A Few Questions

Why does President Bush refer in public to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as “Condi”? Did Dwight Eisenhower call his Secretary of State “Johnny”? Did Jimmy Carter call his “Eddie,” or Bill Clinton call his “Maddy,” or Richard Nixon call his “Willie” or “Hank”? What are the implications of such informality?

I know it is small, but in a way such things are never small. To me it seems a part of the rhetorical childishness of the age, the faux egalitarianism of the era. It reminds me of how people in the administration and Congress—every politician, in fact—always refer to mothers as moms: We must help working moms.” You’re not allowed to say “mother” or “father” in politics anymore, it’s all mom and dad and the kids. This is the buzzy soft-speak of a peaceless era; it is an attempt to try to establish in sound what you can’t establish in fact.

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When Secretary Rice arrived in Lebanon the other day, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora greeted her with kisses on both cheeks. They seemed as if they had a personal relationship unstressed by the current war. They seemed like mature and friendly comrades greeting each other after an absence. This of course was all done for spin. I don’t mean it was insincere. It may have been fully sincere on both parts. But it was also spin, both parties agreeing to produce a picture that told a story. The purpose was to show the world that these adults, operating in a good faith implicit in the affection shown, can handle a tense situation, are friends, and can effectively work together. The world isn’t ending.

I know it is spin. You know it too. And yet it worked for me. I found it a relief. I believed both Ms. Rice and Mr. Saniora were well-meaning friends who can help see the world through the mess. I was being spun, knowing I was being spun, and aware that I’d been spun successfully. There should be a name for this, for the process whereby one knows one is being yanked and concedes it has been done successfully—that one is grateful to have been spun. In the theater, it is called the willing suspension of disbelief. That’s what allows the play to make an impact on the audience: they have to be able to make believe that what’s happening on the stage is really happening. Maybe to a degree it is a requirement for all political participation, all effective political communication, too.

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At a speech I gave in Washington recently the Q-and-A was lively, and somehow moving. We spoke of politics, of George W. Bush and the latest Mideast fighting and the personalities of presidents, and then someone asked me about working for Ronald Reagan. I told a story about an instance in which he’d edited my work with particular sensitivity to the fact that I was new and trying. Afterwards a member of the audience walked up to me and said, “For me you can’t talk about Reagan enough. I loved that man.” I hear that a lot these days.

Republicans hearken back to Reagan for two big reasons. The first is that they agreed with what he did. The second is that they believe he was a very fine man. This is not now how they feel about Mr. Bush, at least if my interactions with strangers and party members the past year are a judge. They think Mr. Bush is a good man—that he’s got guts and resolve, that he can take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’. But they are no longer confident about what he does. They’re no longer fully comfortable in their judgment of his policies and actions, or the root thoughts behind them. It gives Reagan an even rosier glow, for he was the last national political figure to fully win their minds and hearts.

William F. Buckley this week said words that, if you follow his columns, were not surprising. And yet coming from the man who co-fathered the modern conservative movement, carrying the intellectual heft as Reagan carried the political heft, the observation that President Bush is not, philosophically, a conservative, had the power to make one sit up and take notice.

I have had reservations in this area since Mr. Bush’s stunning inaugural speech last year, but Mr. Buckley’s comments, in a television interview last weekend, had the sting of the definitional. I agree with Mr. Buckley’s judgments but would add they raise the question of what Bush’s political philosophy is—I mean what he thinks it is. It’s not “everyone should be free.” Everyone in America thinks everyone should be free, what we argue over is specific definitions of freedom and specific paths to the goal. He doesn’t believe in smaller government. Or maybe he “believes” in small government but believes us to be in an era in which it is, with the current threat, unrealistic and unachievable? He believes in lower taxes. What else? I continually wonder, and have wondered for two years, what his philosophy is—what drives his actions.

Does he know? Is it a philosophy or a series of impulses held together by a particular personality? Can he say? It would be good if he did. People are not going to start feeling safe in the world tomorrow, but they feel safer with a sense that their leaders have aims that are intellectually coherent. It would be good for the president to demonstrate that his leadership is not just a situational hodgepodge, seemingly driven and yet essentially an inbox presidency, with a quirky tilt to the box. Sometimes words just can’t help. But sometimes, especially in regard to the establishment or at least assertion of coherence, they can. And it’s never too late. History doesn’t hold a stopwatch, not on things like this.