Comment May 2002

Governing From His Biography

A President for whom tomorrow never comes
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George W. Bush has calculated that the future does not vote. His Administration has abandoned its obligations to posterity, from the environment to the budget to Social Security to regulation affecting the health and safety of Americans in the emerging digital workplace. Moral lapses notwithstanding, Bill Clinton acted as a responsible steward in raising taxes on affluent Americans to balance the budget and begin to pay down the national debt—a process set in motion by George H.W. Bush and now reversed by George W. Bush. We judge parents by the sacrifices they make in their present comfort for the sake of their children's well-being and education. At a certain point a parent realizes that he lives—he certainly works—for his children. That is the big moral discovery of adult life, and we should hold to it in judging leaders. The family models the polity. The test we apply to parents—how responsibly they care for the next generation—should apply to presidents. Bush fails the test.

Fails it—and for what? To pay off campaign contributions from corporate polluters; to redirect the Social Security surplus to tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans; and to throw money at the Pentagon for Cold War weapons he criticized during the election campaign and for a missile-defense system against the menace posed by Iran and North Korea—improving relations with which would undercut the rationale for the system. The President's new budget, as Al Hunt pointed out in The Wall Street Journal recently, cuts health insurance for poor children; shifts "the major burden of funding" for toxic-chemical cleanups from chemical companies to taxpayers; includes the smallest increase in education spending in seven years; and cuts the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program while funding the Crusader, an eighty-ton howitzer designed to deter a Soviet invasion of Western Europe (and made by a defense contractor whose advisers include George H.W. Bush). The budget also seeks to make permanent the $1.3 trillion tax cut of 2001, a step that would cost an additional $343 billion in the first year of enactment and $4 trillion over the next decade.

The bad numbers indicate worse values. Bush's overriding domestic priority seems to be to empty the Treasury and endanger the retirement of a generation in order to benefit the few, the powerful, and the connected. This is Social Darwinist economics. If, to use the social historian Barrington Moore Jr.'s distinction, a "decent society" is one that seeks to mitigate the disadvantages conferred by nature, then Bush has set our course toward an indecent society, in which to those to whom much is given, more is given. That has been the pattern of his life. Ending the estate tax is Bush's signature achievement. Passed by Congress in 1916 to "break up the swollen fortunes of the rich," the estate tax gets all its revenue from the top 1.4 percent of estates (and two thirds from the top 0.2 percent)—roughly the Bush Christmas-card mailing list. The philosophy of the estate tax, the conservative financial writer James Glassman has said, is to "promote equality of opportunity." Equal opportunity can at best be approximated, Glassman added, "but why not use the tax code to discourage a gigantic head start?" But Bush does not see anything offensive to the democratic ethos in gigantic head starts. He wants to leave an America in his own image, a country of sons standing upon their fathers. He is governing from his biography.

One need look no further than Bush's energy plan, heavy with subsidies for his friends in big oil, or the cosmic shrug of his global-warming policy. The former extends his experience in Texas to the nation, the latter to the world. When Texas was faced with a pollution crisis, the state's equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency urged him to impose mandatory emissions standards on corporate polluters. Instead Bush asked the polluters to devise a plan to abate their own pollution. They obliged, and Bush adopted it. Texas would have "voluntary" standards. These failed to reduce pollution; and after Bush left for Washington, they were replaced with mandatory standards. In his proposals concerning global warming, which were prepared with the help of the industry lobby the Edison Electric Institute and which, according to a British critic quoted in the Financial Times, follow "to the comma" a plan put forward by ExxonMobil, Bush has returned to voluntary standards. Outside experts not only predict that his proposals will fail to reduce U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions; they say that under his specious new metric of "emissions intensity" emissions may actually increase.

What does Bush care if this happens? He is not a steward of the global future. For him, time ends when he leaves office. According to his policy, if the voluntary standards don't work, they can be changed after 2012—three years beyond the end of his anticipated second term.

Before September 11 "presidentialized" him, to use the historian Arthur J. Schlesinger Jr.'s term, polls suggested that Bush was coming to be seen as the happy captive of corporate interests. From the days of Andrew Jackson's attack on the Bank of the United States as a Washington-favored corporation, the nexus between government and big business has ever been a source of public anger. Two years ago a Business Week/Harris poll found that 74 percent of Americans thought that business had too much influence over politics and government. The Bush Administration was enacting their ancestral fears. Then came September 11. The crisis gave Bush permission to mitigate a political liability and to govern for a whole people under attack, not just for the funders of the Republican Party. One held one's breath. He made a stirring speech. But by October he had reverted to his biography, embracing a stimulus bill that would shower nearly $700 million in tax rebates on General Electric and $250 million on Enron. People participating in focus groups refused to believe that the President's stimulus bill contained such provisions—the provisions were so much at variance with Bush's value-charged war leader's rhetoric. Their disbelief does them credit.

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Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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