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

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.

Presented by

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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