It’s been a slow week in a hot era. I found myself Thursday watching President Bush’s news conference and thinking about what it is about him, real or perceived, that makes people who used to smile at the mention of his name now grit their teeth. I mean what it is apart from the huge and obvious issues on which they might disagree with him.
I’m not referring to what used to be called Bush Derangement Syndrome. That phrase suggested that to passionately dislike the president was to be somewhat unhinged. No one thinks that anymore. I received an email before the news conference from as rock-ribbed a Republican as you can find, a Georgia woman (middle-aged, entrepreneurial) who’d previously supported him. She said she’d had it. “I don’t believe a word that comes out of his mouth.” I was startled by her vehemence only because she is, as I said, rock-ribbed. Her email reminded me of another, one a friend received some months ago: “I took the W off my car today,” it said on the subject line. It sounded like a country western song, like a great lament.
As I watched the news conference, it occurred to me that one of the things that might leave people feeling somewhat disoriented is the president’s seemingly effortless high spirits. He’s in a good mood. There was the usual teasing, the partly aggressive, partly joshing humor, the certitude. He doesn’t seem to be suffering, which is jarring. Presidents in great enterprises that are going badly suffer: Lincoln, LBJ with his head in his hands. Why doesn’t Mr. Bush? Every major domestic initiative of his second term has been ill thought through and ended in failure. His Iraq leadership has failed. His standing is lower than any previous president’s since polling began. He’s in a good mood. Discuss.
Is it defiance? Denial? Is it that he’s right and you’re wrong, which is your problem? Is he faking a certain steely good cheer to show his foes from Washington to Baghdad that the American president is neither beaten nor bowed? Fair enough: Presidents can’t sit around and moan. But it doesn’t look like an act. People would feel better to know his lack of success sometimes gets to him. It gets to them.
His stock answer is that of course he feels the sadness of the families who’ve lost someone in Iraq. And of course he must. Beyond that his good humor seems to me disorienting, and strange.
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In arguing for the right path as he sees it, the president more and more claims for himself virtues that the other side, by inference, lacks. He is “idealistic”; those who oppose him are, apparently, lacking in ideals. He makes his decisions “based on principle,” unlike his critics, who are ever watchful of the polls. He is steadfast, brave, he believes “freedom isn’t just for Americans” but has “universal . . . applications,” unlike those selfish, isolationist types who oppose him.
This is ungracious as a rhetorical approach, but not unprecedented. There’s something in the White House water system. Presidents all wind up being gallant in their own eyes. Thursday I was reminded of President Nixon, who often noted he was resisting those who were always advising him to “take the easy way.” Bill Safire used to joke that when he was a Nixon speechwriter, part of his job was to walk by the Oval Office and yell in, “Mr. President, take the easy way!”
I suspect people pick up with Mr. Bush the sense that part of his drama, part of the story of his presidency, is that he gets to be the romantic about history, and the American people get to be the realists. Of the two, the latter is not the more enjoyable role.
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Americans have always been somewhat romantic about the meaning of our country, and the beacon it can be for the world, and what the Founders did. But they like the president to be the cool-eyed realist, the tough customer who understands harsh realities.
With Mr. Bush it is the people who are forced to be cool-eyed and realistic. He’s the one who goes off on the toots. This is extremely irritating, and also unnatural. Actually it’s weird.
Americans hire presidents and fire them. They’re not as sweet about it as they used to be. This is not because they have grown cynical, but because they are disappointed, by both teams and both sides. Some part of them thinks no matter who is president he will not protect them from forces at work in the world. Some part of them fears that when history looks back on this moment, on the past few presidents and the next few, it will say: Those men were not big enough for the era.
But this is a democracy. You vote, you do the best you can with the choices presented, and you show the appropriate opposition to the guy who seems most likely to bring trouble. (I think that is one reason for the polarity and division of politics now. No one knows in his gut that the guy he supports will do any good. But at least you can oppose with enthusiasm and passion the guy you feel in your gut will cause more trouble than is needed! This is what happens when the pickings are slim: The greatest passion gets funneled into opposition.)
We hire them and fire them. President Bush was hired to know more than the people, to be told all the deep inside intelligence, all the facts Americans are not told, and do the right and smart thing in response.
That’s the deal. It’s the real “grand bargain.” If you are a midlevel Verizon executive who lives in New Jersey, this is what you do: You hire a president and tell him to take care of everything you can’t take care of—the security of the nation, its well-being, its long-term interests. And you in turn do your part. You meet your part of the bargain. You work, pay your taxes, which are your financial contribution to making it all work, you become involved in local things—the boy’s ball team, the library, the homeless shelter. You handle what you can handle within your ken, and give the big things to the president.
And if he can’t do it, or if he can’t do it as well as you pay the mortgage and help the kid next door, you get mad. And you fire him.
Americans can’t fire the president right now, so they’re waiting it out. They can tell a pollster how they feel, and they do, and they can tell friends, and they do that too. They also watch the news conference, and grit their teeth a bit.