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STRANGE MEN! God has given Bush a vision–and courtiers like David Brooks: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 2006

STRANGE MEN: “Strange man,” Hector said to Paris, as they stood near the walls of Troy. The deathless phrase came to mind Thursday morning as we read David Brooks’ account of a session President Bush had just conducted with a group of conservative journalists:
BROOKS (9/14/06): The other striking feature of his conversation is that he possesses an unusual perception of time. Washington, and modern life in general, encourages people to think in the short term. But Bush, who stands aloof, thinks in long durations.

''I got into politics initially because I wanted to help change a culture,'' he says, referring to his campaign against the instant gratifications of the 1960's counterculture. And he sees his efforts today as a series of long, gradual cultural transformations. Like many executives, he believes that the higher you go, the further into the future you should see, and so his conversation is filled with speculations about the long-term effects of deep social trends—the current religious awakening or the politics of volunteer armies.
Good grief! Should men and women get into politics to “help change a culture?” That isn’t always a bad idea. But grandiosity can lurk in such a notion—especially if the proffered change-agent is as limited a person as Bush. But Bush did sketch this grandiose goal at the very start of his run for the White House. In June 1999, he flew from Austin to Cedar Rapids and announced that he was running for president. Speaking before pleasing bales of hay, with a stage-managed tractor behind him, Bush said this about his reasons for running:
BUSH (6/12/99): My first goal will be to usher in the responsibility era, an era that stands as stark contrast to the last few decades, when our culture has clearly said, “If it feels good, do it,” and “If you've got a problem, blame somebody else.”

Each of us must understand, each American must understand that we are responsible for the decisions we make in life.
(APPLAUSE)

We're responsible—
(APPLAUSE)

—that each of us are responsible for loving the children we bring into this world, and that we're responsible for our neighbors and helping in our communities. We must pass this message on to our children. We must teach them there are right choices in life, and wrong choices in life. We must say that drugs destroy, alcohol will ruin your life, and have a child out of wedlock is a surefire way to fall behind.

Now we will love the babies in America but we must say loud and clear it is not the definition of a man to father a child and walk away saying they're not my problem; they are yours.
(APPLAUSE)

Some people think it is inappropriate to draw a moral line in the sand. Not me. For our children to have the lives we want, for our children to have a hopeful 21st century, they must learn to say yes to responsibility, yes to hard work, yes to honesty and yes to family.

I want you to know I have seen a culture change once in my lifetime, so I know it can change again.
Much of what Bush said in that passage makes perfect sense in the political context. But some of what he said was strange. Is it really a president’s job to teach children that “alcohol will ruin your life?” That was a fairly strange thing to say—as was Bush’s remark about having seen a culture change once, and knowing it can change again. This past Wednesday, the Washington Post’s Peter Baker reported on Bush’s meeting with those conservative journalists. (Baker quoted excerpts of Bush’s remarks from the National Review web site.) Here is a bit more insight on Bush’s view of the culture:
BAKER (9/12/06): President Bush said yesterday that he senses a "Third Awakening" of religious devotion in the United States that has coincided with the nation's struggle with international terrorists, a war that he depicted as "a confrontation between good and evil."

Bush told a group of conservative journalists that he notices more open expressions of faith among people he meets during his travels, and he suggested that might signal a broader revival similar to other religious movements in history. Bush noted that some of Abraham Lincoln's strongest supporters were religious people "who saw life in terms of good and evil" and who believed that slavery was evil. Many of his own supporters, he said, see the current conflict in similar terms.

"A lot of people in America see this as a confrontation between good and evil, including me," Bush said during a 11/2-hour Oval Office conversation on cultural changes and a battle with terrorists that he sees lasting decades. “There was a stark change between the culture of the '50s and the '60s—boom—and I think there's change happening here," he added. "It seems to me that there's a Third Awakening."

The First Great Awakening refers to a wave of Christian fervor in the American colonies from about 1730 to 1760, while the Second Great Awakening is generally believed to have occurred from 1800 to 1830.
Those remarks suggest that Bush is a very limited person. It’s probably better if such people avoid the temptation to create vast changes in American culture.

Why do those remarks suggest that Bush is limited? Start with his deeply limited grasp of the change that occurred in the 1960s. Yes, American “culture” changed in various ways from (say) 1956 to 1975. But many of those changes were glorious—a fact which limited men like Bush are disinclined to recall or acknowledge. How did the culture change during that period? For one thing, there were gigantic changes in American notions of racial fairness—changes for which every American should thank God every day. That was a giant change in the culture—and if there is a benevolent God, this change came straight from that source. Bush’s complaints about “instant gratification” and “if it feels good, do it,” seem to concern changes in sexual culture. And yes—almost surely, there are legitimate complaints a pol can make about some of the changes which were involved in the so-called “sexual revolution.” But during those glorious 1950s, one part of “if it feels good, do it” involved the denigration of so-called minorities. Bush’s apparent sense that 50's culture was “good” and later changes were “evil” suggest a deeply limited man—the kind of man who ought to be kept far away from any vast effort to transform our vast culture. (Note: During the period in question, there were also vast changes for the good in our notions of fairness to women.)

According to Baker, Bush pointed out, in this week’s meeting, “that some of Abraham Lincoln's strongest supporters were religious people ‘who saw life in terms of good and evil.’” In some sense, that’s certainly accurate. But Lincoln himself was a man who brooded about our limited ability to know the good as God saw it. “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God,” Lincoln said, with cosmic irony, of the two sides who fought the American Civil War. He then pledged to work “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” But Bush displays little of Lincoln’s self-doubt. He seems very clear about what’s good and what’s “evil” in the culture—and he seems very clear in his belief that he should march forward to change it.

Strange man! Our own guesses about President Bush would go something like this: We’d guess that Bush had a very tough time when he left Texas in 1961, at the start of tenth grade, and went to Philips Andover Academy, where he confronted, and had to compete among, high blue-blood Eastern culture. We’d guess that he was somewhat dyslexic, which helps explain the academic problems he had at the school, and later at Yale. (“Bush would later tell friends he was terrified of flunking out of Andover, afraid that he would embarrass himself and his family,” the Post’s Lois Romano reported in 1999.) We’d guess that he had a tough time accepting his failure to match the legendary achievements, at Andover and Yale, of his famous namesake dad. We’d guess that he may have met a somewhat snooty faculty, which wasn’t inclined to be insightful or helpful about his problems and his fears. And by the time he showed up at Yale, a vast cultural upheaval—called the 60s—was happening. “It was a confusing time even for the most directed and driven, and Bush was neither,” Romano wrote. He also wasn’t one of the deepest—and over time, we’d guess that Bush transformed his own frustrations and pains of the period into a vast, and vastly limited, critique of “American culture.” Beyond that, it’s hard to read Bush’s remarks this week without thinking of the semi-psychiatric diagnosis which has floated around for some time—the diagnosis of Bush as a “dry drunk,” a man who channeled his own painful struggles with alcoholism into disordered and grandiose thinking.

We would offer those as guesses. But as a candidate, Bush declared it in his first speech—he had seen the culture change once, and he planned to change it again. This week, he said much the same thing: “I got into politics initially because I wanted to help change a culture.” Bush was certainly right in some of the things he said this week; depending on what you mean by “stark,” there really was “a stark change between the culture of the '50s and the '60s,” as Baker quotes him saying. But many of those changes were vastly for the good, a point Bush still doesn’t seem to consider. Many things changed in that twenty-year span. But no, our country wasn’t involved in a simple-minded war between Evil and Good. Bush seems to love such limited thoughts. He seems to think this wherever he looks.

George Bush is a strange and limited man. And uh-oh! As one part of his vast limitation, God has given him to see that he should transform the entire world’s culture! Of course, Bush has also been given scribes like Brooks, who dress this strange notion in pleasing ribbons. Far-seeing Bush “thinks in long durations,” this other strange man oddly says.

Hector spoke the truth to willful Paris. Brooks spoke as part of the court.