I discovered today that George W. Bush is a better leader or a better Christian than I knew.
Here he is facing a barrage of Katrina criticism, some of it almost surely coming from the people who helped create the Katrina crisis, and what does he do?
He reaches out and thanks these people for their criticism. After his meeting with Bush, the mayor of New Orleans, Mr. C. Ray Nagin, said, "If anything, he told me he kind of appreciated my frankness and my bluntness."
This might be the triumph of a Christian generosity, a turning of the cheek. It’s hard not to notice that no one takes Bush’s Christianity seriously, unless, in my opinion, they take it too seriously. No one seems ever to read Bush’s behavior as if he were being animated by Christian beliefs or practices. Instead, people treat his Christianity as if it were somehow "part of the act," an opportunistic play for sun belt, heart land, anti-coastal voters. No one seems to believe that George W. Bush is ever actually listening when in church. He’s there as part of the theatre of his presidency, to show that he stands with certain conservative verities and against the godless Dems.
I, for one, can’t believe how sloppy, self serving and just plain reckless this is as a piece of analysis. Hey, it might be right…but I don’t believe I have heard anyone make the argument, let alone demonstrate the case. It’s as if people want this to be true so badly they mean to repeat it until alternative ideas are rendered unthinkable. (This is one way of making sure the "truth will out," by killing, that is to say, all competitors. Call this the Tudor model of the social construction of reality.*)
The key strategic question: what if you are wrong? You have given up one of the great opportunities for decoding the present presidency. (Do we know the substance of the sermons Bush hears each week? And, if we don’t, isn’t it vertiginously strange that we don’t? What, we don’t think this makes a difference? Are you kidding me?)
Or Bush’s response to the mayor of New Orleans might be a triumph of a leader’s pragmatism. It says, effectively, “your criticism helped me see the work we had to do. Thanks.” This is the selflessness of leadership. The leader accepts that people will behave badly. He/she accepts that people will behave badly at his/her expense and the expense of his/her presidency. The leader might engage in a blame game, but, really, what would that accomplish? A leader "takes the hit" and moves on to solve the problem.
Here too there is something sensationally transgressive about using the name “George W. Bush” and the word "selfless" in the same sentence. We just don’t think this way. We "know" that George Bush is a man of small motives, a man incapable of personal sacrifice, a man who seeks and uses his office to augment, never to diminish, himself. Again, how do we "know" this? Are we sure?
I know it’s not fashionable to talk this way about George W. Bush, but that should give us pause. Actually, the problem goes deeper than that. It is indeed barely intelligible to talk about George Bush this way. To refer to the kind or effect of his religious feeling, do we ever do this? To refer to the selflessness of his presidency, this too trembles on the verge of incoherence. In sum, we have read certain interpretive possibilities out of analysis before analysis has begun. And we all did it. Intellectuals all did it. Intellectuals all did it. (It always astonishes me to see that the intellectual is first and foremost a pack animal.)
George W. Bush, maybe for all of his take-charge, Texan, just-folk transparency, there are complexities we have not discovered. Discovering complexities, I thought this was what the chattering classes were for.
Johnson, Kirk. 2005. 45 Bodies Are Found in a New Orleans Hospital. New York Times. September 13, 2005. here.
(* Henry VII is said to have secured the Tudor claim to the throne as much negatively as positively. He eliminated almost everyone with a competing claim.)