When President Bush gave his press conference last week, he looked weary, like a hologram of himself. It would have been strange if he hadn’t seemed tired. Like some structure in a Stephen King novel, the White House saps almost everyone who occupies it. George H.W. Bush entered it a still young-looking man; he left it old. It grayed Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter; shattered Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan left with his accustomed bounce, but then he got Alzheimer’s. Of recent Presidents, perhaps only Gerald Ford is the same stolid After that he had been Before.
One way the White House kills is by routine. Pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey would be fun as a treat; when it is a command performance, you would rather be the turkey. “I can scarcely conceive,” wrote John Quincy Adams, “a more harassing, wearying, teasing condition of existence. It literally renders life burdensome. What retirement will be I cannot realize, but … [i]t cannot be worse than this perpetual motion and crazing cares.” And John Quincy Adams, a peacetime President of the early 19th century, actually had rather little to do, even less that was important.
The non-routine decisions-war, economic depression, national survival-are far worse. “[I]n confidence I assure you,” wrote George Washington to Henry Knox, his old friend and former artillery commander, on the eve of his first inauguration, ” … that my movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” Washington was about to become the first President; could the office work? A century and a half later, Franklin Roosevelt became the first (and last) President to serve more than two terms, and the second to lead the United States during a modern world war. In 1943, a young David Brinkley saw F.D.R. close up for the first time, at a press conference: “I was shocked at his appearance, having seen him only in black-and-white newsreel pictures where he looked reasonably healthy, outgoing, good-natured, and relaxed …. ” Now, Mr. Brinkley wrote, he was “thin, drawn, with virtually no color in his face. It was gray.”
Don’t give these ambitious men affirming hugs or tears of pity. They all tasted power at lower levels before becoming President, and had some idea of what life at the top would be like. Only do them the justice to acknowledge that the burdens are real.
What does the anti-war left know of these burdens? The young lady in the subway wore a button that said “WAR = TERRORISM.” Would a ride to Coney Island be long enough to enlighten someone who could pin such a button on? War can be terrorism. Then the war-makers are guilty of war crimes; sometimes they can be prosecuted for them, if the augurs approve. But war can also accomplish just ends. I might have asked Miss WAR = TERRORISM to help me round up all the people of color in our subway car. Why was so much valuable property on the hoof? The “peculiar institution” disappeared in this country not because of the editorials of Horace Greeley, nor even because of the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, but because of the deaths inflicted and sustained by Ulysses Grant. There can be a purity of sentiment in the wearers of buttons that is worthy of respect. At higher of levels of argument, sentiment decays as sophistry increases. The frog chorus on the New York Times Op-Ed page tells President Bush that there is no proven connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Yet the news pages report a C.I.A. warning that terrorists based in Iraq will attempt attacks on American troops. How did the terrorists get there?
What a laissez-faire guy Saddam Hussein is: almost as slack about internal security as we were on 9/10. In his televised interview, Dan Rather asked Saddam Hussein if he approved of 9/11. The Iraqi leader answered with a carefully tangled paragraph of blab. He couldn’t come out and say, “Gee, sure I liked it,” even to Gore Vidal. But if you untangled his utterance, he strongly implied that 9/11 was legitimate self-defense. Of what? Of the righteous against the Zionists’ whore, naturally. So there are terrorists based in Iraq, the ruler of which rather approves of the terror attack on this country 18 months ago. This isn’t an ambassador in striped pants, cutaway and topper presenting a demarché, but even at the level of formalities, it’s pretty blunt.
How can a religious zealot and a socialist thug get along? As well as a Nazi and a Shinto militarist. A whole continent separated Germany and Japan during World War II. So did differences of ideology: The Germans were not divine, and the Japanese were not Aryans. Yet they both saw the British Empire and the United States as enemies, which is why we took them down.
Weighing on President Bush now are three things: the destruction we have suffered; the destruction that our armed forces, innocent civilians and even Iraq’s armed forces (most of whom are conscripts) will suffer if we go to war; the destruction the United States might suffer if we do not go to war. Two is greater than one; three is greater than two. We need a President who can do the math; we want one who looks tired by it.
Is there any hope to sustain him? Yes, though not perhaps as much as some of his well-wishers would have us believe. If a postwar Iraq were put on the road to democratic self-government, some argue, it would be a model for reform in the Middle East. There are two bumps on that road: How easy will it be for Iraq to govern itself well, and how willing would its neighbors be to learn from such an example? The modern multiculturalist melts into the retired colonel of yesteryear, who was caustic about everything done by lesser breeds east of Suez. Looking at the sad history of the world, the colonel had his reasons.
Mr. Bush can tell himself that our money will not be lacking to bind up Iraq’s wounds. Even a Mexican standoff like post-Taliban Afghanistan will be a better regime than Saddam Hussein’s dungeons and torturers. Most important, one less well-armed patron of terror will make us, and the world, safe-for dealing with North Korea.