Bush the Romantic

Did you see President Bush’s remarkable meeting with voters on Tuesday at Kansas State University? It was like a window into the soul of his old popularity. He was friendly, funny and at times startlingly forthcoming. His remarks were revealing in terms of his way of looking at the world and reacting to what he sees. They were also revealing, I think, in terms of his emotionality. The heart-head nexus with Mr. Bush is strong. His language is emotional, and his thoughts seem to spring more and more from his feelings. Or, as he might put it, his gut. The headlines of course went to “Brokeback Mountain”—“I’d be glad to talk about ranching!”—but most interesting were his statements on democracy, and the fact that he continues to see himself as the leader of the world democratic movement.

Here he is on the insurgents in Iraq:

    They understand the march of peace will be contagious. Part of my decision-making process is my firm belief in the natural rights of men and women; my belief that deep in everybody’s soul is the desire to live free. I believe there’s an Almighty, and I believe the Almighty’s great gift to each man and woman in this world is the desire to be free. This isn’t America’s gift to the world, it is a universal gift to the world, and people want to be free. And if you believe that, and if you believe freedom yields the peace, it’s important for the United States of America, with friends, to lead the cause of liberty.

Deeper in his remarks:

    I’m just confident that if we don’t lose our will, and stay strong, and that as that liberty advances, people may look back . . . and say, you know, maybe they’re just right. Maybe America, that was founded on natural rights of men and women is a ticket for peace. Maybe that kind of view—that every person matters, that there are such things as human dignity and the basic freedoms that we feel, that becomes a huge catalyst for change for the better. These troops are defending you with all their might, but at the same time, they’re beginning to help change that world by spreading liberty and freedom.

Then, asked his views on the U.S. relationship with China:

    One thing that matters to me is the freedom of the Chinese people. I think any time in the diplomatic arena, you want the President to be in a position where he can have a relationship where you can speak with candor and your words can be heard, as opposed to a relationship that gets so tense and so off-putting because of distrust. Nobody likes to be lectured in the public arena, let me put it to you that way. I don’t like it, and I’m sure other leaders don’t like it. And so I’ve worked hard to make sure that my personal diplomacy is such that I’m able to make certain points with the Chinese. . . .

    Now, I went to church in China. And I was a little nervous, at first, frankly, about a licensed church. I wasn’t sure whether or not I was going to go to a church or not a church, and went—Laura and I went with a guy named Luis Palau. And I was impressed by the spirit I felt in the church. . . . I would hope that China will continue to move in the—or move in the direction of human dignity. I talked to him about, of course, the Dalai Lama; talked to him about the Catholic Church’s inability to get their bishops in. In other words, what I do is I press the freedom issue.

As I listened I thought several things, some of them conflicting.

I thought: His sentiments on political liberty are worthy of an American president. Of course we are on the side of freedom. That has been our historic meaning in the world: to be a beacon, an example, to prompt democratic dreams.

I thought: He obviously means it. He has internalized an ethos of world liberation.

I thought: Down the road our country will surely benefit from Mr. Bush’s full-throated, unambivalent and perhaps happily simplistic insistence on the spread of democracy throughout the world. In the long term America will benefit from a renewed sense among the world’s dissidents and democracy-bringers that America isn’t just another cynical big power player but a nation truly populated and led by those who love freedom.

I thought: But that’s the long term.

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In the short term the president’s preoccupation seem somewhat at odds with the needs of the moment. And the problem is that we are living in what feels like an increasingly short-term world.

By that I mean the obvious: It can all turn on a dime. There is little sense of historical surefootedness. There is only a sense of walking unsurely on ice floes. In the old days—that would be 20 years ago—there were two great actors in the world, and in their own rough bottom line way they understood each other. America would not nuke Russia because it was not evil; Russia would not nuke America because it was not crazy. There was an ugly stability to it.

Now there are, as we all know too well, many actors, many groups, many insurgencies, many passions, many weapons. The world is not a stable place. In this world the president’s preoccupations and passions continue to seem to me jarring. It is as if he is applying the sound of the Reagan era to the realities of a world that is, at the moment, too fractured to be helped by it.

We want our president to love democracy and hold it high. But I would feel better if his preoccupations, and his public statements, had more to do with safety, homeland security and a heightened sense of the need for preparedness. I would like him to find Osama.

Another way of saying it is that Mr. Bush is romantic about history. That’s not always bad and can be good, but there’s a lot of weird romance out there these days, a lot of passion and pushing. Sometimes it’s better for the world when things are cooler, more-stony eyed.

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The president’s State of the Union Address comes Tuesday night. SOTUs are a paradox in that they’re always one of the president’s most important annual speeches, and they’re almost always boring. Why? We all know. The SOTU is the one chance each year that every agency gets to be mentioned by the president, to get its bragging rights proclaimed and its relevance declared. The president may be too busy to give much help to the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, but he can make up for it by unveiling and supporting the office’s plans each January. Same with Health and Human Services. Same with Commerce.

They all get their paragraph. The speech grows and grows, paragraph after paragraph, slab after slab of intellectual suet. By the end the speech runs an hour. By the end it’s usually lost its logical spine, the theme that holds it together top to bottom. (There’s always a White House aide who points this out. He points it out at the end of the staffing process, when the speech is done. He would have done it sooner, but he was too busy shoveling in the suet from Energy and Agriculture.)

None of this is terrible. It’s the way it is and always has been. The speech will be a success anyway. They always are. The president gets an hour of face time with the public. He looks good; he’s pumped; and every other thing he says gets applause, because congressmen want to show America they’re responsive and support their president and support new health initiatives. The more animated they are, the quicker on their feet, the quicker, they hope the cameras will find them, and linger. In the end the president’s numbers always go up.

But there’s also always a vague sense of missed opportunities.

How to make it better? One way would be to separate the speech from all the departmental specifics. Let the president share his views, intentions and beliefs, but issue a weighty addendum, one that is handed out the night of the speech, that includes all the boring stuff every department wants. Reporters will read it, thinking something hot must be buried in it. They’ll talk about it and publicize it for him. In the three days after the speech the administration can flood the cable zone with department heads who can talk about what their department is doing.

That way the president could establish an air of comprehensiveness without boring everyone to death. And he would make his face time more effective because it’s more memorable and compelling—a speech with a spine.

The theme? There are a lot of ways to go, but I hope to hear about the most immediate hope of every American: to be safe and secure in an increasingly stable world. That may be a dream, but there are paths even to dreams.