live question-and-answer session with children when Vladimir Putin was meeting with him in Texas, in which both took questions from kids and Mr. Bush’s humanity shined through; and a host of other public moments. The boy done good.

But there are intangibles that I suspect are part of the story. Everyone seems to know he’s a religious man, and the people of this religious country approve and relate. Everyone can see he’s close to his family, and people like that too; it’s what they all hope they have or could have, though many do not. But a close family is the American ideal, and people unconsciously feel greater respect for those lucky enough, blessed enough, to have it. Mr. Bush also seems slightly afraid of his children. I don’t know why exactly I say that; I’ve never seen them together in person and can’t back it up, and yet I sense it’s true. One feels the presence of love, perplexity, guilt and hope there, and the slight detachment those heavy emotions can bring. If I’m right this would be in line with Mr. Bush’s long years of heavy drinking, and the damage that can occur in families with an alcoholic in charge. I have a hunch the American people sense what I sense, and that it may bond them closer to Mr. Bush, too. We all have our troubles; we’ve all messed up; we’re all trying; and a lot of us, maybe most of us, have effortful relationships with our kids.

I guess I’m saying the American people sense Mr. Bush’s humanity. But what they don’t get to sense—and I think this is a major though not consciously thought out part of Mr. Bush’s popularity—is his mess.

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Mr. Bush doesn’t bring his dramas and mess with him. He doesn’t bring a sack of dysfunction on his back when he enters a room. He keeps his woes, his emotions, his private life to himself. An example of what I’m getting at. He recently fired his Treasury secretary and his chief economic adviser. He wasn’t happy with them; he wanted someone else; they didn’t leave; he fired them. Boom. Next. If he feels personal bitterness, anger, or arrogance toward them, we don’t know.

This is wonderful. If it had been LBJ or Richard Nixon firing Paul O’Neill, we’d all still be talking about the personal elements in the marriage gone bad. Or we’d be talking about whether “the boss is in love” with someone else, as Nixon’s old hands used to say when Nixon became enthralled with the thinking of someone. Sometimes he fell in love with this intellectual, sometimes he soured on that adviser. He fell in love with Pat Moynihan, and John Connally. And then the love died. It was a regular “Peyton Place” in that White House. And Bill Clinton’s White House was, it hardly needs be said, another hothouse, though of a different kind.

But with Mr. Bush things aren’t a big emotional drama. He seems stable. This is a relief. You get the impression he’s like what he of course was, a businessman. When things work, good; when they don’t, change. It’s not personal. It doesn’t have to be messy. It’s not Shakespearean.

Which is good. The world is quite dramatic enough. It’s good especially at this time to be led not by the emotionally labile but the grounded and sturdy. They can see Mr. Bush is grounded. They’re glad.

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I have a theory that liberals and leftists prefer their leaders complicated, and conservatives prefer their leaders uncomplicated. I think the left expects a good leader to have an exotic or intricate personality or character. (A whole generation of liberal journalists grew up reading Jack Newfield and Pete Hamill on Bobby Kennedy’s sense of tragedy, Murray Kempton on the bizarreness that was LBJ, and a host of books with names like “Nixon Agonistes” and “RFK at Forty,” and went into journalism waiting for the complicated politicians of their era to emerge. They are, that is, pro-complication because their ambition to do great work like the great journalists of the 1960s seems to demand the presence of complicated political figures.)

Liberals like their leaders interesting. I always think this may be because some of them have not been able to fully engage the idea of a God, and tend to fill that hole in themselves with politics and its concerns. If the world of government and politics becomes your god, and yields a supergod called a president, you want that god to be interesting.

Conservatives, on the other hand, don’t look for god in government, for part of being a conservative is holding the conviction that there is no god in government. They like complicated personalities in their TV shows and from actors and opera singers, but they want steadiness and a vision they can agree with from their presidents. Actually I think conservatives want their presidents the way they want their art: somewhere in the normal range. They don’t like cow’s heads suspended in formaldehyde and don’t understand that as high art; by 1998 they thought Bill Clinton was the political version of a cow’s head in formaldehyde, and they didn’t like that either.

And so my liberal friends say: Why do people like Mr. Bush? And they want an interesting answer. But I do think part of the answer is: Because he’s not complicated and perhaps not even especially interesting as a person. We just love that.