The Leader

Bush said an odd thing on Wednesday.

Mr. Bush said he had been “thinking a lot” about the comparisons between the response to the attacks in New York and Washington, and the storm devastation. “We look at the destruction caused by Katrina, and our hearts break,” he said. Turning the subject to terrorists, he said: “They’re the kind of people who look at Katrina and wish they had caused it. We’re in a war against these people.”

‘We look at the destruction caused by Katrina, and our hearts break.’ They do? We do, and they do? Who’s we? You mean you? Did your heart break? Really? Are you sure? Because that doesn’t seem to be how people remember it. That doesn’t seem to be how people saw it at the time. You may remember some comments to that effect?

What was it that made people think your heart was intact, I wonder. The slowness to cut short your vacation? The telling ‘Brownie’ he was doing a heck of a job? The joke about Trent Lott’s front porch?

I heard a commentary on NPR this morning on the effect of Katrina on Bush’s poll numbers, which said that the above speech was an attempt to improve his situation by emphasizing his ‘leadership’ qualities. That was supposed to be one of his strong points – strong and decisive leadership. I would like to know why. Even apart from that ridiculous juxtaposition above (terrorists would cause hurricanes if they could, so we’re at war with them, so I’m a tough guy), I would like to know why Bush’s ‘strong and decisive leadership’ is seen as a virtue, or as leadership.

Leadership, and strength, and decisiveness, are only as good as the purposes for which they are being strong and decisive and leader-like. That’s not a big newsflash, is it? Hitler was a strong decisive leader, so was Stalin, so was Pol Pot. Strength and decision on their own are not necessarily virtues, are they.

Bush’s ‘strength’ and ‘decisiveness’ can be and have been described with other words. Obstinate, unreflective, unwilling to think again, incurious, uninformed, indifferent to being uninformed. Furthermore, he thinks he was chosen by god to be president. Such a belief is almost a guarantee that one will assume one’s every thought is divinely inspired and therefore good. But it’s not likely to be a true belief, so its immunity from criticism and correction is not necessarily a good thing.

Political rhetoric and political advertising are carefully designed to give the impression that ‘character’ is the most important thing about a candidate, and that various military virtues are (along with conjugal and parental and pet-owner virtues) both necessary and sufficient for a political candidate. This impression is quite incorrect. It would be good if people started to realize that, and so be able to resist the manipulations of the peddlers of ‘strong, decisive leaders.’

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