Wednesday, May 29, 2002

What is it with the Republican haste to mythologize and canonize their Presidents? Reagan barely stepped from the political stage before his fellow Republicans started campaigning to re-name half the country in his honor and slap his amiable mug up on Mt. Rushmore. With George W. Bush, the campaign to place him among the immortals started the moment he stepped into office, and then, after 9/ll, took on the characteristics of a tsunami. For months now, the country has been awash in a sea of purple prose, convoluted rationales and immodest comparisons from conservative commentators terrified that we just might, left to our own devices, fail to grasp the greatness of the political newbie from Texas.

But of all the arguments for W's greatness put forth so far, none strikes me as quite so lame, yet imaginative, as Michael Kelly's, in a recent essay in which he muses on past Presidents he deems politically brilliant "moral monsters." All -- FDR, Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton (of course)-- by the way, Democrats, with the exception of Nixon, whose actions, unlike the others, in Kelly's view, arose not from moral failing but only from a "common man patriotism." Nixon he insists, in his disrespect for the law and abuse of power, is "one of us" only "as seen in a glass, blackly."

The others in this select group, to Kelly, “all were maniacally driven men. They got the presidency because, in large measure, they wanted it so much that they were, in a sense, mad; they were great because they were monsters.”

As for the rest of our Presidents, they, he tells us, "fall into three groups: (1) The mediocrities: the great majority of the leaders who were not monsters but also not great. (2) The true rarities: those who actively pursued greatness and who yet managed to be both great and good (that is, non-maniacal, non-neurotic, moral); Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, I’d say. (3) The accidents: those who were great because greatness was thrust on them, not because they were driven to greatness."

The purpose of Kelly’s categorizing, of course, is to set up his rationale for Bush's "accidental greatness." And here it is:

"All of which brings up the question of George W. Bush. He is clearly not of the monster class. His critics would argue that, just as clearly, he belongs with the mediocrities. But there is by now some real evidence that he is something more than that, that he is one of the accidents, one of those who is not driven to greatness but who wander to it and rise to it.

You get the sense with Bush that he became president because he realized, once he grew up, that it was what he was supposed to do - what with dad, and all."


Isn’t the compulsion to follow in dad’s footsteps as maniacal and ambitious in its own way as any other? Doesn’t the aggressive, bare knuckled example of the Florida recount show us a man as ruthlessly competitive as any man who has ever held the office? Far from indicating modesty, doesn’t the assumption that becoming President is what one “was supposed to do” indicate outsized arrogance? Can there, in fact, be anything more arrogant and “mad” than the assumption, in these grave and dangerous times, that leadership of the country, and the world, is yours simply by accident of birth? Rather than by experience, commitment and energy?

The presidents Kelly calls “monsters” were undeniably ambitious men, with huge flaws as well as virtues. But they were more than simply ambitious for themselves – they were ambitious for the country. Most important, with the exception perhaps of Nixon, whose ambitions for the country were mostly global rather than domestic, they ambitiously sought to better the lives of their fellow citizens. These men sought the power of the Presidency because, among other reasons, they had a vision of an America that was fairer, more secure, more compassionate and endlessly capable of both great and good things.

Wanting to please dad is not only not a "great" reason for wanting the Presidency, it is not a good enough reason. The only legitimate reason is because you want to, and believe you can, do great things for the American people.

Nobody “wanders” into greatness. First, they have to have a vision of what greatness – not for themselves but for the country -- is, and then they have to work at it. Hard.

Whether or not someone who was pushing 50 before realizing it was time he "grew up" can now develop the capacity to work that hard is still an unanswered question. Whether or not a man with such a brief history of engagement in the world can work as smart as he needs to, is another one.

The people who answer those questions won't be our contemporary pundits. They will be our progeny.

It is their security, prosperity and liberty that will be this President's legacy. And it will be that legacy, not his personal charm, and their future, not his personal inheritance, by which he is judged.

by esme


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home