Politics & Prose March 2004

The Faith-Based Presidency

You can question Bush's veracity, his grip on reality, and the rationality of his policies, but not his faith
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George W. Bush has made rationality an antonym of Republican. His is the first faith-based presidency. Above the entrance to the Bush West Wing should be St. Paul's definition of faith—"the evidence of things unseen."

So much of President Bush has to be taken on faith. His integrity, for example. You have to trust the evidence of things unseen to believe him, for the visible evidence indicates a disposition toward deceit. Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the cost of his prescription-drug bill, the effect of his tax cuts on the deficit, the number of lines of stem cells available to scientists after his restrictions on research. You name it—from who hung the Mission Accomplished banner up behind him for his "victory" strut on the USS Abraham Lincoln to his claims that on September 11 he, not the Air Force Chief of Staff, was the one to order the military to highest alert—he's lied about it.

Alternatively, Bush could be seen as what Al Sharpton called "an unconscious liar." He asks us to accept his feelings about something as evidence of the something. In this view, he's not deceitful; he's innocent of the procedures of rationality—he can't think.

Or his troubles with truth arise because he bases his thoughts on authority not reality. Bush offered an example of his dependent mind on the night of his election. When Al Gore called to retract the concession he'd offered to Bush before the race tightened in Florida, Bush told him, My brother Jeb says I won fair and square. Gore came back that Bush's "little brother" was not an oracle. He was to George. So Bush is not a liar; he says whatever his authority figures, "Dick" or "Rummy" or "Condi," tell him he should say. In a recent edition, The Wall Street Journal had a long backgrounder on what Bush did on September 11, showing how, under Cheney's control, the stream of his government flowed around the President as if nobody expected leadership from George.

A magnetic north of untruth, he's a stranger to the art of rational persuasion, as conservatives lamented following his recent Meet the Press interview. Aside from his mendacious or willfully misinformed "we now know" speech on stem-cell research, Bush has given few signs that he can, or cares to, persuade by reasoning. According to former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's memoir, Bush rarely spoke at Cabinet meetings. He didn't need to. "I'm the commander—see, I don't need to explain—I do not need to explain why I say things," he told Bob Woodward. "That's the interesting thing about being president." It's the defining thing about him.

He doesn't explain his policies because he can't—and because they don't make sense. Iraq, he says, is the main battleground in the war on terror. But, as the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, said last week, there was no terrorism in Iraq, aside from Saddam's state terrorism, before the U.S. occupation. The terrorism that has inflicted nearly 4,000 American casualties is the consequence of the occupation. We did not invade Iraq to put terrorism down—there was none to put down—but to disarm Sadddam's weapons of mass destruction (talk about the evidence of things unseen!) before he could hand them over to al Qaeda. (Of course, al Qaeda despised the secular dictator, but never mind.) You have to conflate cause and consequence to accept that Iraq is the main battleground in the war on terror that began on September 11. Yet, on C-Span over the weekend, the estimable David Brooks said, following the logic of Bush and Rumsfeld, it's better to fight "them" over there than "over here." Let's hope he meant Afghanistan.

On Social Security, Bush would insure its solvency ahead of the Baby Boom retirement by removing a trillion dollars from the system. That is the cost of the transition from the current pay-as-you-go system to the partially privatized one Bush wants. In the 2000 campaign he said the trillion would come from the budget surplus. Now, with a $500 billion deficit, where would it come from? Perhaps Bush is counting on a loan from "the substance of things hoped for," St. Paul's second definition of faith.

On taxes, you have to take on faith Bush's claim that making the current unsustainable tax cuts permanent will help the economy—instead of crowding out private investment and raising long-term interest rates. The Reagan-era deficits did that, forcing Bush's father to raise taxes to deal with them. But in the faith-based presidency, history, like reason, can be ignored.

You can question Bush's veracity, his grip on reality, and the rationality of his policies, but not his faith. Turning to Jesus to escape from drinking was the turning point in his life. Sincerity, unreservedly giving your heart to Jesus, is the fulcrum of life-altering faith, say people who have experienced it. Reason, skepticism, critical thought, irony, argument—all threaten this sustaining emotional purity. You owe your life to a miracle, and it will go away if doubt creeps in.

All lives have the kind of soul-trying trouble that nearly cost George W. Bush his marriage. Some people see psychiatrists; others take medication; many turn to faith. And for many of this last group, I suspect, Bush's sins against reason, his privileging of his heart over his head, make up no small part of his appeal. Religiosity—intensity of faith and frequency of church attendance—now vies with race as a partisan predictor. Just as 9 in 10 African-Americans voted for Al Gore in 2000, so nearly 9 in 10 "high-commitment evangelicals" voted for George W. Bush. Altogether, evangelicals and white Protestant fundamentalists constituted 40 percent of Bush's vote. When Pat Robertson resigned as president of the Christian Coalition, in late 2001, Gary Bauer, a spokesman for social conservatism, said he knew why: "I think he stepped down because the position has already been filled..." President Bush "is that leader right now."

Bush is neither deceitful nor dumb; he's a fundamentalist. Is that the controlling truth about him?

His salvific connection with Jesus, real enough to change his life, has roots in his biography, which might be titled "Daddy, save me from my own folly!" Again and again Daddy bailed him out of failed business ventures and may have, by the influence of his office if not directly, helped him escape indictment for insider trading in connection with one of them. Daddy got him into the National Guard, saving him, perhaps, from Vietnam; at a low point in GWB's career, Daddy's status as Vice President helped him become a partner in the Texas Rangers, so he could parlay a few hundred thousand dollars into a fortune. In short, throughout his life either his father or Jesus has saved him from the consequences of his own decisions or behavior. Thus what Bush's allies call boldness and his critics call recklessness—his willingness to risk his presidency to make a war of choice on Saddam or to let the kids pay for the fiscal train wreck created by his tax cuts and spending spree—has the momentum of his life behind it. Jesus will save George W. Bush, and here's hoping he has some saving left over for the country. We'll need it to get through a second term of George W. Bush.

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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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