Smirk Shirks: Conscienceless Conservatism

A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found George Bush's approval rating to be only 50% -- the lowest presidential approval rating in five years. A New York Times/CBS News poll during the same period found that only 49% of those surveyed thought Bush could be trusted to keep his word, while 40% did not. In January 56% found him trustworthy while 33% did not. Half of those surveyed thought the tax could would not help the economy much, and a full two-thirds thought the money would have been better spent on Social Security and Medicare. More than half of those surveyed were not confident of Bush's ability to deal with an international crisis. 57% of those surveyed said that Bush administration policies favored the rich. Nearly two-thirds said Bush and Cheney are too closely connected to the oil and gas industry. And perhaps the most interesting trend, in October 1999 when George Bush was Governor of Texas, 68% of the public said he had strong qualities of leadership; by February 2000 that had slipped to 59%, and in the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll the number was only 54%.

Bush made leadership one of the principal themes of his campaign. As Arianna Huffington pointed out in a recent column Bush even justified his notorious appearance at Bob Jones University as an act of leadership, saying "That’s what a leader does. A leader doesn’t shirk. A leader leads. A leader stands up and sets an agenda." Yet when asked recently what his administration's central mission was, Bush replied "tax relief." In Huffington's words, "He is determined to squander the unique opportunity the presidency provides -- the opportunity to call us to a cause greater than a $300 rebate."

Despite his defense of his Bob Jones University caper, shirking seems to be a dominant modality of his presidency. As Kate O'Beirne -- hardly a raving liberal -- observed on CNN's Capitol Gang, aired June 30, " I wonder whether or not he's not enough in evidence, frankly. They seem to parcel out, to ration the president -- his appearances and what he says about things.... I think he sometimes is not present enough. And I wonder whether or not some people are wondering, is he filling the space, and whether or not there's some doubts about his ability to do so." Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal added that "most of the people you talk to, Republicans as well as Democrats on the Hill, on his HMO bill, they don't think George Bush really understands it."

Democratic pollster Peter Hart's comments to the Washington Post echoed O'Beirne's assessment that part of the problem is that Bush is less visible than some recent past presidents, and added that he spends too much time poking fun at himself. Hart questioned whether Bush is enough of a leader to follow through on his campaign promise to, as one White House official put it, redefine the Republican party as "the party of hope and inclusion and progress for the poor," "The bottom line in all this is that he's become a president where there's less than meets the eye rather than more than meets the eye," Hart said.

In an interview with Creative Loafing, Charlotte, New York University professor Mark Crispin Miller, author of The Bush Dyslexicon calls Bush "the most transparently unfit-for-office chief executive in the nation's history." Crispin asserts that any apparent Bush competence (or likeability, for that matter) is "political image-making at its most blatant and, in this case, its most absurd." Interviewer Don Hazen quotes an unidentified Bush advisor confirming that Bush was regarded with "stunned alarm" by European leaders. "...they think of him as...a Texan buffoon who's in over his head, " But Miller argues that although Bush is illiterate, "bone-ignorant," and illogical, he is not an idiot, and in fact is adept at the nasty sort of politics we associate with Richard Nixon (whom Miller regards as Bush's "spritual father." From this perspective, the public perception of of Bush as a benign Dodo works to his advantage.

The Guardian UK has written about Mr. Bush, "That Mr Bush is not a deep thinker has become apparent to all. Nor is that so terrible." What they do find disturbing, however, is that he seems to have adopted a view of international (and some domestic) affairs that is primarily informed by Hollywood caricatures: China is all atheistic communists, Iraq is an evil dictatorship, environmentalists are all anti-business liberals. "He is beguiled by fatuous ideas of the make-believe past, by its false certainties and old totems." Bush portrays himself as a moral man, but it is a simplistic and prudish morality characterized actions like establishing a dress code in the White House and excluding sex and violence from films shown on Air Force One.

"What," the Guardian asks, "is remotely moral about...."

And concludes,

Born again Christian or not, these and other Bush actions at home and abroad ... have been deeply immoral. They proceed not from
faith and principle but from arrogance and ignorance.

This is fantasy politics at its most destructive. And yet the biggest contradiction of all is that this so-say moral man did not rightly or fairly win last November's election - and but for the Florida fix, would now be back in Texas watching ballgames. Living with Mr Bush in future will require a clear understanding of his limitations but also of these basic self-deceptions. Let us meanwhile bury that "compassionate" tag once and for all. This is conscienceless conservatism. And it is dangerous to your health.


Dan Balz Partisan Divisions Bedevil Bush Washington Post 1 Jul. 2001

Berke, Richard L. and Janet Elder Bush Loses Favor, Poll Says, Despite Tax Cut and Trip NY Times 21 Jun. 2001

"Disturbing Numbers for Mr. Bush." Editorial. NY Times. 21 Jun. 2001

"How Can Bush Mend His Popularity Slump?; Does the White House Represent Big Oil Interests?; Kean Discusses New Jersey Primary Upset" CNN Capital Gang 30 Jun. 2001

"Mr. Bush's Bad Dream" Leader. Guardian UK 30 Apr. 2001