David Brooks just came from a sit-down with the Preznit, and he was--well, golly. Impressed!
He opened the session by declaring, "Let me just first tell you that I've never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions," and he grew more self-assured from there. I interview politicians for a living, and every time I brush against Bush I'm reminded that this guy is different. There's none of that hunger for approval that is common to the breed. This is the most inner-directed man on the globe.
Note, first, the winning, disarming informality. "This guy is different." Surely anything that follows the characterization of you-know-who as "this guy" can be trusted to be frank, unpretentious, and without artifice--in a word, believable, in the good old American dumb-but-honest-sumbitch manner.
Oh, true, there are other ways of describing the confidence of a man reflecting on a presidential career of manifest failure. "Self-assured" and "the most inner-directed man on the globe" are one way to put it--the courtier's way, the way of the columnist eager to defend the indefensible and desperate for something nice to say. You or I might describe "this guy" as being "indifferent to reality" or "stubbornly impervious to the lessons of experience" or "too insecure to engage in self-reflection," yes. But we're us, and the writer of the moment is Our Mister Brooks.
The other striking feature of his conversation is that he possesses an unusual perception of time. Washington, and modern life in general, encourages people to think in the short term. But Bush, who stands aloof, thinks in long durations.
This is splendid, although it does call for some annotating. "He possesses an unusual perception of time" means, "He happily contemplates the distant future because it relieves him of the responsibility of actually knowing anything about the present." Similarly, "stands aloof" means "will not sanction and cannot endure criticism," while "thinks in long durations" is Brooksian fawning-speak for "refuses to acknowledge the effects of his actions over short durations, i.e., now."
"I got into politics initially because I wanted to help change a culture," he says, referring to his campaign against the instant gratifications of the 1960's counterculture.
This is my favorite, and I know it's yours, too. Reporting, with a straight face, that Bush "wanted to help change a culture" is like nodding in solemn agreement at Cartman's claim, on South Park, that he wants to experience home schooling for the improved instruction and higher intellectual standards it provides.
Who, Brooks might have asked--himself, if not "this guy"--was a more dedicated exploiter and big-time fan of "the instant gratifications of the 1960's counterculture" than coke-snorting, skirt-chasing, instantly-gratifiable W? (In this the model is, in fact, Newt Gingrich, who has made a career of deploring the very same "counterculture" that has made his entire public life, from the political acceptability of his serial infidelities to his triumphantly mediocre academic career to his poofy-primpy hair, possible.) Not that prodigal sons aren't capable of reform--this is, after all, the myth that so enthralls Bush's Christian base; it's why they love him so much. He was so bad. And now he's "saved"!
Still, it makes a fella wonder, as does everything this man writes, Does Brooks really believe this hooey?
He asked us to think about what the world could look like 50 years from now, with Islamic radicals either controlling the world's oil supply or not. "I firmly believe that some day American presidents will be looking back at this period in time, saying, 'Thank goodness they saw the vision,'" he said.
The clumsiness of the expression aside, what "vision" is there to "see," exactly? That Islamic radicals, who "hate our freedom" here at home, have no real opinion about our support of corrupt regimes in their own countries? That anyone who disagrees with Republican foreign policy is "an appeaser" (like with, you know, the Nazis, and everything), but that the public must be continually lectured that "this is a new kind of enemy" because "9-ll changed everything"?
The writer could ask these things--but, then, the writer would not be Our Mister Brooks if he did us the service of unmasking, or at least challenging, all this pseudo-visionary pretense and Great Statesman posturing. How can you keep your job as house conservative at the New York Times and the NewsHour if you just end up saying what the liberals say?
Instead, then, he does what he always, always does: In an operatic display of bad faith, Brooks takes his subjects' professions of intent at face value, studiously ignores their proven histories of repeated and endless lying, and then offers The Thoughtful Man's qualified approval of what is never anything more than p.r., baloney, and civics clichés that would embarrass a third-grader.
(You could write a book about the lies of George W. Bush. But, thank God, you don't have to. Someone already has. It's called The Lies of George W. Bush, by David Corn, and to read it is to discover, with an almost physical shock, like Balboa sighting the Pacific, the boundary between the shameless and the outright pathological.)
Brooks, in one of his characteristic guilt- (or, in this case, glory-) by-association tropes, goes on:
Sitting between busts of Lincoln and Churchill, he continued, "My hope is to leave behind something -- foundations and institutions that will enable future presidents to be able to more likely make the tough decisions that they're going to have to make."
"Foundations and institutions"--this, a profession of respect for and interest in bodies of objective inquiry, from a man whose administration has politicized science in ways equaled only, over the past fifty year, by the Soviet Union. Bush, who panders to the yahoos over stem cells, who is still waiting for the jury to come in on global warming when the jury has long since been paid and sent home with the thanks of the court, who is still trying to make up his mind about evolution, talking about establishing a foundation--Here he is at last: President Eddie Haskell, laying it on thick to Our Mister Brooks who, in this performance, plays the role of June Cleaver. "That's a beautiful dress, Mrs. Cleaver. Perhaps I'll commission a full-length oil portrait of you in it, to adorn the lobby of my Foundation For the Making of Tough Decisions when I grow up."
He was passionate on the need for patience and steadfastness. He talked about "inviolate" principles written upon his heart: "People want you to change. It's tactics that shift, but the strategic vision has not, and will not, shift."
"What if the strategic vision is wrong?" Brooks could have asked. "What if the invasion of Iraq and the hellhole it has become is the objective correlative of the wrongness of the 'vision'? What if Islamic fundamentalism can't be defeated by invading with armies--especially invading places where it doesn't particularly exist--but rather by influencing societies?"
(Not that it would have helped if Brooks had asked these things. When Bush says, "People want you to change," the sub-text is, "--and so I prove my manhood, my adulthood, my personhood, by not changing. That'll show 'em.")
So on troop levels and other tactical issues, Bush defers to Gen. George Casey, who is in Iraq. He asks questions but does not contradict the experts. If Casey asked for two more divisions tomorrow, Bush would deliver, regardless of the political consequences. But Casey does not ask (and maybe none are available).
(Or, alt., maybe Casey knows better than to ask.)
What if Casey is wrong?
"Then I picked the wrong general," Bush says bluntly. "If he's wrong, I'm wrong."
"..and what could be worse than that?" goes--bluntly-- unsaid. The answer ("that thousands of Americans and Iraqis have died unnecessarily") is gently ignored.
We end, as we sometimes do, with the writer offering a cursory acknowledgment of reality.
...the sad truth is, there has been a gap between Bush's visions and the means his administration has devoted to realize them. And when tactics do not adjust to fit the strategy, then the strategy eventually gets diminished to fit the tactics.
"Or worse"--the bark of the lapdog, safe in his master's arms, at a cat of no consequence in the next room. That's what Brooks will frantically point to, on his permanent record, when the St. Peter of journalism adds it all up and then consigns him to the fire down below. "What do you mean, go to Hell? That's not fair! I said 'the sad truth'! I said 'or worse'!" (Yes, my son, but don't kid a kidder: You didn't mean it.)
In sum, a classic performance from Our Mister Brooks. What is there left to say, except, Come back, William Safire. All is forgiven.