So here we are, with less than a week to go before Election Day.
Many have wondered if this election is a momentous choice or if it’s business as usual, another race like 1988, when another George Bush ran against another man from Massachusetts.
The answer should be self-evident.
Has America ever had another period like the last four years? We don’t mean only the indescribable events of Sept. 11, 2001; the last four years have seen history made, of many kinds.
If it is true, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, that “there is properly no history; only biography,” then in many ways George W. Bush’s life has become our own: His character, thinking and decision-making have defined the course of this nation.
It’s hard to believe that only four years have passed since Mr. Bush left Texas and his callow past to assume the post of leader of the free world. So much has changed since the Supreme Court anointed Mr. Bush as President in late 2000. Little of that change has been for the better, and the America of Inauguration Day, 2001, now seems to belong to a vanished era.
Mr. Bush took office before the catastrophe that would change his Presidency and the way we live today and will live far into a distant and unknowable future. In so many ways, Sept. 11, 2001, was a historical dividing line for the nation, the world and this Presidency. And it was thrust upon Mr. Bush, as it was upon all of us.
Before Sept. 11, this generation believed that the stupidities, absurdities, corruptions and venalities of modern American politics were the new business as usual. Before Sept. 11, the President of the United States, the indispensable man in American life, could still afford to be a kind of imperial Li’l Abner, brave, good-natured and oblivious. Bill Clinton persuaded us that Presidential intelligence was a plus but character didn’t matter because, hell, everybody was getting rich, and the greatest national frenzy was triggered by the illicit act of a President with the intellect of Woodrow Wilson and the impulses of Warren Harding.
So, to succeed Mr. Clinton, the nation sort of elected the ne’er-do-well son of a former President, a Connecticut preppie in Stetson boots, figuring that we could take our chances with him because, really, how much damage could he do? As a personality, he had an advantage on his stiff opponent, Al Gore. His ignorance of world events seemed inconsequential as long as the economy kept creating wealth and jobs. He was another example of what the age seemed to be creating, a personality with a slogan: “I’m a uniter, not a divider,” with a wink toward those who knew he meant exactly the opposite.
Mr. Bush blundered his way through the first eight months of his Presidency, making ominous appointments, such as John Ashcroft as Attorney General, relying on ideologues with battle plans in their back pockets, such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and throwing in the occasional ineffective moderate, such as Christie Todd Whitman at the E.P.A., who landed among her colleagues with the power of kindling thrown into a bonfire.
Mr. Bush then managed to set into motion staggering, mind-boggling, almost hallucinatory tax cuts and rebates, destroying Bill Clinton’s most impressive legacy—an American balance sheet written in black ink—and hurling the federal budget from a $5.6 trillion surplus back into a $5 trillion deficit.
Then, eight months into his term, came 9/11. Suddenly, the nation realized that there were zealots in the world willing to die if given the chance to kill Americans and destroy American institutions, zealots who were uninterested in Hollywood movies, half-time spectacles, pop singers, fast foods, Internet stocks and the incessant narcissism of upward mobility. The nation’s bewildered reaction recalled the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who wrote in the 1970’s that “the world is a dangerous place … [and] not everyone knows that.”
The nation can no longer entrust its future to a man so unsuited, in intellect and temperament, to grave responsibilities. John Kerry of Massachusetts is not a perfect alternative, but an impressive alternative he is.
The Observer endorses Mr. Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards.
Mr. Kerry is nobody’s idea of an ideal campaigner, but his record and his rhetoric demonstrate that he understands, as Moynihan did, just how dangerous a place our planet can be. Indeed, it is so dangerous that only a fool would argue that our historic allies are our enemies, that civil liberties are expendable, and that public information is dangerous. Yet those have been exactly the arguments of the Bush Presidency. This nation is in no position to do what an anonymous Bush aide suggested: create our own reality. We are not that powerful; no nation is. A fool’s paradise can also be a fool’s purgatory.
Contrary to the Bush campaign’s desperate slanders, John Kerry does understand that the world changed on Sept. 11, 2001. He knows—how could he not?—that a ruthless enemy wishes to bring death and destruction not only to America, but to all that is not fundamentally Islamic. Like all of us, he yearns to beat this clear and present danger into a sidelined beast. Achieving that goal will require more than arms. It will require the rest of the world.
Oddly, the interventionist Mr. Bush is a throwback to the isolationist Republicans of another era, a generation of politicians grounded in a combination of ignorance, public pandering and anger. This self-declared “War President” who found personal purpose in 9/11 would be agog that anyone could accuse him of living in an isolationist bubble—but he is. His team cooked the books and doctored the documents to convince the world that Saddam was a mortal threat to world peace. He rewarded the few allies who agreed with him. With those who disagreed (and who were, in the end, right about Saddam’s arsenal), he was the diplomatic equivalent of the brat who plugs his fingers in his ears to keep unpleasant truths far away.
Along the way, he has subverted the American ideas of truth, democratic responsibility and respect for the citizen. He has obfuscated and sloganeered, bridling, blustering and braying when asked for accountability, displaying a bullying arrogance and pride of ignorance rarely witnessed in Presidential history. He embraced distorted information, then punished the servile C.I.A. messengers for providing exactly the disinformation his administration had demanded all along.
As a front man, this light-minded draft dodger is a pale shadow of the man he seeks to emulate, Ronald Reagan. The late President was a giant of principle and pragmatism compared to George W. Bush.
It is time for him to go. He has sharded America’s reputation abroad, weakened our economy, undermined the concept of American democracy. His Presidency has been more than a disaster: It has been an assault on the integrity of American life.
After Osama bin Laden’s fundamentalist thugs murdered thousands of our friends, neighbors and fellow Americans, we instantly understood how wrong we were in the 1990’s, when we believed that nothing mattered, that political leaders were a subset of the celebrity culture, that ironic detachment was preferable to earnest engagement. We were, as a nation, creating a thoroughly spoiled, self-satisfied culture.
Through the example of heroic first-responders on 9/11, we saw the values that are at stake in this new conflict. The men and women who rushed into the doomed towers sacrificed their lives to save others. They loved life; they are our heroes. Those who immolated themselves to murder thousands of innocent people in the Twin Towers and the Pentagon sought only death. What more must we know?
George W. Bush provided leadership in the immediate aftermath of that terrible day. The terrorist masterminds, like Hitler in the late 1930 ’ s, believed that Americans were too flabby and content to defend their interests and would do anything to avoid war. Osama bin Laden, it has been said, told his minions that the Americans would never come to Afghanistan.
But we did, and we did not go alone. We overthrew the murderous Taliban regime with the help of friends and allies who share our values, who saw—as we belatedly saw—the challenge of a new kind of fascism posing as religious dogma.
The months following 9/11 were Mr. Bush’s finest hours. It seems amazing to recall that the civilized world rallied around wounded, grieving America in the fall of 2001. Mr. Bush was presented with a glorious opportunity, a chance to rally the world against a new and pernicious form of totalitarianism.
But Mr. Bush, in a spectacular and historic blunder, gave in to his own worst instincts and his ideologically consumed advisors’ dim-sighted strategies in 2002. He alienated allies and friends as he focused not on Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, but on what he insisted was the uncompleted business with Saddam Hussein and Iraq, and soon forfeited the good will capital that this country had gained, literally out of the blue. His management of the war has been a disaster. Indeed, the shocking theft of 380 tons of explosives from an unprotected bunker in Iraq demonstrates the President’s incompetence as commander in chief.
At home, he has pursued a radical right-wing agenda, redistributing income to the rich, restricting American rights, rabidly shredding environmental protections, feeding noncompetitive government favors to his cronies and the Vice President’s, and giving his best rendition of feigned indignation when faced with the gross excesses of criminal corporations and their C.E.O.’s.
Mr. Bush campaigned as a compassionate conservative but has governed as a right-wing ideologue, a servant to the angriest demagogues in this good-natured and generous land. Devoid of curiosity, addicted to a stubborn belief in a few intractable ideas, programmed by tutors, cut off from newspapers, schooled by a mere decade in public life, he has little idea of or interest in the disaster he has made in the world and at home. He refuses to accept that the world is, in fact, more dangerous today than it was before his rabid crew had their way with the greatness of this nation.
John Kerry understands that disorder is dangerous in this world, that intelligence and rationality are the right partners to passion, resolve and principle. As he showed in his three focused and well-prepared debate performances with President Bush, he is a man of intensity and rationality, whose 30 years in public life have prepared him to restore America’s fundamental understanding of what it takes to be the “last, best hope on earth.” A soldier of freedom, an American idealist, a public man with a tested private soul, he seems to understand that leadership in a democracy entails eliciting the better angels of our nature, and that greatness begins with goodness and surmounts in strength.
John Kerry is the right choice now to lead our country.