Rossini said of Wagner that he had great moments but bad quarter hours. I’m paraphrasing this as a short post-mortem on President George W. Bush. I think that several times during his presidency, George Bush showed the potential for greatness, but only for a moment. The way in which he has handled the transition, for example, at a minimum shows his capacity to be gracious and his willingness to work together with others. I could only wish that he had shown this ability during the rest of his presidency.
There were also moments when he showed an ability to communicate. There were a number of good speeches, though he doesn’t have truly great presentation, he can be quite adequate to the task. But apparently he didn’t see the need to communicate a vision to the country.
Don’t get me wrong on what I am about to say. I am an implacable foe of the war in Iraq. I believe that we will not be happy with what will be left months and years after we withdraw, and I believe we would be unhappy with the result if we stayed another five years lost a few thousand more troops, and then withdrew. That’s because our goals in going to war there were nonsense from a strategic point of view.
But having chosen to go to war, President Bush acted as though there was no need for continued support of the war. There are indications that many in his administration thought the war would be much easier. I have a hard time crediting that level of stupidity. I find it easier to believe that certain people thought the war would sell better presented as an easy thing, and then it would be easier to get additional support by pointing to troops in harm’s way.
In a democracy, one of the strategic resources for a war is public support. In deciding to go to war, political leaders need to calculate that they have enough support from the American people to carry their war to a conclusion. The arrogant decide that if they start a war the public must support it as a patriotic duty. This is nonsense. Patriots should vocally oppose bad wars. It’s our duty to our country and our troops.
But this kind of quick sell of a concept followed by an assumption that, the decision having been made, the people would stick with him, seems to have characterized Bush’s presidency. Even with very bad decisions, a more constant communication would have helped.
In the transition, while President Bush has been much more gracious and has helped facilitate an effective transfer of power, his powers of communication have actually dimmed, in my view. His farewell speech was laughable and seemed even more detached from reality than normal.
I’m reminded of the day I watched the Southern League All-Star game in Jacksonville, FL. I was there because my stepson, John Webb, was one of the pitchers, but he doesn’t come into the story. A batter whose name I don’t remember stepped up to the plate, swung with great power at a pitch, lost hold of the bat, and sent it several rows into the stands. Some fans, who should receive psychiatric care, tried to catch the bat, but it crashed to the ground.
The 43rd president thinks history will judge him much more favorably than he is judged now. In the sense that the distance of time makes failures seem less disastrous, perhaps it will. But I believe he will be remembered as a president who had great challenges and great opportunities, stepped up to the plate, and swung the bat at the ball with vigor. For a moment, those of us who wished him well looked for a home run. But much like that batter at the all-star game, he lost hold, and the bat flew into the stands, threatening the well-being of bystanders.