Well, I just can’t stop being happy. I don’t mean elated—it’s hard to get elated by big history, as opposed to by the birth of a baby, say, or a child’s being elected president of the debating club—but I continue to feel relief (the exit poll hives have gone down) and satisfaction (my countrymen, such good sense they have). So let’s just let the mood continue and have fun.
This week I went to a symposium thrown together at the last minute by the Club for Growth, the Washington-based political action committee that gives crucial financial help to candidates who espouse economic policies that will help the American job machine, and opposing those who do not. Almost every Senate and House candidate they backed this year won. Also it was the club that worked with Hollywood’s David Zucker to get out the anti-Kerry commercial that was perhaps the best of the season, the one with the guy standing at the altar when the bride realizes he just can’t make up his mind and starts to chase the bridesmaid, and then the old organist. It captured John Kerry’s indecision and its implications. More important, it was funny.
Members of the club gathered in a New York hotel room, and president Stephen Moore said we ought to take a moment for a full and uninhibited gloat. So we applauded, stomped and cheered. It’s good to see Republicans show their joy. Republicans are people who can always see the next problem down the road, and are always working on it; moreover they’re often like the Irish and the Jews, who don’t believe in good fortune, and if it happens don’t mention it or it will stop. But for this night, skepticism, worry and even maturity were put aside, and everyone was just happy.
I was on a small panel that talked about the meaning of last Tuesday, why it happened, what was behind it. The nice thing about such panels is that nobody knows the meta-answer, so you can’t be wrong, only rather interesting or mildly stupid, which is allowed among friends. I knew some of the speakers were heavyweights who would look at the returns and their implications with gravity and sophistication, so I decided the only thing I could do that they couldn’t was be shallow. Thus I shared views that were based on a merely intuitive sense of what might have been going through the minds of some of the almost 60 million people who voted for George W. Bush.
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I actually think all elections come down to issues, to great questions that are answered vote by vote in the ballot box. But I put that wisdom aside for the fun of free association.
This is what I said: The president won re-election by a relatively healthy margin because the American people judged him to be the better man. He seemed to have the better character of the two candidates. He’d tell you what he was going to do, and why, and then he’d do it. He’d been doing that for four years. He did it in the campaign, too. He was dependable, and he was predictable. It’s nice to have a predictable president. It’s not nice in the nuclear age to have a surprising one.
Mr. Bush was not known as a sneak or a liar. We have had presidents who were known as sneaks and liars, some quite recently, but that wasn’t Mr. Bush, and I believe it was a relief to normal people. That relief was never articulated by anybody I remember hearing, but I believe it had a real if unquantifiable effect on the voters’ choice.
I think the people tended toward Mr. Bush because they saw him as a good American man, a man they know—an imperfect one with an imperfect past who turned his life around with grit and grace. That’s a very American story. It’s one we all know, and respect. There are Democrats—Chris Heinz was reportedly one, at the end—who amuse themselves referring to President Bush as a former cokehead. I don’t know about that, but I know America went through the 1970s, and America is still in recovery. When nice people hear things like “former drunk” they tend to put the internal emphasis on the word former.
The American people arguably did not pick the more interesting man in the race. Mr. Kerry strikes me as a complicated and intelligent person, and the one time I spent any time with him he seemed to be bright, and to have an interesting range of thoughts on many issues. Mr. Bush, on the other hand, does not strike me as the most interesting man in the world. That’s one of the things I love about him. I sort of have a theory that Americans don’t necessarily desire terribly interesting men as presidents. “Interesting” tends to bring with it a whole bunch of other attributes—”complicated,” “hard to figure,” “unknowable,” “startling,” even sometimes “tortured and tragic.” A lot of us are Republicans, and we just hate tortured and tragic. Or rather we like it in our plays and novels and TV characters and even in our friends. But not in the guy with his finger on the button.
I think Mr. Bush, the better man in terms of character, was also the more normal man. And we like normal. He loves sports and business and politics, and speaks their language. Normal. His wife is important to him, and his kids seem a bit of a mystery to him, and perhaps even to some degree intimidating. Normal. He thinks if bad guys attack New York City and the Pentagon, we go after them and kill them—normal. He thinks marriage is between a man and a woman—normal. He thinks if Baptist preachers in a suburb of Louisville have an after-school plan that has an excellent record of turning kids from juvenile delinquency to thinking about college, those Baptist preachers should be helped and encouraged every way we can, and it has nothing to do with “church and state.” Normal. He thinks if there’s an old plaque bearing the Ten Commandments on the wall of the courthouse you should leave it alone—it can’t hurt, and it might help. Normal.
Finally, you look at President Bush, and you can tell he’s not going to change much anymore. He’s 58 and he’s going to stay who he is. He is not emotionally or intellectually labile or subject to great swings—he’s not going to shock us and announce tomorrow that, on reconsideration, Osama had a point, or he actually doesn’t like Jesus. He’s not going to say tax increases are good. He’s not going to say we need more regulation of small businesses. He liked to brag sometimes in the campaign “You know who I am—I say what I mean and I mean what I say.” Actually, it wasn’t bragging, for it was true.
Some liberals, misunderstanding Mr. Bush’s support, think that in the red states they think Bush is a god. They do not. They do not think he is perfect; they do not think he is Pericles; they do not think he has the subtlest political mind since Harry Hopkins (if Hopkins was subtle—I forget). They just like him, and respect him. Some love him, but they all make teasing jokes about him. This is a man whose very White House called its political strategy shop “strategery.” The American people are in their own way fiercely sophisticated. They know the history of second terms: woe and error. They expect Mr. Bush to make mistakes. But they don’t expect him to make amazing out-of-character mistakes. They expect him to make George Bush-type mistakes. They can live with that.
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The journalist and economist who followed me on the panel said some serious big things. One said he could quite imagine Mr. Bush defying the second administration curse, in part because of his boldness: He means it about Social Security reform, for instance, and he’s going to do it. The economist was convinced Mr. Bush will move big time against the estate tax, which we call the death tax, and on capital gains. No one, however, predicted lower spending. There was a sense that once again Mr. Bush will trade spending for progress in other areas, and let that progress lower the size of the deficit down the road.
There was a nice moment in the Q&A, which I’ll share. I was asked by Stephen Moore about comparisons of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, how they are alike and how they differ. I told him I normally don’t answer that question from journalists because they always turn it into a sort of “but she conceded Bush lacks Reagan’s rhetorical gifts” kind of thing. I don’t know why liberal journalists enjoy comparing Mr. Bush with Reagan. They never wanted to compare JFK’s leadership style with the giant who preceded him 15 years before, FDR, and they never compared Bill Clinton’s rhetoric to JFK’s. But Stephen was asking not as a mischievous journalist, so I said I’d answer.
I just recounted something that has stayed in my mind. About a year ago I was visiting West Point, and I was talking to a big officer, a general or colonel. But he had the medals and ribbons and the stature, and he asked me what I thought of President Bush. I tried to explain what most impressed me about Mr. Bush, and I kept falling back on words like “courage” and “guts.” I wasn’t capturing the special quality Mr. Bush has of making a tough decision and then staying with it if he thinks it’s right and paying the price even when the price is high and—
I stopped speaking for a moment. There was silence. And then the general said, “You mean he’s got two of ’em.” And I laughed and said yes, that’s exactly what I mean. And the same could be said of Reagan.
It was a happy night at the Club for Growth.
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On Monday, National Review’s editor, Rich Lowry, wrote this on The Corner, his magazine’s blog: “I’ve been talking to Bush folks about how they pulled off this victory over the last couple of days, and the grass roots activism is something to behold. It was driven largely by volunteers who gave of their time and effort because they believed in something—in the president and in conservative ideas. This was a marvelous exercise in democratic citizenship and if it had happened on behalf of Howard Dean or some other liberal, we would never hear the end in the media of how members of this grassroots army vindicated their ideals on election day. But that’s exactly what these Bush volunteers did.”
Mr. Lowry had it exactly right. I witnessed it from the bottom up, going door to door with volunteers in Florida, meeting with the troops collating and delivering pro-Bush literature in Ohio, meeting with the phone callers who were getting out the vote in Pennsylvania, and hearing everyone’s stories on the national battle of the Bush lawn signs. They were always being removed in the dark of night. (One Ohio man got so fed up he wired his Bush sign with some kind of cattle prodder thing; in the morning, proof through the night that his sign was still there.) I saw mothers leave their kids to work at various headquarters for a few hours whenever they could, and husbands stay out late to put up banners. I saw the young man in an Ohio headquarters who kept a baseball bat in his office because they had been menaced, and he meant to menace back if he had to.
Which gets me to last week’s column, in which I wrote about Agincourt. I got a lot of mail about my reference to the fact that the bloggers and Internetters of 2004 were like the yeomen of England who pierced the old armor of the French aristocracy at that great battle. Some people wrote to me parts of the famous speech Harry the king gave minutes before the battle in Shakespeare’s “King Henry V.” Young Harry’s troops are outnumbered, and for all he knows outgeneraled. But they had their guts and their weapons and an unkillable desire to win.
One reader wrote and mentioned St Crispin’s Day, the day of the battle, which inspired me to open my Shakespeare. You know the speech well, but let’s enjoy it again, in tribute to Bush’s yeomen and -women.
The King speaks to his men in Act IV, Scene III, in the English camp:
- This day is call’d the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors.
And say, “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forget,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap while any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
St. Crispin Crispian—or St. Crispin and St. Crispian, there might have been two; quick research indicates no one knows—were apparently shoemakers and evangelists who tried to convert Britain in the third century. Their feast day—the day of Agincourt—was Oct. 25. This year, Oct. 25 was exactly eight days before the election, when all Mr. Bush’s yeomen had gathered in their separate fields, and were shooting their best arrows, and working their hearts out, and ensuring what would become their great victory. Here’s to them.
But of course none of this is anything to what is being done today, and tomorrow, in another battle, called Fallujah. It was launched on what might be called the Feast Day of the United States Marines, their 200th birthday as an American fighting force. As Shakespeare might have said, Semper fi.