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

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?

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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