Politics & Prose October 2005

Blame Character

The predictive facts of Bush's disastrous presidency were there for journalists to see. Too bad they didn't look
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Historians will make this generation of Americans answer for George W. Bush. You let us down, they will say. You afflicted posterity with Bush's blunders and damaged the morale of democracy by letting him into office. Caligula appointed his horse as consul. You elected George W. Bush!

I hope the historians slam the journalists who ignored our Watergate, the scandal revealed in every press conference: that a man unfit "to run a hardware store," in Philip Roth's words, should be President. In a recent column searching the Bush wreckage for clues about its origin, Paul Krugman singled out political journalists for their sins during the 2000 campaign. The chief sin— pride. The reporters covering Al Gore could not endure his low opinion of them, and in their copy justified it. The press read character flaws into Gore's shifting wardrobe, Krugman says, while neglecting "facts" about the Bush economic program—for example, that he was double-counting portions of the "surplus" and playing blind man's bluff with Social Security; in other words, that the whole program did not add up.

True. But neither did Gore's, as Krugman, to his credit, wrote during the campaign. Moreover, Bush's trillion-dollar tax cut was only a few hundred billion more reckless than the one proposed at the same time by John Kerry and other Democratic senators. And compared to leaders in his own party, Bush sounded sensible. As National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out in a Times op-ed piece, candidate Bush "pointedly denounced" the Reaganite faith that (in Bush's words) "if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved." The Gingrich Republicans wanted to abolish the Department of Education, Bush to expand it—indeed, through No Child Left Behind, to move toward federalizing education. (In practice No Child Left Behind turned into a bureaucratic nightmare; still, a competent President might have made it work.) Compassionate conservativism? A "humble" foreign policy? A new relationship with Mexico? The policy "facts" were by no means uniformly deplorable. Certainly they didn't predict the disasters of the Bush presidency.

But character did. The predictive facts were right there, in Bush's biography.

Failure—repeated, significant, pregnant with disaster—shouts beware from Bush's life. A reservist pilot who failed to report for duty, a failed politician, a serial failure in business until his dad, then vice president, intervened with the commissioner of baseball to get him taken in as a "partner" in the Texas Rangers, "W" misplayed winning hands and fumbled golden opportunities.

And those words fit his post-9/11 actions as well. A winning hand—the country's support for the war in Afghanistan. A golden opportunity—the world's sympathy for the U.S. and cooperation in the "war on terror." Lost, fumbled, trashed. Forty-two percent in one poll believe he will rank "below average" in the future's presidential ratings, twice the percentage who believe he will rank "above average." Bush finally holds a job from which he can't fail up.

"Charackter" is a Greek coinage meaning "to engrave"—referring to the power of early experiences to shape later life. Character, for the Greeks, was destiny. What you did you would do. Your past predicted your future. Yet, by the conventions of political reporting, the "character issue" means naughtiness á la Clinton. The Greek sense of character, familiar from literature and modern psychiatry, is typically ignored. Consequently, reporters avoided the questions about Bush that mattered. Did he have bad luck in Texas—trying, for example, to succeed in the oil patch during the oil bust of the early 80s? Or did he subvert himself by drinking and making bad decisions? Why? And would the furies of failure pursue him into the White House?

"I'm all name and no money," Bush said in a 1986 interview. If his name was just George Walker he might have gone to jail for insider trading. Al Hunt, the estimable Wall Street Journal columnist, might have slugged him for his drunken obscenity-laced tirade at a Washington restaurant in front of Hunt's wife and four-year-old son—several years after Bush claims he stopped drinking. His father owned the name that spared W the consequences of his actions. From which Bush learned, Go ahead, mess up. Daddy will fix everything. For a future President there can't be a worse life lesson than that.

Everybody knows how the son trailed the father—trying to measure up to his achievements at Andover, Yale, Skull and Bones, as a fighter pilot, businessman, politician, and failing every time. W was not his own man. His father seemingly controlled his destiny—and not only in his career choices. His engagement to a Houston woman "so echoed George W.'s parents' history that even some of his friends noticed," one of his biographers, Elizabeth Mitchell, writes. "Cathy had been a Smith girl, as Barbara had, although she transferred to Rice for her last years. George W. was 20 years old, the same age his father had been when he married... They made the decision over Christmas vacation, the same holiday season when his parents wed. They planned to spend senior year in New Haven together just like his parents had." Reportedly W's spooky identification with his father influenced his fiancée's decision to break off the engagement. As for Laura Bush, "It seems clear that, in a psychological sense, he married his father," writes Stanley A. Renshon, the author of an objective and generally admiring psycho-biographical portrait of Bush, In his Father's Shadow.

Another biographer, Frank Bruni, noticed a painting of father and son hanging over a fireplace in the White House. They are fishing. "His father was in the foreground ... reeling in a big catch. The son was behind him in profile, less easily noticed, with no fish on the line." W commissioned that painting.

Maureen Dowd has spoken of Bush's "oedipal" war on Saddam, the one fish W landed. Before the war the "facts" that might have predicted it were in plain view. Bush avows his "love" for his father, reporters dutifully noted. But how much imagination was required to ask, Where did Bush Sr., who set the bar of success too high for his son, fail? What would the son want to do about that? Would he see toppling Saddam as his one chance to topple his father from the pedestal of his perfection? And trying to overcome decades of humiliation in one stroke, would he, once again, fail? Of course, only interpretive reporting could get at such questions: reporting informed by 2,000 years of reflection on the "facts" of life.

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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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