George Bush and the Treacherous Country 

Thursday, Feb 12 2004
Illustration by Ryan Ward

I am a traitor. I’m not sure exactly when I first knew it. Of course for a long time I resisted it; I had always thought of myself as a patriot. But sometime over the last 15 years I came to sense it, and certainly I understood it by the afternoon last October when the president officially launched his re-election campaign. That was the day he gave two speeches in New Hampshire on behalf of a war he thought he had won five months earlier; over the next 24 hours, Iraqi guerrillas in Baghdad killed three American soldiers and wounded four, assassinated a Spanish diplomat in the street, and drove a car into a police station, blowing up eight people. This moment wasn’t just the hinge of George W. Bush’s presidency, with the gales of the past and future blowing it open and shut. It wasn’t just the moment that his presidency became the hinge of modern American history. It was the hinge of my very Americanism, between patriotism and treachery.

Some are loath to bestow upon this president any sort of momentousness. Whatever he does or however dire the moment, some can’t bring themselves to believe George Bush deserves such import, given what they regard as the flukishness of his election or what they perceive to be the limits of his capabilities. Among the erudite, ridicule attends his every mispronunciation of this word, his every mangling of that sentence — mistakes that only endear him to a nation of word mispronouncers and sentence manglers. Among those who fret about the unfairness of life, there’s fury at the fortunate son who inherited his power from his presidential father and the Supreme Court, as though Al Gore would have been any less an inheritor from his own senatorial father and the president who made him vice president (none of which is to even mention what Hillary Clinton has inherited, or may inherit still).

To snicker at Bush’s luck and stupidity not only confirms Bush’s gleeful assertions that he’s underestimated, but misreads everything about both the moment and the man. The fortunate son has more natural political skill than his father ever did, and as he proved in his interview on Meet the Press this past weekend, the president is as able to absorb and command the facts of something as anyone else. As was also clear in the same interview, and given the ways in which his reasons for the Iraq invasion have changed from those that he presented to the country a year ago, what’s important about George Bush’s intelligence isn’t its magnitude but its nature. This is to say it’s a perfectly adequate intellect that chooses what it prefers to know, what it prefers to think, what it prefers to believe. Which is to say that the nature of Bush’s intelligence hasn’t anything to do with intelligence at all. Rather it has to do with — here’s a word we haven’t heard in a while — character.

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Bush’s presidency may be more fraught with significance than any since Franklin Roosevelt’s. If you believe in any sort of fate, if you believe things happen according to any sort of Scheme, there was nothing flukish about Bush’s election; to the contrary, there was no way he could not have become president when he did. Gore may have had a better résumé, but manifestly Bush was better suited to the dark poetry of 2000. George W. Bush is the Millennial President, and not simply according to the arithmetic of calendars. He’s the president of all the millennium’s metaphors, a commander in chief for the End Days, collecting RSVPs for the Rapture.

By all accounts the president believes the 11th of September, 2001, was his hour of destiny, the great event with which he was born to contend. Uniquely in recent history, the al Qaeda attack had about it an unalloyed evil that didn’t simply conform to George Bush’s worldview but validated it. Beyond that, radical Islam is an enemy to which Bush relates not on a historical or sociological level but rather one deeply intuitive; at heart the president embraces the same kind of absolutes, and the same promise of eternity and yearning for self-obliteration in which such absolutes are rooted. To a lesser degree, he’s also temperamentally grounded in the same suspicion of the modern world and its complications. For about five weeks this made Bush the perfect president for September 11. When those weeks passed, increasingly he found himself first checked by the mechanisms of democracy that routinely check presidential power — beginning with questions by Congress and the press about secret military trials — and then outclassed by Osama bin Laden, whose vocabulary of obliteration exceeds Bush’s even if his means for achieving it doesn’t.

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