Faith, Power & Bush's American Way

Pedestrians walk towards the White House during a snow storm, Washington, DC, 2-12-06 AP

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

Two schools now dominate high criticism of President Bush and his administration: the Faith Critics and the Power Critics.

Faith Critics theorize that President Bush essentially governs by his faith, ignoring inconvenient facts — "reality-based" argument — and instead relying on instinct, gut or even divine calling.

Power Critics make an argument more traditional in American politics: that the Bush administration has become drunk on power and thus indulges its predilections for secrecy, manipulation and imperiousness.

Partisans, of course, attack the administration from every angle on every point. But I think you could even sort most of their low criticism into these two buckets if you were heavily into rhetorical deconstruction. (Conservative criticism of the president, be it libertarian or Tory, probably does not fit very neatly into this pattern.)

I am not applying to either school. Increasingly, I have come to believe that this White House behaves how the worst American corporations behave: self-interested, opaque except under duress, deceptive, market-sensitive, skilled and blinkered. I apologize if that seems naïve or simplistic.

But the presidency wasn't intended to function as a publicly traded corporation, nor has it for most of our history. Modern campaigns have profoundly changed modern government, pushing them toward this commercial model. The evolution started with Ronald Reagan and Bush has put it on steroids. Call me a CCC: Corporate-Campaign Critic.

The summa theologica of the Faith Critics is a article in The New York Times Magazine by Ron Suskind that appeared a few weeks before the 2004 election. Under the headline "Without a Doubt," Suskind argued that Bush had created "a faith-based presidency."
"All of this — the 'gut' and 'instincts,' the certainty and religiosity — connects to a single word, 'faith,' and faith asserts its hold ever more on debates in this country and abroad. That a deep Christian faith illuminated the personal journey of George W. Bush is common knowledge. But faith has also shaped his presidency in profound, nonreligious ways. The president has demanded unquestioning faith from his followers, his staff, his senior aides and his kindred in the Republican Party. Once he makes a decision — often swiftly, based on a creed or moral position — he expects complete faith in its rightness."
Faith Critics snatch support from the memoirs and insights of several senior officials who left the administration disenchanted, with Christine Todd Whitman, Richard Clarke and Paul O'Neill at the top of the list.

They see a portrait of a president who has decided the great issues of the day on raw conviction — Saddam must fall, global warming isn't a problem, tax cuts always help — and then is impervious to empirical contradiction or logical argument. He is always certain, void of self-doubt, and seen to demand the full fellowship of belief from his vast staff and the expulsion of heretics, whether in the NSC, NASA, or EPA.

While some parts of this picture seem descriptive, and it is a tempting, fun grand theory, it's far too big a pill for me to swallow. It entails believing that George Bush is a nut somehow able to command the allegiance of boy-genius Svengalis and flocks of bureaucratic cows and ostriches. Really it is absurd.

  • John Esterbrook

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