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Saturday, November 15, 2003

Roger L. Simon on Bush

Who's on First?
We live in the Age of Irony. (Maybe we always have but particularly now.) Not long ago there were people who so loathed George W. Bush and his neo-isolationist policies--like me, for instance--that we protested his "illegal" election in front of the LA Federal Building. Some of those same people, not many but enough (me again, for instance), are now backing Bush for the very interventionist reasons we first opposed him. Meanwhile, many who opposed him are still against him because he intervened. And just as many of Bush's oldest supporters still back him despite their own innate hatred of intervention. Follow? It's hard to know "Who's on First?" anymore.

Well, Michael Kinsley does or thinks he does--because like a lot of longtime liberals he hates to see his enemy co-opting the moral argument. I think this is responsible for much of the anti-Bush anger that is going around nowadays--how dare that bastard, of all people, pretend he is in favor of exporting democracy! It seems to bother Kinsley and others that Bush could have changed his mind or even grown. The very idea that he could resemble Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henry IV even in a small way is anathema to them and Kinsley sets out to prove it in his new essay The Limits of Eloquence - Did Bush mean a word of his speech about democracy?

"President Bush's recent speech committing the United States to a "forward strategy of freedom," declaring that "the advance of freedom is … the calling of our country," and that "freedom is worth fighting for, dying for, and standing for" (an odd anticlimax, by the way) is being heralded as eloquent. Which it is. Some of the finest eloquence that money can buy. A beautiful endorsement of an activist foreign policy that goes beyond protecting our interests to advancing our values. The eloquence would be more impressive if there were any reason to suppose that Bush thinks words have meaning."

Well, we've certainly reached the nub of the debate here. What this comes down to, of course, is that the argument may be true, but it's not true because Bush said it. Kind of wrong you are if you think you're right, to paraphrase Pirandello. Now how does Kinsley know that Bush doesn't believe what he says? Here's the explanation:

"A man who sincerely has changed his mind about something important ought to hold his new views with less certainty and express them with a bit of rhetorical humility. There should be room for doubt."

I see. Well, that kind of ambivalence might be laudable for an opinion columnist in Slate or even a politician writing his memoirs, but for the active President of the United States making a speech to the world during war?! [interbang of incredulity mine] The daggers would be out before the President had cleared his throat. And this is giving Kinsley's argument the benefit of the doubt. It actually doesn't seem anything more than rhetorical. If Kinsley accuses Bush of (conscious/unconscious) dishonesty, I can accuse Kinsley of the same thing. He seems to be fishing around for an argument that "could" fly, rather than saying what he really feels--a mixture of anger and envy. I wouldn't blame him for that. Very few people in history are dealt a hand which can actually change their character and how they are regarded forever. And it only happens when whatever character potential is there is augmented by the sheer blind luck of timing. That has happened to Bush. I am pulling for him, at least for now. Kinsley, evidently, is not.