OpinionJournal - Peggy Noonan - How Bush Can Save Bush

Boho! -- law

His midlife crisis holds lessons for his midpresidential one.

Thursday, October 20, 2005 12:01 a.m. EDT

We make presidents crazy. They receive endless encomiums from friends and staff telling them of their brilliance, their courage, their foresight. "God sent you to lead us." And the authors of such statements aren't always or even usually sucking up. They mean it. They're excited, fervent, full of belief.

All a president has to do to get a standing ovation is walk into a room. He signs his name to a placard at a rally and it's treated as a historic relic--"He touched it!"

At the same time a president can routinely pick up the newspaper or log onto the Internet and find himself referred to as Hitler, Stalin or, on a good day, Satan. We call presidents fool, coward, crook; we call them reckless and feckless.

It is all so extreme. And it is, even for the hardiest personality, disorienting.

The White House itself can be a disorienting place to work. You feel at once in charge of and at the mercy of, both powerful and besieged. You can flip a switch and get every anchorman on the line, every prime minister. You have private nicknames for famous people whom you privately spoof. But a hurricane comes and you're over; a mistake is made and you're yesterday. Some midtier aide in an unimportant agency messes up, and by the time it's over a misjudgment became a scandal, a scandal became indictments, and indictments spur talk of impeachment, resignation, lame duckhood, crackup....

Which gets us to George W. Bush.... Bush. If he's mad, you know. He doesn't pretend and he doesn't cover, and if anger is a flaw, well, we're all human...

Mr. Bush is in the first political crisis of his presidency, a crisis unusual, even perhaps unprecedented, in modern American politics, in that his own side has risen up and declared it no longer sees him as one of them. (It is comparable to what happened to Margaret Thatcher in 1990, when Conservative Party members turned on her. That rebellion was more personal than policy-based, but an old rule of politics pertains in both cases: Friends come and go but enemies accumulate.)

What should Mr. Bush do? He can follow what may be his first instinct, and his second one too, and make [a long] "sh-- list." Or he can do something different, and yet in character...

You see where I'm going. All presidents have personalities and all presidential personalities become at least somewhat disoriented by the very nature of the modern presidency. However. George W. Bush showed real humility when he made his big change 19 years ago, and one suspects it is whatever bedrock humility that remains behind the smirk that can help him turn his fortunes around now.

Once again there's a family in crisis, and it's conservatism. He can let it break up, or let it wither under his watch. Or he can change. Just as he learned at 40 that to keep his family he had to become part of something larger than himself, he should realize as he approaches 60 that he has to become part of something larger if he is to save his administration. And that "something larger" is a movement that has been building for half a century, since before Barry Goldwater. The president would be well advised to look at the stakes, see what's in the balance, judge the strengths and weaknesses of his own leadership, and get back to the basics of conservatism. Which again would take humility.

The president is like anyone else: He can look back at the last few years and see that he's made mistakes. Who hasn't? Mistakes of judgment, mistakes of approach. Some of the mistakes in the president's case would have grown out of human miscalculation. Others perhaps grew out of vanity, of a largeness of ego. It's not hard to make a list. There were mistakes of judgment, such as Social Security. Mr. Bush decided to reform the bedrock entitlement of modern America in even though, while most thought reform important, few thought it urgent. Why would he do this? And in the middle of a war and an uncertain economic climate? I'm George Bush and I only do big things!

There were mistakes of . . . perhaps philosophy is the word. He will declare democracy now, for all the world, the end of history and the beginning of an era of endless bliss. Why? George Bush is a Texan, and Texans dream big.

He will make a series of decisions disappointing the very people who've stayed up all night working for him and literally praying for him, and do it at a time when a strong base is the only thing that scares off jackals of all kinds. Why? George Bush gambles big.

This is all human. But all these decisions can be questioned. In 1986, George W. Bush reached a crisis point in his life and changed what wasn't working. He dug deep and got serious. He got humble. He questioned himself. He can do it again, and should.

It would be more constructive than a "list." And considering all the names he'd have to compile, it would take less time.

OpinionJournal - Peggy Noonan


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