Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Lessons to Be Learned from W.

For someone who is a political junkie in addition to liking biographies, W. would have to be on my must see list. Director Oliver Stone was making the rounds on the talk show circuit to promote his movie. From what he said on the shows it wasn’t apparent where he really stood when it came to President Bush. Perhaps he was being cautious about being too negative about his subject to avoid conveying that his movie would be a smear job on him.

While it is not my intention to be a film critic for the movie, the
review by Roger Ebert which I read after seeing the movie struck me as particularly astute. The reaction of many viewers of the movie, especially those who dislike Bush was that Stone went too far in making him a sympathetic figure. But Ebert concludes his review with this scathing closing paragraph:

One might feel sorry for George W. at the end of this film, were it not for his legacy of a fraudulent war and a collapsed economy. The film portrays him as incompetent to be president, and shaped by the puppet masters Cheney and Rove to their own ends. If there is a saving grace, it may be that Bush will never fully realize how badly he did. How can he blame himself? He was only following God's will.

But even so, just portraying Bush to be incompetent oversimplifies the story.

While America is still portrayed as the land of opportunity as in the 1963 song Only in America by Jay and the Americans which includes the lyrics:

Only in America
Can a guy from anywhere
Go to sleep a pauper
and wake up a millionaire

Only in America
Can a kid without a cent
Get a break and maybe grow up to be President

Maybe at one time this idealistic crap had some truth to it. But with the present economic conditions that have lead to ever increasing disparity between the rich and poor, those on the middle and bottom of the economic ladder are having an increasingly more difficult time finding opportunities as detailed in this NYT opinion piece The Land of Opportunity?

When questioned about the enormous income inequality in the United States, the cheerleaders of America’s unfettered markets counter that everybody has a shot t becoming rich here. The distribution of income might be skewed, but America’s economic mobility is second to none.

That image is wrong, and these days it abets far too many unfair policies, including cuts in essential programs like Head Start or Medicaid. The poor, we are told, can use their own bootstraps. President Bush got away with huge tax cuts for the rich in part because non-rich Americans, who make up most of the population, believe everybody has a chance of making it into the club. Unfortunately, the American dream is not that broadly accessible.

So while most other people have to struggle for opportunities at least in part because of the economic policies of President Bush, in W., we see that those in wealthy and powerful families like the Bushes are truly in the land of almost unlimited opportunity, unlike the fantasy land of opportunity most of the rest of us can only dream of. Seeing the story of W. and the unending number of opportunities that he had served up on a platter was more than a bit frustrating to watch for those of us who may be looking for our first break.

But others have gotten breaks. Some like Harry Truman even used those breaks to become president. But what they did with those breaks is what separates Truman (considered by many to be one of our best presidents) from W. who is often considered one of our worst.

In the movie, W. was shown in his younger years as a spoiled brat son of a patrician family. His life had a lot of drinking and carrying on but not much direction. But with support from his new wife Laura and a determination to show his worth to his father who approved more of his brother Jeb who was running to be the Governor of Florida, W. against the wishes of his parents, decided to run for Governor of Texas at the same time with the political advice of Karl Rove who would help him in the later presidential campaigns.

Political ambition or even the want for power is not in itself bad in my view. But what is equally important is what one wants to do with that power. Ideally, the power of a political career should be a means to an end of serving others. But when power becomes the ultimate goal, things can go terribly wrong.

Although born-again Christian George W. Bush spoke of compassionate conservatism to get elected in 2000, instead of following through on a plan to serve others, he pursued an agenda to finish the job of taking out Saddam Hussein that his father either couldn’t or wouldn’t do. And then the next agenda was maintaining power by getting reelected to a second term which was something his father was also unable to do.

So to say that George W. Bush was simply incompetent doesn’t tell the complete story. With an agenda of little more than acquiring and keeping power, instead of following more moderate advice from those like Colin Powell, Bush as in his own words "The Decider" chose to follow the advice of those like VP Dick Cheney (who himself relished power and more than anybody else forged the false link between Saddam and 9/11) along with Karl Rove who helped to politicize so many governmental agencies through cronyism like the Justice Department and FEMA to name a just a few.

With a third term not possible and a VP who for health reasons was not able to run for president (some say he already was the de facto president during Bush’s terms), there was little incentive to accomplish much in the second term. So much of it was damage control — from Katrina, to the never ending Iraq war, and finally the economy. The result was going from an all-time high approval rating of 90% right after 9/11 (along with tremendous worldwide goodwill to support a country that had been attacked) to an all-time low of 26% in 2007 and worldwide goodwill that has evaporated as a result of our foreign policies around the Iraq War and the use of torture.

So is there a lesson to be learned from our experience with W.?
That moderate voice of reason in the movie’s war room scenes, Colin Powell apparently thinks so. Although Republican presidential candidate John McCain has done all he can to assure voters that he is not George W. Bush,
the transcript of Powell's Meet The Press endorsement of Democratic candidate Barack Obama suggests that there are a number of resemblances in the policies and behavior of W. to McCain.

In addition to McCain’s support of Bush’s Iraq War that Powell supported with his UN speech that he deeply regrets, there is also the feeling that McCain will do less than Obama in mending our international goodwill that was shattered under W. In addition, there is the impulsive judgment (like you know who) that gave us Sarah Palin as McCain’s VP pick, one that is controversial even among many conservatives. And then there is the McCain campaign that is said to be about “Straight Talk” but in recent months has morphed into another divisive negative campaign straying from issues (from the Karl Rove playbook) that W. used to win a couple of presidential elections. But is this all surprising given that the campaign is being run by Steve Schmidt who was
a top aide to VP Dick Cheney?

So ultimately, the question voters are asking is whether indeed a John McCain presidency would be W.’s third term if elected. We know Colin Powell’s answer. Now we just need everybody else’s answer on Election Day.

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