Magazine article The New Yorker

Greatness

Magazine article The New Yorker

Greatness

Article excerpt

In American politics, the ultimate contest is trying to get elected President. But the very few people who manage to win that contest then enter another, less visible game, with even longer odds: the race to become one of the handful of Presidents who really matter. Excitement about Barack Obama is at such a high level, and the times are so dire, that he is already well into this second race. The air is thick with comparisons of him to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. George W. Bush, meanwhile, is slinking back to Texas with such low ratings that we forget that he made his own run at Presidential greatness. That ambition became apparent after the 9/11 attacks, when Bush adeptly, if briefly, harnessed the hunger for leadership that always follows a major crisis. In those days, incredible as it may seem now, Bush was often compared to Lincoln.

For Bush and the people around him, though, the grand ambition was always there, even during the 2000 campaign. Bush was uncannily good at finding slogans that could have a number of different meanings. He often used to say, "Government should do a few things and do them well"; to most of us this sounded like "I'm going to take it easy," but to him, evidently, it sounded like "Make no small plans!"

O.K., it's armchair psychology, but the idea that most of what Bush did was aimed at restoring the family honor by outperforming his father has seldom steered us wrong. Forty-One came across as pure Connecticut; Forty-Three was a real Texan. Forty-One was a moderate Republican; Forty-Three was a true-blue conservative. And Forty-One was an in-box President who waited for events to unfold and then responded, while Forty-Three changed the course of history. He was working toward this even before 9/11. Without the prodding of any crisis, the Bush Administration dropped out of important international treaties and took a unilateral, anti-diplomatic stance in foreign affairs. It cut taxes deeply and set the federal government on a course from surpluses to deficits. It passed the No Child Left Behind education law, which may be the single most influential piece of domestic legislation in a generation. Within days of 9/11, Bush set in motion a great downgrading of civil liberties and the conquest of Iraq, neither of which followed logically from the attacks; they were, instead, attempts to remake the country and the world.

Two days after being reelected, Bush announced, "I earned . . . political capital, and now I intend to spend it." What he mainly spent it on was an attempt to initiate the partial privatization of the Social Security system. Leaving aside its merits as public policy, Social Security is the foundation on which the Democratic Party rests. To begin changing the system into one that allowed individual stock-market accounts (can you imagine how that would have worked out?) might have made it possible to realize the long-running conservative dream of a truly dominant Republican Party.

That Bush had bad grandiose plans should not be taken as proof that grandiose Presidential plans are a bad thing. Bill Clinton had them, too. He helped to resurrect the Democratic Party by persuading a lot of disaffected Reagan Democrats to come back into the fold, without sacrificing the Party's natural growth stemming from the country's increasing ethnic diversity. His health-care plan didn't work, but it was an attempt to create a core government benefit that would be as powerful as Social Security. …

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