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The Chambers Report: How Bush And Obama Undermined America

I.

Wither our leaders?

This question has troubled me for decades. I have raised it among academic folk, business people, sports persons, and especially politicians at every level. This obsessive interest in the paucity of leadership in our country long ago turned me into a political junkie. It's one reason my all-too-sprawling private library is packed with volumes about politicos here and abroad, some of them pretty good leaders in the end, but hardly enough of them.

We now seem to be in something of a heyday of dramatic books about politics. Perhaps that's because our leadership is so pathetic, wherever we look. Failed politicians, ironically, energize angry observers who, in turn, grind out good reading for the rest of us. Since political commentaries are almost invariably ponderings about leadership - what it is, who is good at it, where is it taking us - I want to focus here on three of the most probing recent political studies. Two of these are by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ron Suskind: The Way Of The World: A Story Of Truth And Hope In An Age Of Extremism (2008) and Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, And The Education Of A President (2011). The third book - Game Change: Obmaa And The Clintons, McCain And Palin, And The Race Of A Lifetime (2010) - is co-authored by two of our leading students of politics today, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

Looked at together, these three volumes, totaling some 1,300 pages in all, offer hundreds of insights into the last dozen political years in America. All the major actors are here - from the Clintons, through the Bushes, to the Obamas - as well as countless lesser ones, including Sarah Palin, John McCain's unwelcome gift to all of us. In the end, the question above about our leaders remains largely unanswered. Where are they?

From tales of Bush's stubborn incompetence to Obama's surprising reluctance to do the things we all expected him to do (at least, the things many of us expected him to do), we are left dangling. The disappearance of true leadership has cast a pall on the United States, and thereby on much of the rest of the world as well. Here we are saddled with a shamefully inept Congress, a shambling White House, and an aging and divisive Supreme Court. And this crippling anemia has spread. Are the Europeans, the Asians, the Africans, the Aussies, any better off than those of us here in the Americas? The sole politician anywhere today who seems capable of providing even a dollop of inspiration is Boris Johnson, the zany mayor of London, who's wowing 'em at the Olympics. Just ask the Queen. She loves him!

But read on!

II.

On October 3, 2008, George and Laura Bush, for the first time during his White House years, visited the 43rd president's childhood home in Midland, Texas. The modest three-bedroom house was purchased by his father, the 41st president, in 1951 for $9,000 and formally dedicated as a presidential birthplace in a 2006 ceremony attended by 43's parents and spouse, but not by "W" himself. As the Bushes were leaving the house, they were greeted by members of the press, one of whom asked the president if things had changed since he had left town years earlier. Here was his response:

"You know, I've told my friends here, I said, 'You know, I'm not going to change as a person because of politics in Washington' - that's what I said when I left. I think they appreciate that. I want them to know that, you know, even though I had to deal with a lot of tough issues, that I'm still the same person that they knew before and that, you know, I'm wiser, more experienced, but my heart and my values didn't change."

As reported by Suskind in the New York Times Magazine, "the president had all but vanished" a month later, his 20% approval rating at the time being the lowest on record of any president's in history. In Suskind's view, Bush's abysmal rating was fully-deserved, standing, as it did, as "testimony to how the country had rejected his prideful, intensely personal model of leadership."

By November 3, 2008, "Americans simply wanted him gone." And gone he was, "a pariah across the land he'd governed with will and nerve." True to his statement above, "W" hadn't changed an iota or grown a bit while in office. And now he wasn't going to apologize for anything that might have gone wrong during his eight years, either.

"He wouldn't be discussing lessons learned . . . No, he was in hiding. Nor was he planning to leave the house (the Presidential Mansion) the next day. He voted by absentee ballot. The president of the world's leading democracy would be staying home on Election Day."

It is difficult to overstate the deep contempt Suskind felt for the drawly, inarticulate Texan, a contempt that drips from every page of his lengthy indictment, The Way Of The World, a venomous volume published just prior to his Times article.

It is a dismaying analysis of just how much the United States - and the world - had sacrificed and lost during the disastrous, furtive reign of Bush, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. Suskind depicts these men as truly malevolent figures for whom dishonesty, treachery, and secrecy were all. They yearned for dictatorship and so most of what they did over two presidential terms was to undermine democracy, using the catastrophic 9/11 destruction of the twin trade towers always as their justification for imprisoning people without reason, for torturing them, and then justifying it all in the name of an abused phantom called "national security."

Suskind points out eloquently and convincingly that the greatest threat to national - and world - security in the first decade of the 21st century was not Osama bin Laden, but the George W. Bush administration, a group of arrogant, supremely ignorant people who had bullied their way largely unchecked through a sheepish world for eight years. Their victims were countless, including Benazir Bhutto (the candidate for Pakistan's presidency, again, who discovered, only days before her assassination, that she had been abandoned by the United States at her moment of greatest need), Prime Minister Tony Blair and the British people, and all of the rest of us.

They "led" always by fear and furtiveness, never by reason and openness. As a result, they also lied their way into an immoral war in Iraq, even while snubbing the Iranians (who came to us quietly in 2003 seeking detente), and generally leaving the world much worse off than they found it.

Suskind sees all this as a sad and shameful squandering of the United States's "moral authority," much of it bestowed by 9/11, so that, by the end of the years of Second Bush, "no one believed what came out of the U.S. anymore."

To rest his case, Suskind ends by noting that, despite all their protestations to the contrary, Bush-Cheney knew full well, months before attacking Iraq, that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. They just didn't care. They had their own agenda to follow.

Given the documentable evils of the Bush years, Suskind doubtless looked to the election of Barack Obama, Bush's stunningly gifted and seemingly highly moral successor, as a kind of Second Coming of one destined to undo all, or at least most, of the misdeeds of the criminal Republicans. Was he to be disappointed? We'll see below when we look at Suskind's next work. But first, let's glance at another, frequently hilarious volume's depiction of what would become the most remarkable presidential campaign ever witnessed.

III.

It's difficult to know just what to make of Game Change, a volume based on numberless interviews and much research, yet entirely void of note references or any revelation of resources. Not just words are put in people's mouths here, but thoughts are put in their heads, too. Yet, many months after the book's splashy first appearance, very few refutations of fact had come forth, so this reader assumed - and still assumes - that most of what is said here is very nearly fact.

Though co-authored, Game Change speaks with one, very funny voice. The witty language brings all the actors to life, as we are absorbed by the most amazing presidential run-up in American history. It's a more riveting tale than any novel or play could produce.

John McCain's improbable vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, of course, was easy for the authors to lampoon. She seemed to invite it. When she was prepping - or supposed to be prepping - for her all-important interview with Katie Couric, for example, she insisted upon first completing a questionnaire from her local Wasilla, Alaska, newspaper: "How 'bout I do the Katie interview after I get The Frontiersman interview questions and reply to them? It's been my priority."

The irony here is rich because the nadir of her Couric third-degree was a query about Palin's suspect reading habits. When Katie wondered what newspapers and magazines she read to stay abreast of the world, the governor responded "Most of them." "Specifically?" asked Katie. "All of them, any of them that have been in front of me all these years." "Can you name a few?" "I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news, too," Palin said. "Alaska isn't a foreign country."

This from a wannabe vice president who couldn't herself name more than handful of countries, who didn't know why North and South Korea were separate nations, and who thought it was Saddam Hussein who attacked America on 9/11. Obviously Palin had never been much of a reader and had no intellectual curiosity at all, but, more amazingly, she didn't even know the name of her upcoming debate foe, the sitting vice president. Over and over, and despite being constantly corrected by her debate coaches, she referred to Obama's running mate as "Senator Obiden - or was it O'Biden?" The corrections never stuck, so her tutors finally suggested that she simply call him Joe - which she did.

Palin comes across as totally clueless, a vacuous former beauty contestant, poorly educated at five second-rate colleges, who would be an utter disaster anywhere other than in Alaska (she, of course, couldn't get out of there fast enough, and so would soon drop her gubernatorial title, go on the stump for masses of money, and eventually abandon Alaska altogether for gated-community luxury in suburban Arizona).

The HBO special later based on this book would turn Palin - brilliantly portrayed by Julianne Moore - into a vapid anti-intellectual who didn't know a whit about much of anything, especially anything political . . . including who really runs Great Britain (the Queen or the Prime Minister?), where Afghanistan is, or just what the Fed might do. For her to be within "a heartbeat of the presidency" would clearly be a disaster for everybody, the USA and the world. Even many members of the McCain staff came to accept this view.

For the most part, while the other main players in this drama get somewhat kinder treatment, they generally take their knocks, as well. Hillary and Bill emerge as foul-mouthed mixed-bags, alternately impressive and disgruntling. As for McCain, he comes across as an old warrior of limited brainpower, stunted ambition, and few credentials to be president. Throughout the book, he evolves into an embarrassment, a man with few principles, running on a "war-hero" image forged half-a-century earlier. He is the man, after all, who, with almost no reflection and very little vetting, gave us Sarah Palin in the first place. As these authors see it, a man who could so perilously act on an irresponsible whim such as this deserved the presidency little more than Palin deserved the second spot.

In the end here, only Obama emerges unscathed. The infatuated authors present him consistently in these pages as the smartest person in every room he enters, a man whose preternatural cool, eloquence, and astonishing intelligence make all the other players seem quite ordinary. Obama is, to them, the only one qualified for the big job he wants. To see if such optimism was warranted or if grotesque disappointment might yet lurk on the political horizon, we need to look at Suskind's most recent book.

IV.

Written only three years after his angry diatribe about the villainous Bush team's efforts to destroy democracy both here and abroad, Confidence Men (the title is borrowed from Melville) presumably could be much more upbeat with a handsome and seemingly open-minded intellectual, rather than a stubborn troglodyte, sitting in the Oval Office. One can readily imagine Suskind's joy in watching Obama's triumphal march to the White House in 2008 to clean up the Bush-made swamp of lies and incompetence and put the U.S. back on the right road toward its self-evoked destiny as "The Greatest Nation on Earth." Such joy was, in fact, felt all across the globe, as symbolized by the bestowal of a ridiculously premature Nobel Peace Prize on the untested new president. A right-angle historical turn was badly needed by everybody. And Obama, suddenly the most famous person on Earth, was elected as its agent.

Unfortunately, it was to prove otherwise. Almost from the get-go, the shiny new Pennsylvania Avenue resident was a disappointment, especially to sharp-eyed analysts such as Ron Suskind. After our seeming escape from the incompetence of the Bush years, the developing fact that our anointed "savior" would apparently be little better was a very bitter pill to swallow. Despite whatever his hopes might have been for Obama, Suskind reveals throughout the endless bloated pages of his new book his grotesque disappointment that, only two years into the presidency, the admittedly brilliant Barack had almost entirely squandered his huge mandate of 2008, lost all of the momentum he had brought to the Office of President, and made the world little better off than Bush had left it.

How did this happen? That's the argument of Confidence Men, a volume blasted by one critic in the New York Times as "bloated, portentous, reeking of self-importance" . . . a tedious repetitive listing of Obama's many failings that is "at least 200 pages too long." Amen! This worn-out reader couldn't wait to finish this jeremiad and finally put it aside.

Even so, there are many plusses in the book. As listed here, Obama's chief early sins were these: (1) rash inexperience; (2) appointing the wrong people; (3) a total inability to make decisions; and (4) an unflagging self-assurance that his golden tongue could resolve all problems.

Alas, his utter failure to assume control freed egomaniacs like Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner to lead the amateur president around by the nose, almost entirely shutting down his White House. Both were continually driven by their own arrogance and disloyalty to Obama to undermine his every move. Seeing this presidential ineptitude for what it was, Summers told budget director Peter Orszag that "We're home alone . . . there's no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes."

At bottom, as Suskind sees it, Obama has thus far allowed his own arrogance - his unalterable sense that he's always the smartest person in sight - to sap virtually every strength that he originally brought to his lofty office, allowing distasteful men (and they are all men) such as Rahm Emanuel and the others to ruin his presidency. Like Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter, both failed loners and brainy academics, Obama has been stranded atop his naive, lofty ego by "the best and the brightest" of his own time.

But whereas JFK had his family all around him to get him through crises and help him re-establish himself, Obama has only his self-certainty to sustain him, a slim reed to lean upon. His braininess alone can't seem to rescue him. As Paul Volker aptly put it, "Obama is smart, but being smart is not enough."

Surprisingly, Suskind tries to end his sad book on an up-note, implying that with Emanuel, Summers and Geithner out of the way (the latter was apparently headed for the exit some time ago, but it hasn't happened yet), and Peter Rouse and Bill Daley running the White House, we might expect better of our talented "leader" in the future.

Unfortunately, Obama's recent dithering on the debt-ceiling crisis and other matters has cast a dark shadow on that possibility. He is who he is - and what he has long appeared to be: a charming, supremely articulate and brilliant law professor always looking for the next article to explain things, a man basically uninterested in making decisions, only in talking things through . . . endlessly.

According to Suskind, what we all need today is "confidence" - in our banks, in our country, in our leaders, in each other - but the "tragedy" of our time may well be, ironically, that, just like with his predecessor, our president's unbending confidence in his own, as yet unproven abilities may prove to be the largest underminer of all.

-

Previously in Bob's Books:
* Steve Jobs vs. Jack Kennedy

* The Last Boy Of Summer

* Melville, Elvis And Baseball

* A Tale Of Three Cities

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on August 1, 2012


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