Alistair Cooke once noted that Shakespeare proved that you could learn more from one pessimist than all the optimists combined. Shakespeare, of course, somehow managed to peer into the abyss of the human soul, discerning a maze of contradictions, moral ambiguity, and nuance. The human condition was essentially tragic, in Shakespeare’s eyes, but glorious too. Nothing was ever quite what it seemed.
George W. Bush could well be a character in one of Shakespeare’s plays (I’ll leave it to the reader to decide if our commander-in-chief is best suited to tragedy or farce), but in many ways his worldview is anything but Shakespearean. This is a president, after all, who sees things in black and white, exhibits a relentless optimism about the future, and who fervently believes that history is guided by a benevolent hand.
Some might say that Bush’s moral and existential outlook is about as complex as that of the typical protagonist from a Hollywood B western. If the world was a clear cut as it is in High Noon, then Bush might more than fit the bill as our global sheriff. But the fiasco in Iraq, widespread corruption in the Republican ranks, the scandals at the Justice Department and the Vice-president’s office, and the incompetence revealed by Katrina illustrate that we inhabit a Shakespearean universe. However, to play a two-dimensional character in multi-dimensional Shakespearean tapestry is no small feat, though it must require an enormous suspension of disbelief on the actor’s part.
Bush, of course, is the very antithesis of Shakespeare’s most famous character, Hamlet. But the president’s resoluteness, his penchant to act rather than introspect, and his self-certainty appear to be leading to an outcome every bit as tragic as the fate that befell the indecisive, introspective, and doubt-consumed Prince of Denmark. Are the dichotomies of radical doubt and complete self-certainty the kind of terra infirma upon which no sustainable life course can or should be built?
Bush’s self-certainty – particularly at this late stage in his presidency, when most historians, political observers, and Americans believe his tenure has been an unmitigated disaster – is perhaps the most striking aspect of his presidency. Most people look at Iraq and they see a strategic blunder, marred by corruption, mismanagement, and catastrophic misjudgments. They see a war that has eroded America’s credibility, benefited America’s enemies (Iran and al-Qaeda), and is on the verge of destroying America’s military. In private, however, Bush evokes Churchill to preemptively validate his legacy. Is Bush really such an Inspector Clouseau-like figure that he is unaware that many observers view him as a ridiculous straight-man in a tragic-comedy of errors?
Robert Draper’s superbly-written and highly insightful book, Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush, humanizes its subject while elucidating the ideals and beliefs that make George W. Bush tick. Bush is far more than the intellectual slacker he sometimes seems. The Bush depicted by Draper is highly intelligent, well-read, and absolutely driven to be of consequence. He is also fiercely competitive and as physically restless as a gym rat on steroids. Indeed, the sixty-year old commander-in-chief invariably out hustles his much younger Secret Service detail during their frequent mountain biking expeditions.
The president’s physical vigor is essential to understanding his psychological make-up. Bush throws himself into his workouts, his log cutting, and his dirt biking with the same impetuous abandon that seems to have characterized the invasion of Iraq. He has a well thought out philosophy, what has been termed the Freedom Agenda (the notion that America’s security depends on spreading democracy and free markets) but he appears to have demonstrated a lot less forethought regarding the best way to promote America’s values. He seems not to worry, for instance, about the fundamental incoherence of trying to spread democracy at the point of a bayonet.
Interestingly, Bush frequently invokes his belief that America will succeed as the decisive factor in America’s inevitable success. For instance, Bush cites an anecdote from major league baseball to illustrate his conviction that belief is instrumental to success. Bush asserts he became absolutely convinced the St. Louis Cardinals would win the World Series after hearing manager Tony LaRussa express his absolute certainty that the Cardinals would go all the way.
Hitler boasted that he had the self-certainty of a sleepwalker. And I expect a lot of charismatic leaders have absolute confidence that their success is preordained. But as the sociologist Max Weber observed, the charismatic style of leadership (leaders whose appeal is extra-rational –i.e., who intimate that they are God’s representative on earth, acting on behalf of fate, or that they embody the will of a chosen people) is prone to disaster. Mao and Stalin, charismatic leaders both, believed with certainty in an eschatological vision of history; a Communist utopia was the inevitable destination of history. Much to the chagrin of Leftist ideologues, however, history does not appear to operate according to fixed and predictable laws.
The Bush administration, curiously enough, seems to subscribe to notion comparable to Marx’s historical determinism – namely, that liberty, democracy, and free market capitalism are the inevitable end state for humanity. In the wake of 9/11, Bush insisted that history was a struggle between the forces of freedom and the forces of tyranny, adding that the Almighty was not neutral between the two.
The rhetoric Bush uses can be quite stirring – “Do you not think an Angel rides in the Whirlwind and directs this Storm” -- but is it reasonable and prudent to assume that history is teleological? As the philosopher Karl Popper observed, the most successful societies seem to arrive at their success largely through trial and error. Science, the most successful field ever created for delivering knowledge and progress, assumes trial and error is the most efficacious path to truth. But this view assumes that there is no supernatural power directing or intervening in events, tipping an experiment one way or another for instance. The notion of conducting a faith-based foreign policy -- assuming good intention, the character of a leader, the rightness of a cause, or the intervention of supernatural powers will cause things to work out in the end – is almost certainly a dangerous conceit, one incompatible with a scientific and rational worldview.
There is a though experiment by the philosopher William Clifford that illustrates the perils of relying on faith to steer political decisions. Clifford asks us to imagine a ship owner who has complete faith that his vessel will withstand a long, difficult, and dangerous journey. His belief is so certain, however, that he neglects to conduct a pre-voyage inspection or take any reasonable precautions before the voyage commences. If his ship then sinks, Clifford argues, the ship owner’s sincere faith hardly relieves him of responsibility for forgoing the reasonable measures he should have taken to see to it that his ship was seaworthy.
Clifford’s parable is not unlike the Bush’s administration’s disastrous venture in Iraq. Bush is convinced, however, that America’s presence in Iraq is virtually guaranteed to bring peace and prosperity to the region. Bush remains the ultimate optimist. But as Draper observes, the gap between Bush’s optimism and reality has managed to make pessimists out of most of us.