I can almost see how, having lost the popular vote and been appointed to the presidency by a bare majority of the Supreme Court (in a decision which will corrupt, compromise and undermine the authority of the Court forever more), George Bush might think his “election” was divinely ordained. What believer isn’t wont to think, when blessed with a favorable outcome despite all practical odds, that an otherwordly power has ordained it. What grieves and distresses many of us about Bush’s conviction is that, instead of accepting his perceived call with humility and gratitude, he uses it to justify and advance his own whims and those of his wealthy and powerful friends. Afterall, he seems to believe, if God ordained his presidency, then God must also agree with his pets and peeves!
There is a remarkable profile in today’s New York Times Magazine, “Without a Doubt,” by Ron Suskind, which explores the uncommon “certainty” of George W. Bush. It is worth reading, if only to begin to grasp (if you haven’t already) the new world order Bush is trying to impose.
The piece opens with a remark by Bruce Bartlett, former advisor to both Reagan and Bush Sr.:
“Just in the past few months,” Bartlett said, “I think a light has gone off for people who’ve spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he’s always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.” Bartlett, a 53-year-old columnist and self-described libertarian Republican who has lately been a champion for traditional Republicans concerned about Bush’s governance, went on to say: “This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can’t be persuaded, that they’re extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he’s just like them…
“This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts,” Bartlett went on to say. “He truly believes he’s on a mission from God.
Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.” Bartlett paused, then said, “But you can’t run the world on faith.”
The old pro Bartlett, a deliberative, fact-based wonk, is finally hearing a tune that has been hummed quietly by evangelicals (so as not to trouble the secular) for years as they gazed upon President George W. Bush. This evangelical group — the core of the energetic “base” that may well usher Bush to victory — believes that their leader is a messenger from God.
The president believes it, too:
All of this — the “gut” and “instincts,” the certainty and religiosity -connects to a single word, “faith,” and faith asserts its hold ever more on debates in this country and abroad. That a deep Christian faith illuminated the personal journey of George W. Bush is common knowledge. But faith has also shaped his presidency in profound, nonreligious ways. The president has demanded unquestioning faith from his followers, his staff, his senior aides and his kindred in the Republican Party. Once he makes a decision — often swiftly, based on a creed or moral position — he expects complete faith in its rightness.
The disdainful smirks and grimaces that many viewers were surprised to see in the first presidential debate are familiar expressions to those in the administration or in Congress who have simply asked the president to explain his positions. Since 9/11, those requests have grown scarce; Bush’s intolerance of doubters has, if anything, increased, and few dare to question him now. A writ of infallibility — a premise beneath the powerful Bushian certainty that has, in many ways, moved mountains — is not just for public consumption: it has guided the inner life of the White House.
This is one key feature of the faith-based presidency: open dialogue, based on facts, is not seen as something of inherent value. It may, in fact, create doubt, which undercuts faith. It could result in a loss of confidence in the decision-maker and, just as important, by the decision-maker. Nothing could be more vital, whether staying on message with the voters or the terrorists or a California congressman in a meeting about one of the world’s most nagging problems. As Bush himself has said any number of times on the campaign trail, “By remaining resolute and firm and strong, this world will be peaceful.”
Suskind says Bush wasn’t always this way. He talked to the Rev. Jim Wallace, founder of Sojourners, was briefly a trusted advisor of Bush. Wallis told Suskind, “When I was first with Bush in Austin, what I saw was a self-help Methodist, very open, seeking,” Wallis says now. “What I started to see at this point was the man that would emerge over the next year — a messianic American Calvinist. He doesn’t want to hear from anyone who doubts him.”
Suskind gives a colorful illustration of the infallibility bubble in which Bush lives and moves —
In the Oval Office in December 2002, the president met with a few ranking senators and members of the House, both Republicans and Democrats. In those days, there were high hopes that the United States-sponsored “road map” for the Israelis and Palestinians would be a pathway to peace, and the discussion that wintry day was, in part, about countries providing peacekeeping forces in the region. The problem, everyone agreed, was that a number of European countries, like France and Germany, had armies that were not trusted by either the Israelis or Palestinians. One congressman — the Hungarian-born Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress — mentioned that the Scandinavian countries were viewed more positively. Lantos went on to describe for the president how the Swedish Army might be an ideal candidate to anchor a small peacekeeping force on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Sweden has a well-trained force of about 25,000. The president looked at him appraisingly, several people in the room recall.
“I don’t know why you’re talking about Sweden,” Bush said. “They’re the neutral one. They don’t have an army.”
Lantos paused, a little shocked, and offered a gentlemanly reply: “Mr. President, you may have thought that I said Switzerland. They’re the ones that are historically neutral, without an army.” Then Lantos mentioned, in a gracious aside, that the Swiss do have a tough national guard to protect the country in the event of invasion.
Bush held to his view. “No, no, it’s Sweden that has no army.”
The room went silent, until someone changed the subject.
Bush creates his own reality, and the rest of us live in it —
(Suskind writes) In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
I keep thinking I can’t be surprised by anything else that comes out of this White House*, but the arrogance captured in that aide’s comment reels me each time I re-read it. (*OK, I’d be surprised by support for family planning and realistic AIDS education, equal pay, roadless areas in our nation’s forests, stricter emissions controls, universal health insurance… You get the idea.)
Jim Wallis apparently hasn’t been invited back to the White House, ever since he told Bush, “Unless we drain the swamp of injustice in which the mosquitoes of terrorism breed, we’ll never defeat the threat of terrorism.” That is not the kind of thing Bush wants to hear. That’s not Bush’s reality. The God who appointed him president is a mighty and vengeful God who wanted the US to invade Iraq and who wants a Federal Marriage Amendment, not one who worries about justice and poverty.
But the profile ends with Wallis’ very thoughtful words:
“Faith can cut in so many ways,” he said. “If you’re penitent and not triumphal, it can move us to repentance and accountability and help us reach for something higher than ourselves. That can be a powerful thing, a thing that moves us beyond politics as usual, like Martin Luther King did. But when it’s designed to certify our righteousness — that can be a dangerous thing. Then it pushes self-criticism aside. There’s no reflection.
“Where people often get lost is on this very point,” he said after a moment of thought. “Real faith, you see, leads us to deeper reflection and not — not ever — to the thing we as humans so very much want.”
And what is that?