Rejecting the 'Vision Thing.' (Response to Dean C. Hammer, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Spring 1995)

Article excerpt

The presidency of George Bush remains a puzzle. Time magazine summed it up in January 1991, when it named the 41st president "Men of the Year": a double image of him was splashed on the cover as if to say, "George Bush, bold leader of the crusade against Saddam Hussein, meet George Bush, curiously inert domestic political leader." The political scientists are already inventing labels for Bush: "guardian president," "hierarchist," and so on. Hammer, one of their brethren at Franklin and Marshall College, has a new one. Bush, he believes, was an "Oakeshottian" president.

Michael Oakeshott (1901-90) was a conservative British political philosopher who offered his diagnosis of the modern political disease in the title of his most famous book: Rationalism in Politics (1962). "For Oakeshott," Hammer explains, "Rationalism is born of a post-Renaissance belief in the authority of reason and a confidence in the attainability through political engineering of the perfectibility of human conduct and condition."

Against this vision, Oakeshott counterposed a now-famous metaphor of politics as "men sail[ing] a boundless and bottomless sea: there is neither harbor for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. …