Monday, January 19, 2009

Auf Wiedersehen "W"

INTERVIEWER: Can you name the President of Chechnya?
BUSH: No, can you?
INTERVIEWER: And the prime minister of India?
BUSH: The new prime minister of India is (pause)...No.

George W. Bush
"Pop Quiz," November 4, 1999

In his book "The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style From FDR To George W. Bush," Fred I. Greenstein writes, "The presidency is often described as an office that places superhuman demands on its incumbent. In fact, it is a job for flesh-and-blood human beings, who will be better equipped for their responsibilities if they and those who select them do not begin with a blank slate." When George W. Bush assumed the presidency of the United States on January 20, 2000 the script on the slate was illegible. Beginning with his controversial election and his Inaugural address, the Bush presidency started on the wrong note. During his speech, Bush halted abruptly at several junctures rather than at logical breaking points. Hence, his inaugural speech would serve to expose his weakness as a speaker.

Consequently, over his Presidency, he would shy away from addressing the Press, for he had the tendency to misspeak, a flaw that haunted him. Hence, his press briefings were infrequent and tailored to avoid questions that might lead him to shoot from the hip. He would change tradition, giving his first address from the Oval Office the night after September 11, 2001 almost two years after taking the oath of office. Most recently, following the commission of the U.S.S. H.W. Bush in honor of his father George H.W. Bush, the forty-third President rather than stay behind to receive questions from the press corps dashed off. When pressed to make a statement, he assured the press that he would make an appearance, but instead changed his mind and declined to face the press.

George W. Bush, was born on July 6, 1946, in New Haven, Connecticut. Unlike his father who attended elite private schools in Connecticut, the younger Bush attended a public elementary school in Texas. It was in Texas that Bush picked up the accent that branded him a true Southerner. Always a people person, he had a reputation as a socialite. It is noted that President Bush developed his social skills as a young child as a result of playing "clown" to entertain his mother. She had fallen into a depressive state after the death of her three-year-old daughter from leukemia. The "joker" trait lived on with Bush well into adulthood, shaping his image as one who couldn't be taken seriously. Bush's outgoing personality would come in handy when he attended preparatory school in Massachusetts and then Yale University. As a student, he was often ridiculed, an experience that would lead him to despise so called "intellectual snobs," Greenstein notes. He was however able to make up for his academic short comings by active extra-curricular participation. Hence, these early experiences were formative in molding the pysche of the man who ruled this nation for eight tumultuous years.

Every presidency faces great obstacles. However, President Bush could not have imagined the challenges he would encounter. Beginning with the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 President Bush had his work cut out for him. In a great show of leadership, President Bush passed the first major test by rallying the nation. As he stood on the rubbles of the World Trade Center, he urged Americans to unite under one banner and for a while this country was not a sea of red and blue states divided by partisanship. In the days following the attack, President Bush not only provided visionary leadership but vowed to retaliate. He would make several addresses over the ensuing weeks, addresses that helped secure the support of the world, support he believed would persist if he made the decision to attack.

If President Bush looked disillusioned when he was briefed about the attacks on September 11, he acted even more disoriented a few years later when the levees broke in the ninth ward in New Orleans, Louisiana. From the poorly managed response by FEMA to accounts of Condoleeza Rice shopping for shoes in the wake of the deluge, the Bush Administration's management was a total fiasco. The flood was unavoidable, however the ensuing response was uncoordinated because it was no secret that Michael Brown, who was FEMA director at the time was under qualified. Brown stepped down shortly after, amidst calls for his resignation by prominent Democrats. Many have attributed the response to apathy, disillusion, and shock. New Orleans is a predominantly black city and the response led many to conclude that race relations were still an issue in the United States and maybe even more so for the President.

More than his response following the attacks on September 11 or the response to Hurricane Katrina, President Bush will be most remembered for the war on terrorism. Addressing the war on Iraq recently on the Larry King Show, Bush expressed disappointed with some of the intelligence that led to the war but still maintained that he acted to protect the nation. As Bush leaves office, he leaves behind not only a nation at war, but also a nation that failed to address some of the most important issues facing our world. By narrowly defining instigators as an "axis of evil," he postulated that complex issues could be decided by simplistic categorization. Bush never fully developed his foreign policy platform. He failed to engage other nations and dropped the ball with the Middle East peace process. His knowledge of international affairs was at best inept, the Bush Doctrine being his most important contribution to American foreign policy.

The Bush years also witnessed the rise of corporate scandals from Enron to WorldCom, the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, the near demise of the auto industry, and the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression. Nonetheless, President Bush maintains that he gave his all. He does admit his mistakes as when he gave his farewell address, an address some networks were unwilling to broadcast in a ratings war. His farewell address coincided with the emergency landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River. Even the print media snubbed coverage of his address the following day, scorning him till the end.

For all his short comings, Greenstein notes that Bush had as his forte the ability to engineer a vision. Unfortunately, his vision was tempered by poor intelligence that cost him dearly. Despite the criticisms of the Bush years, it's almost safe to say that Bush acted on the convictions of his Evangelical roots, a conviction he believed was founded on his faith in God. He was a good man, a great father, and a loving husband, but unequivocally failed at leadership. Hindsight always provides clarity and perhaps one day, history might be kinder to George Walker Bush.

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