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The Problem of President Bush
A look at our blind dependence on George W. Bush for leadership as our nation heads in dangerous directions

Quotes collected by Scott Teresi from The Character Myth: To Counter Bush, the Democrats Must Present a Different Version of a Safe World, by Renana Brooks, published in the Dec. 29, 2003, issue of The Nation.

"International law? I better call my lawyer; he didn't bring that up to me.”
— George W. Bush's sarcastic comment during discussion of barring some countries from bidding on Iraqi reconstruction contracts (Dec. 11, 2003, from a Common Dreams Progressive Newswire article)

Why is President Bush able to remain so popular while taking this country into dangerous long-term directions? The following article provides some insight. The original article text was pretty dense, so I've only provided the most important points from it.

By repeatedly insisting that only [Bush] has the tools and the determination to fend off terrorism in the post-September 11 era, Bush has cultivated feelings of crisis, pessimism, anxiety and a loss of control throughout the nation [see Brooks, "A Nation of Victims," June 30]. He has instilled a sense of dependency in Americans--and found a place in their minds and hearts as the repository of strength, action and control. The electorate passively and often subconsciously relies on his authority and power to act on their behalf. This is why Americans consistently find ways to justify Bush and to convince themselves that he is doing a good job, even when his actions and policies are opposed to their beliefs and values.

Bush's handlers project the President as a man of character. His team has carefully crafted an image of him as a man who is strong and moral, someone who sticks to his principles and is capable of making tough decisions. This phenomenon was foretold by media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who warned: "Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be."

[M]any psychologists, sociologists and historians argue that Americans are prone to believe in the Great Person theory--the idea that if a person has the correct personality traits, his instincts will lead to the correct actions regardless of the details of a given situation. However, research shows that no character trait--not courage, charisma or self-confidence--correlates well with effective leadership as defined by historians. For example, Dean Simonton studied 100 personal attributes of all US Presidents, including their personality traits, and found that only one variable--intelligence--correlated with presidential effectiveness as measured by historians.

Bush and his supporters often silence opposition and dissent by encoding in their arguments a worldview that implies that even to challenge Bush's ideas is immoral and damaging to the social order, and even to the survival of the nation and of Western civilization. Linguists call this device the lost performative. The speaker purposely leaves out the authority behind far-reaching statements in order to pass off controversial viewpoints as the absolute truth. When Bush says "Our cause is just," he purposely leaves out the "according to whom?" Saying "I think the war is just" or "Donald Rumsfeld thinks the war is just" is much different from asserting "Our cause is just." The underlying message from the authoritarian leader is, Do exactly as I say, or catastrophe follows. Overgeneralization and false generalization are powerful vehicles for such a leader.

Past US Presidents of both parties have consistently chosen to evoke collective principles despite commanding overwhelming and dominant military power, carefully avoiding provocative imagery or dominating attitudes. Presidents typically reach for the language of consensus and empowerment in important speeches and addresses, focusing on the word "we" and presenting themselves as leaders of a strong community, whether domestically or internationally, with shared strengths, abilities and responsibilities.

[And then we are presented with an absolutely fabulous quote from John F. Kennedy. Apparently he gave speeches like this all the time, but I'm just blown away by his humility as a politician, his selfless world view, his and his intelligence and forsight, revealed just from this one quote. He directs us toward the road of the betterment of mankind rather than citing the now-tired and backward mantra of "during this such-and-such crisis, we must focus on what is in the best interest of the U.S. above all else."]

John F. Kennedy, in his commencement address at American University on June 10, 1963, just after the Cuban missile crisis, declared, "Some say that it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world disarmament--and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must re-examine our own attitude--as individuals and as a nation--for our attitude is as essential as theirs. And every graduate of this school, every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward--by examining his own attitude toward the possibilities of peace, toward the Soviet Union, toward the course of the cold war and toward freedom and peace here at home."

The current President, however, uses the word "I" far more often than the word "we," and usually refers only to the United States, or himself and his party, not the entire world community, when he says "we." This President also tends to undercut his words of inspiration with references to dangers that loom and threaten, hovering vaguely outside our immediate sphere of control. Even as Bush promises action, he fosters a sense of chaos and danger.

While many Americans feel reassured by the appearance of moral dominance, other nations, even friendly ones, do not find the President's stance reassuring. Non-Westerners tend to view dominance as imperialism. Many nations perceive the President's authoritarian imagery and mythology and are impelled to find ways to fight against American dominance. Because the world already fears US power, other nations are not comforted by Bush's leadership style. They feel only repugnance and fear. Left unchallenged, the character myth could potentially win George W. Bush four more years, but it will cost his nation dearly over a far longer period of time--perhaps stiffening resistance to American hegemony enough to end our current run of dominance.

[From The Character Myth: To Counter Bush, the Democrats Must Present a Different Version of a Safe World, by Renana Brooks, published in the Dec. 29, 2003, issue of The Nation.]


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