This past week saw the release of Oliver Stones latest movie, W., a chronicle of George W. Bushs rise to the presidency of the United States. The movie makes an honest, if at times historically inaccurate, attempt to depict the psychology of President Bush in his attempts to cast off his fathers shadow and make a name for himself.
Ill leave the analysis of the movie to the critics, but as our economy teeters on the verge of collapse and we find ourselves fighting two stubbornly unsuccessful wars, it is worth taking a look at the man who has presided over the country for the past eight years.
It is tempting to blame the problems we now face solely on Bush. To be sure, the president does deserves a large share of the blame. Faced with the tragedy of Sept. 11,Bush started wisely with a needed war in Afghanistan before pivoting to a risky foreign policy misadventure in Iraq that we now realize had little to do with the terrorist threat at hand. Once having made the decision to go to war, rather than listening to the voices of reason within the Pentagon that advised a heavy U.S. troop presence to keep the peace following the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the president instead chose to listen to only the sunniest and ultimately unrealistic strategic advice from the office of former Secretary Rumsfeld.
More recently, faced with economic crisis, Bush acted in fits and starts -- first instructing Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson to selectively save companies, before proposing through Paulson a general bailout for Wall Street and finally considering a broader stimulus plan to directly help ordinary Americans cope with economic turmoil in their lives.
In short, when faced with crisis, the president has consistently applied a shoot-from-the-gut mentality, favoring off-the-cuff and ill-conceived ideas from radical pockets of his administration rather than carefully crafted policy that integrates the voices of experts across America. The consequences of the presidents approach are now coming home to roost as the United States faces unprecedented challenges.
In this sense, there is little doubt that Bush is to blame for the countrys maladies. But to stop here would be to miss the crux of the problem: We elected President Bush.
The fact is, despite all the problems with his policies, Bush never promised anything different from what he has delivered. Sure, in his first election he espoused the (at the time) traditional Republican position of avoiding foreign entanglements, but he always trumpeted that he would act from his Texas gut when facing challenges. In his bid for re-election, he continued to tout this from-the-gut policy making, and he explicitly told the nation that he intended to fight the enormously expensive war in Iraq until he felt the war was over while simultaneously cutting taxes. We never had any reason to expect well-reasoned, coherent policies from George W. Bush, and yet we elected him anyway.
Why? Well, we felt like we could have a beer with him. We felt like he was telling us the truth the best he understood it (which turned out to be not so well). He felt like someone we could relate to. When his policies fail, it is our fault for having elected him.
Now, I use the word "we" intentionally here. I did not vote for Bush, and I understand many of you are shouting that you didnt either. But heres the rub: Did you actively fight the culture that says we should vote for the person we can best relate to? Did you ask voters if theyd let their drinking buddies balance their checkbooks, and if not, why would they want someone they envision as an ideal drinking buddy to balance the nations checkbook? Did you challenge your fellow voters to wonder whether they wanted someone like themselves s president, or someone wiser, with more foresight and better judgment? If you did take these steps, youre off the hook.
But I know that I did not, and our current political debate suggests that not enough of us have acted to change the tenor of the conversation. Until that change comes, all of us bear a responsibility for the consequences of our political debate. Until that change comes, we will keep facing the risk of electing leaders like George W. Bush.
The real tragedy of the Bush era isnt necessarily that his policies have imperiled the nation. The real tragedy is that President Bush did exactly what he told us he was going to do.