This weekend Bill Clinton gave the world a look into his character. In his autobiography, My Life, previewed on 60 Minutes, Clinton calls his affair with Monica Lewinsky a "terrible moral error" that sprang from the "darkest part" of his "inner life." Lying about it under oath got him impeached by a Republican House led by Newt Gingrich, who was having an affair with a younger aide at the time, just as the voluble Clinton scourge, William Bennett, rested from his indignations with the Las Vegas chapter of the Moral Majority. The reckless impeachment perpetrated by these pecksniffs crippled the Clinton presidency at a fateful time—when Osama Bin Laden was about to target the "homeland." Historians will doubtless explore the question of how far Bill Clinton's "moral error" and the Republican near-putsch contributed to September 11.
Next weekend, when Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 opens, we will see George W. Bush's Monica Lewinsky moment. Philip Shenon, who covered the hearings of the 9/11 commission, described that scene in an article on the film in Sunday's Times.
For the White House, the most devastating segment of Farenheit 9/11 may be the video of a befuddled-looking President Bush staying put for nearly seven minutes at a Florida elementary school on the morning of September 11, continuing to read a copy of My Pet Goat to schoolchildren even after an aide has told him that a second plane has struck the twin towers.
Moore stipples his film with damning (and in some cases doubtful) statistics—for example, that Mr. Bush spent 42 percent of the first eight months of his presidency on vacation—and vituperation. But, Shenon concludes, while "Mr. Bush's slow, hesitant reaction to the disastrous news has never been a secret, seeing the actual footage, with the minutes ticking by, may prove more damaging to the White House than all the statistics in the world."
That moment exposes Bush's character. It reveals what his press conferences proclaim: his incapacity. If he were George W. Smith, what job would he be qualified for? Bush's presidency can be seen as one long cover-up of the most obvious thing about him. A life of upward failure, of being his father's son, left him without "sand," my nineteenth century-born father's word for the residue of strength acquired by "standing on your own two feet" and "taking your medicine." Bush never stood on his own feet, never took his medicine—and he has never been his own man. He's the only president to be related to the Queen of England, and his biography is that of a "royal." Prince Charles would make a sorry prime minister. Like Bush, though, he'd give good strut.
Leaders show what they are made of in a crisis. Bush hid in plain sight with those kids. Later, hiding twice over, he used them as an excuse, saying he did not want to frighten them by ending the reading before finishing the book. Later still, and repeatedly, he said he saw the first plane strike the tower that morning (in fact, no one saw that live; the film was not available until the evening) and that he remarked, "That's some bad pilot"—pure strut. As the Wall Street Journal reported, he also magnified his role in managing the crisis, claiming he gave orders others gave. Conflicting accounts of Bush's communications documented by the 9/11 Commission now raise doubts whether, as he and Cheney told the commissioners, he ordered Cheney to shoot down any hijacked planes still in the air, or whether Cheney, in the White House bunker, acted on his own. Maybe Cheney persuaded Bush to stay away from Washington that day less for Bush's safety than for the country's.
Bill Clinton betrayed our expectations of how a president should act, then lied to cover up. His critics claim Monica was no discrete "moral error" but part of a pattern of character that showed his unfitness for the presidency. Yet, whatever his personal weaknesses, Clinton performed competently, even prudently. His controversial decisions—raising taxes to balance the budget, NAFTA, the China trade deal, less so welfare reform—were largely policy-driven, outraging various elements of the democratic base. Competence, prudence, policy over politics: these are not the words to describe George W. Bush's conduct of government. If we doubted Clinton's character, we were reassured by his intelligence and command of the scene. Bush lacks these compensations. His vaunted "moral clarity" is as much strut as conviction. He achieves certainty by arresting thought. The "befuddled-looking president" caught in that video is an emblem of his presidency.