Bush The Believer

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.

John F. Kennedy was a non-believer, however much his public-relations minions (Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Ted Sorensen, and others) wished everyone to think otherwise. He just wanted to be president of the United States; perhaps more important, his father, the egregious Joe Kennedy, wanted a son in the White House and was willing to pay for it. Had he lived longer, Kennedy might have come to belief, but it is difficult to find clear evidence of strong belief in any of his actions or in his overall approach to governing.

Lyndon Johnson was a believer, alas, to his own detriment. He believed in extending the program of FDR (who may himself not have believed in it), in civil rights, and (disastrously for his political career) in the need for an American victory in Vietnam. The great irony of Johnson's career is that the man everyone considered the operator par excellence until he ascended to the presidency was brought down by his own genuine beliefs.

It's difficult to imagine Richard Nixon actually believed in anything. This is not to say that he wasn't smart or didn't have ideas, especially ideas about world order, many of them reinforced for him by Henry Kissinger. But it does appear that the only serious question in his mind was how to maintain himself in power, which is of course precisely what he was unable to do.

Gerald Ford was on the scene too briefly to establish any strong beliefs, let alone act upon them. Yet, beliefless though he may have been, he seems to have been the right man at the right time, decent, undramatic, and dull, which was just what the country needed after the scandal of Watergate.

Jimmy Carter, who brought the first hot comb into the White House, also brought with him the strong but vapid belief that something resembling the Golden Rule will work in government, even in foreign relations. He qualifies as a believer but an extremely naive one — and such, today, does he remain.

Ronald Reagan may have been the most successful presidential believer in recent American history, though even he was only half successful in carrying out those beliefs. He believed in lessening the role of big government but was unable to do much about it. More important, he believed that communism was tyranny, pure and simple, an evil empire, and by not temporizing with it, he helped bring it down. Belief was at the heart of the Reagan presidency — it was almost all there was to it, and it was enough.

George H.W. Bush was a president with no known passionate beliefs. He had all his life been working on the perfect résumé: Skull & Bones, World War II hero, successful businessman, CIA director, so that the résumé's final entry, president of the United States (1989-93), was all but prefigured. But why he wanted it — apart from allowing him, when golfing, to wear a windbreaker with the presidential seal, the only logo worth possessing — is not easy to make out. Difficult to make out, too, anything, politically, that he cared so deeply about that he would never compromise on it.

Testing the likely 2008 presidential candidates for belief is an interesting exercise. One of the worrisome things about Hillary Rodham Clinton is that it isn't entirely clear whether she is a true believer or just another standard politician, whose only question is "how do I climb to the top of the greasy pole to the presidency." Since her election to the Senate, she has played artfully at being the standard pol. But is there, beneath the great senatorial platitudinarian, a woman who has deep beliefs about changing the country? Hillary the believer is much more frightening than Hillary the business-as-usual political hack.

Barack Obama seems, at this point, too callow to possess serious beliefs. He wants justice, he wants peace, he wants honor for the nation, he wants all good things for all people and he wants these things without messy conflict. His brief-but-blazing senatorial career thus far has been devoted to demonstrating his charm and goodness. But wants, charm, self-proclaimed virtue are different from beliefs, and we cannot know in what he genuinely believes.

John McCain has the look and feel, not least the testiness, of a believer, but the question in his case is in what exactly does he believe, apart from his own integrity, which seems genuine. Or is he merely pugnacious (instead of wily) for the public good? Nobody knows, and one wonders if McCain himself knows in what, politically, he truly believes.

Belief is not a sine qua non in a president. At times the country does better with a politician whose aim goes little beyond keeping the ball in play, the game in motion. And where belief is detectable, the question of course is what is the content of the belief a candidate holds. If Churchill was a believer, so was Hitler.

Yet no great American president I can think of has not been a believer. The greatest of our presidents, perhaps the greatest American, Abraham Lincoln, was great precisely because of his deep, almost religious belief in the necessity of maintaining the Union and doing everything he could to keep it intact. Had they then existed, polls heavily in favor of his bringing the boys back home by stopping the Civil War would scarcely have dissuaded him.

The issue of belief in a political leader elides into that of the nature of political leadership itself. In a democracy, does a leader follow the wishes of the people, or does he lead them through the force of his own vision? In the best of circumstances, the political leader persuades the people of the correctness of his own beliefs. This, thus far, George W. Bush has been unable to do. But to expect him, because of this failure, to abandon those beliefs may be as unrealistic as many feel the president's own deeply held beliefs are. No one should be surprised, let alone shocked or outraged, when he turns out to be unable to do so, and chooses to stand by his beliefs to the end.

By Joseph Epstein