28 March 2007

A Sad and Pathetic Figure

One thing that is fascinating about George Bush is how little he has grown in office. No, that's not right. It's not that he hasn't grown, he has gotten smaller; less Presidential, more sad little man watching his paper boat circle the drain. After six years of playing The Decider he should at least have a thin candy shell of gravitas as opposed to coming across like one of those guys on Peoples Court who not only has an unshakable belief that people won't see through his bullshit, but that no one will notice his artful comb-over either.”

I found this quote on a blog several weeks ago and have been thinking about it since. I totally agree with the opinions of the author. The more interesting question, in my mind, concerns patterns. Have most presidents grown and/or matured while in office? Or have others acted more like Bush and regressed during their White House stay?

I think it's fair to say that George W. Bush has morphed into nothing but a sad and pathetic figure. He will always have that 20-25% of the electorate who, it seems, would remain loyal even if he murdered someone on national TV. But it’s clear that most of the nation is embarrassed by our current chief executive.

The simple answer to presidents “growing” in office is that most actually do. History demonstrates that two things tend to happen to presidents. First, at some point in their term, event(s) humble them—driving them to rethink much of their boisterous, and ideologically rigid campaign rhetoric. This is when many mature and transform themselves from politician to statesman. Second, most also find that maturity and growth force them into seeking a historical legacy; which means leaving something substantive (not partisan) to the nation and its citizens.

There are some examples in the past half-century of presidents who have grown in office—examples from both parties.

When the boyish John F. Kennedy entered the White House in 1961, some saw him as an inexperienced playboy whose daddy had bought him the election. While I will not compare Bush with JFK (W is no Jack Kennedy, shall we say), Kennedy did have a certain detached manner that made many think that he didn’t take issues seriously enough.

Yes, JFK had been a war hero and had plenty of medical problems, but he did come from a wealthy family that had greased the political wheels for him when he had nothing else to do in after WW II.

But Kennedy’s on-the-job training changed him immensely. The Bay of Pigs fiasco forced him to restructure his internal decision-making aparatus—and it caused him to question military/CIA advice. And then the Cuban Missile Crisis brought Kennnedy face-to-face with nuclear war. After October 1962, his speeches became more measured, his tone much more peaceful and conciliatory—if nothing else, Cuba taught Kennedy that he had the power to destroy the world—and it had almost happened.

What did we get from this 45 year-old man after Cuba? Not smirks and snide comments, not frat-boy giggles and statements from an ideologue. During his next twelve months in office, President Kennedy uttered some of his most memorable and lasting words— marvelous speeches about peace, disarmament, the arts, poetry, and his vision for a safer world.

Maybe JFK had this in him from the start—but like most politicians, he came to office a little cocky and too sure of himself. But by November 1963, he was a different person—he had clearly grown as a person and as a president.

Ronald Reagan also proved that one could develop while in office. While I am not a huge fan of Reagan, I have always been intrigued by his efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons when he met with Gorbachev in 1986. Some say Reagan didn’t know what he was doing—but I disagree. Reagan was trying to use the office to do something grand, and that’s what the presidency is all about.

Reagan, by 1986, knew that legacy was important—and legacy is leaving something to history. It’s acting in the best interests of future generations—it’s doing those things that you couldn’t do when political interests dominated. Reagan knew this, and tried something big.

Finally, while Lyndon Johnson’s last year in office was tragic—he even matured. LBJ abandoning the office that he so loved and actually wrecked his legacy--but it might have been the apex of his maturation. Johnson was a schemer and still hoped the Democrats would turn to him in the fall. But even LBJ had learned there was something bigger and more important than his ambition.

I think that two of the three individuals I mentioned in this post were mediocre presidents at best (I will let you guess which ones), but all three were much more impressive than the current occupant of the White House. All three left office with some gravitas, and all three knew that was an important part of the presidency.

As we all know, Bush had his opportunity didn’t he? And what did he tell the American people to do after 9/11….to go shopping. What a fucking moron. He has done nothing domestically—except appoint fascists to the court system. And his foreign policy, to say the least, has been a disaster.

George Bush, in my view, has been the worst president in American history. Overturning his mistakes will take years. He has become a small figure—immature and clearly not suited or qualified for the job. Luckily, we have had presidents in the past that did grow in the office, but not this adolescent clown.

26 March 2007

Novel Ideas

Mark Twain remarked that “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” I don’t know if that is still the case—but I think Twain has been generally correct about this.

Personally, I have had a terribly schizophrenic relationship with the classics (and novels in general for that matter) for the past 20-25 years. The primary reason, I believe, has been my study of History. You see, after reading traditional nonfiction History: textbooks, journals, short articles, and primary source materials—it becomes difficult to read word-for-word books. When you read academic nonfiction, you can often skim—searching for main ideas and key points, while quickly glancing over the language and style.

I do enjoy nonfiction very much—but I grew up reading classics and lament the fact that I continue to have trouble reading the great works. I can zip through a 500 page biography in a few days—but when I try to pick up one of the classics, I stick with it for awhile, and then…….my thoughts wander to some American history topic.

I could simply give up. I read enough good nonfiction…..I need not be so hard on myself, right?

But I still believe that fiction in general, and these classics specifically, are well worth the effort. I want to take my time and read each and every word, meet interesting characters, and understand their human emotions and dilemmas. The beautiful sentence structures, the perfect word choice, and the unfolding plots. I do get some of that in good history book—but I want more. Besides, the classics are so civilizing.

I grew up reading Dickens—Oliver Twist was the first real, adult novel I remember reading. Then I read David Copperfield and was “hooked on the classics.” But once I went to graduate school, the nonfiction took over.

I was assigned The Sun Also Rises in a graduate school History class once—and I loved that novel. I still read it several times a year. After reading it in Dr. Allen’s U.S. History seminar at Southern Illinois University—several of my classmates and I got drunk for about 4-5 days straight! We each bought one of those wine skins that Jake and the others drink from in the novel . Those were the days!

Well, I am here to say that I haven’t given up yet…..I am trying once again. I have a stack of classics that I keep on hand so when I get the urge, I have something to grab. A few days ago, I spotted the fat little Bantam Classic edition of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (Tolstoy pictured above). Thus far…..wonderful. I don’t want to say too much, I have completed 191 of 868 pages. But I sense that this might be the start of something.

I will keep you posted on my progress! Wish me luck.