Opinion » Viewpoint

State of Denial

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Mess.

by

comment

Not too long after Franklin D. Roosevelt died, Republicans insisted on what would become the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution. It was meant to ensure that never again would a president serve more than two terms. Now is the time for yet another amendment. This one would ensure that no child of a president could become president. This would avert another George W. Bush.

The reasons for this amendment can be amply found in Bob Woodward's new book, State of Denial. If ever a title was apt, this is the one. As if to prove that Woodward had it right, Bush reacted to the book's revelations about Don Rumsfeld -- intransigent, incompetent, and intellectually intolerant -- by reaffirming his confidence in him. To Bush -- and indeed, to the rest of us as well -- Rumsfeld has come to personify the conduct of the Iraq war. His leaving, especially his firing, would be an admission of the obvious: failure.

The Cohen Amendment comes to mind because from time to time Woodward quotes someone on why Bush ran for president in the first place and what determines his executive style: his father. He wanted to best his father but also even the score for him. George W. Bush wanted, in effect, to win the second term that George H.W. Bush had lost (to Bill Clinton), and he wanted also to finish the job his father had started with Saddam Hussein. If there is better explanation for why Bush so fervently wanted war, I cannot come up with it.

This descent of mine into the fog of Freudian politics is, I know, just the sort of thing Washington eschews. Such musings lack position papers or paper trails and rely instead on elastic language sometimes known as psychobabble. Yet those of us who are both fathers and sons know the truth of these matters. There is no more complicated relationship on the face of the earth. It is fraught with competition, suffused both with an edgy rivalry and an immense love that does not quit even with the grave. If I say that George W. Bush was out to both vanquish and redeem his father, many a man will know what I mean.

But I don't have to say it. Brent Scowcroft, the elder Bush's close friend and his former national security adviser, says it for me. This is what Woodward writes about Scowcroft: "In his younger years, Scowcroft thought, George W. couldn't decide whether he was going to rebel against his father or try to beat him at his own game. Now, he had tried at the game, and it was a disaster.''

It was not only Scowcroft, though, who thought, or feared, that Bush had approached the challenge of Saddam Hussein the wrong way. There are suggestions in the Woodward book that both of Bush's parents felt that way. Woodward quotes a conversation Barbara Bush had with former Senator David Boren, an old family friend, in which she says that both she and her husband are "worried" about Iraq -- with the former president "losing sleep over it." Boren asks why the father did not talk to the son.

"He doesn't think he should unless he's asked," Barbara Bush said.

I go on about this matter because in the Woodward book, as with everything else I've read about the 43rd president, it's apparent that Bush had no reason to run for the office other than to satisfy some psychological compulsion -- and had no accomplishment to his name that did not stem from primogeniture. Especially in foreign policy, he was an ignoramus who smugly thought that his instincts trumped experience and knowledge. What's even more appalling is that over and over in Woodward's book, Bush sticks to his losing hand, refusing to challenge his own assumptions or, it seems, his steadfast belief that his is a divine mission.

The conventional script in Washington for ending the Iraq war is for Bush to approach key Democrats and seek bipartisan cover for a methodical American withdrawal. Maybe that will happen or maybe it will be Republicans such as James Baker, Bush senior's secretary of state, who will do the approaching. But given the nature of the problem, maybe it would be best if the father shed his reluctance and offered his son some sharp advice. After all, it is now clear that the finest service one president can provide another -- not to mention his country -- is to assert a parental role. The kid's in way over his head.

Add a comment