The Contemporary Presidency: George W. Bush and the Myth of Heroic Presidential Leadership

Article excerpt

On September 11, 2001, the lead story on the CNN early morning news centered on speculation that Michael Jordan was planning to come out of retirement and resume playing basketball. The story preoccupied the American media; after all, three years previously, Fortune magazine had estimated the economic impact of Jordan's career at $10 billion. President George W. Bush, in Florida, ordinarily might have had to compete for attention in a world in which celebrity, popular culture, sports, and entertainment normally jostle for the public's attention and set the parameters of public interest. But not on that day. The architectural symbols of American power--its economic base in New York City, its military headquarters in the Pentagon, and the institutions of its federal government in Washington, DC were destroyed, damaged, and threatened. In a crisis, the media spotlight immediately refocuses on the president. How would George W. Bush respond to such events?

His administration began with a dubious political mandate after a disputed electoral victory eventually only confirmed by the Supreme Court. To his political opponents, the new president had doubtful intellectual abilities, a nodding acquaintance with the English language, and a semidetached attitude to international relations, indeed to the whole idea of governance. Such a caricature helped to mould public and political attitudes toward him. On September 10, his public approval ratings were at their lowest levels since his inauguration nine months earlier. Majority opinion was against him on a range of policy issues. It seemed he might be like John Quincy Adams, who emulated his father in becoming a one-term president.

If his own father's presidency is a prime example of the way in which events--"it's the economy, stupid"--and volatile public opinion impact upon political fortunes, then the career of George W. Bush as chief executive has been a roller coaster of political reinvention. His enviable public approval ratings in the immediate post-September 11 period were one indication of the change in his political and popular image. At that time, he appeared as a president tested and tempered by the crisis. He demonstrated leadership skills, rallying the nation through formal and informal oratory. Subsequently, he led his party to impressive midterm congressional election victories. Even his propensity to talk in tongues diminished; so-called "Bushisms" were less frequently reported. In launching a military campaign in Afghanistan, he proved himself a decisive and successful commander-in-chief of America's armed forces. George W. Bush appeared to have outflanked his critics. For a time, he assumed a mantle of heroic presidential leadership similar to that which a previous generation designed for one of his predecessors: John F. Kennedy. During a critical period of his presidency--the 18 months from September 2001 to March 2003 and the military intervention in Iraq--it was from this image that his popularity and political authority were derived.

The parallels between the Bush and Kennedy presidencies are worth exploring. In 1960, after losing the previous two presidential elections, Democrats looked for new political inspiration and found it in Kennedy. It was a critical period in the Cold War. Faced with the threat of attack from repressive regimes that possessed weapons of mass destruction, and with dictators who themselves promoted the cult of personality--a Stalin or a Mao--America's leaders had to rise to the challenge. It was the mythmakers of the Kennedy administration who influenced the prevailing political mood: a heightened anticipation that following Eisenhower--the hero who became president--his successor should act heroically while in office.

It made political sense to set the new president's image in this mould. For JFK, who had won the White House by the narrowest of margins, the ability to play this role successfully in his first term could pay the dividend of ensuring reelection. …