Bush The Believer

President Bush pauses during a statement about a meeting with his national security team Thursday, Dec. 28, 2006 in Crawford, Texas. At left is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Bush said he has moved one step closer to devising a new Iraq strategy but will seek more advice before settling on a final plan. "We're making good progress," Bush said
This column was written by Joseph Epstein

When George W. Bush addresses the nation with his Iraq proposals in early January, a great many people will be disappointed. They will be so because the president is unlikely to change the position he has held all along: that in Iraq victory, or something that looks to the world like victory, is still essential, crucial even.

How could it be otherwise? George W. Bush is not, strictly speaking, a politician; he came, after all, to politics late. He is instead a believer. It may well be in his nature to believe, as witness his midlife conversion to earnest Christianity. But there can be very little doubt that, on the morning of September 11, 2001, he also acquired political religion. He believes American security is being challenged; he believes this challenge must be met directly and with force; and he believes that he knows what is best for the country which he has been chosen to lead. The question of the rightness of his belief may be debated; but about the sincerity of his belief there can't be much question.

Four or so years ago, I heard the comedian Jackie Mason mock George W. Bush's slender rhetorical powers. "He stumbles, he stutters, he mispronounces. He goes arghh, he goes ahhh; he twists himself up in words; it's hopeless. Unlike Bill Clinton, who speaks with never a pause, never a miscue, never a hitch of any kind. You know, when you come to think of it, it's a hell of a lot easier to speak well when you don't believe a word you're saying."

More than merely amusing, this comic bit is provocatively suggestive. What it suggests is that American presidents can be divided into those who are true believers and those who are something else: managers, politicians, operators, men who just wanted the job. While in office, Bill Clinton, who seems to have had as little true belief as any politician in recent decades, sensed that the country wanted to move to the center, so he moved to the center along with it: changing the welfare system, doing nothing radical about health care, rocking no boats, giving the people what the polls told him they wanted.

Belief in itself, in a political figure, is not sufficient to make him either good or bad. Everything of course depends on the content of the belief. I do not know American history well enough to run through all 43 of our presidents, designating the believers and nonbelievers among them. But I think I can do so fairly quickly from the presidency of Harry S. Truman, the first president in my lifetime of whom I had awareness, through the present day in a way that, I hope, is instructive.

Truman wasn't supposed to possess anything resembling belief; when he came to the presidency at the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he was considered a politician of the ward-heeling type, beholden to the Pendergast machine in Kansas City. Yet he was called on to make some of the most significant decisions of the 20th century — including that of dropping atomic bombs on Japan — and it is impossible to imagine him making that decision without deep belief in its rightness. As it happens, the decision was one that every American serviceman, even ardent liberals among them, viewed as the correct decision.

Dwight David Eisenhower had no strong beliefs that I can make out. He was thought to be the right man at the right time, someone who would stabilize the country after the Korean War and becalm the disrupting antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Such at least was the reason that Walter Lippmann gave for endorsing him over Adlai Stevenson in 1952. Eisenhower believed in order, in advancing the interests of business, in adherence to the law of the land (he sent federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, to secure the integration of schools). But his belief was cool; in none of these discrete items did he seem passionate. To be a true believer, passion is required.