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Personal Best

Americans want to believe September 11 changed George W. Bush. They want to believe it because they want to believe September 11 changed them. And because the president supposedly personifies the national character, Americans project onto Bush the transformation they wish to see in themselves: He has become more serious, less self-interested; he has found his purpose. In the public narrative, September 11 has become a kind of successor to Bush's famous decision to stop drinking. He saw danger, he rose to the challenge, and he put away childish, frivolous things.

But it's not true. While no journalist can really know how September 11 altered Bush privately, the public evidence suggests that it has not fundamentally changed him as president. Most of what he has done well, and done poorly, over the last year could have been predicted before the twin towers fell. The difference is that now his strengths and his weaknesses both matter more.

Bush's great post-September 11 strength has been his highly personal, highly moralistic view of the world. And that view long predates September 11. In the 2000 election, Al Gore repeatedly tried to draw Bush into detailed discussions of policy--and thus draw a distinction between the more substantive candidate and the less substantive one. But Bush framed the race differently: as the good man versus the bad one. He began with an inherent advantage in this regard, since voters saw him as a stand-in for his father and Gore as a stand-in for Bill Clinton. And the Bush campaign's critical breakthrough was its ability, in the weeks preceding the first debate, to create a public stereotype of Gore as dishonest and thus link him back to Clinton. Similarly, Bush's standard stump speech culminated not with a reference to policy or to his accomplishments as governor but with an allusion to his character as a man. "When I put my hand on the Bible," Bush said again and again to thunderous applause, "I will swear not only to uphold the laws of this land, ... I will also swear to uphold the honor and the integrity of the office to which I have been elected, so help me God."

In his first eight months as president, Bush followed the same script. He endlessly described political appointees and allies as "good men." And as if to make clear that goodness was a personal rather than an ideological category, he even bestowed the moniker on arch-liberal Ted Kennedy. Early in Bush's first year, the Marc Rich pardon scandal kept Clinton alive as the "bad man" against which Bush was favorably compared. And after Tom Daschle became Senate majority leader, Bush condoned a highly personal effort to anoint him as Clinton and Gore's successor in the "bad man" role. Bush's foreign policy was just as personal. After meeting Vladimir Putin, then widely considered an anti-American autocrat, Bush stunned conservatives by announcing, "I looked the man in the eye--I was able to get a sense of his soul."

In many ways, this outlook was just what the United States needed in the immediate aftermath of September 11. While the press searched for structural explanations for the horror, Bush brushed off the left's agonized debate about "why they hate us" with superficial references to American decency, and he brushed off the right's angry debate about the growing malevolence of contemporary Islam with superficial assurances that Islam is a religion of peace. Instead, Bush focused on Osama bin Laden himself, the "evil man" behind the attacks. And after it became clear he was dwelling too much on one individual--and thus setting up a false measure of the war on terrorism's success--he simply broadened the enemy to "the evildoers" who brought down the twin towers. Bush seemed to understand instinctively that a debate about the attack's systemic roots could undermine the moral clarity the United States needed in a time of war. After an attack on U.S. soil that could have profoundly shaken national self-confidence, the United States was well-served by a president who didn't see good and evil as complicated categories. And George W. Bush never had.

The problems with Bush's outlook are taking longer to manifest themselves. In formal addresses written by his intellectually minded speechwriting shop, Bush has defined the war on terrorism as the successor to America's struggles against twentieth-century totalitarianism. But when he speaks off-the-cuff, without handlers, Bush falls back on his more personal understanding of good versus evil. And he doesn't explain what principle, if any, distinguishes the two. So last week, when asked about Pervez Musharraf's gutting of the Pakistani constitution, Bush replied, "My reaction about President Musharraf, he's still tight with us on the war against terror, and that's what I appreciate. ... Obviously, to the extent our friends promote democracy, it's important." The implication was clear. Musharraf--whom Bush has spent a great deal of time personally wooing--is a friend, a "good man." And as with Ted Kennedy, that friendship transcends differences of principle.

Similarly, in a telephone call this week with Crown Prince Abdullah, Bush reportedly referred to "the eternal friendship" between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Many experts think the Saudi monarchy has in recent years undergone an important ideological shift toward a foreign policy basically hostile to the United States. But Bush seems to consider the divergence little more than a tiff between pals that can be patched up by some quality time at his Crawford ranch.

Bush never addresses the moral hypocrisy underlying America's demand for democracy in Palestine and Iraq and our unwillingness to nudge the Saudis toward even minimal freedoms. Yet that hypocrisy is undermining the war on terrorism and the likely campaign against Iraq. The liberal secularists in the Muslim world who hate bin Laden and Saddam likely also hate Crown Prince Abdullah and increasingly hate Musharraf--and for many of the same good reasons. And we will never convince them to back our campaign against the dictator in Iraq if we simultaneously coddle the dictators in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Bush's great success over the last year has been to invest the war on terrorism with the moral clarity the United States needs as it enters a dangerous new era. His great weakness is his tendency to see that moral clarity in personal rather than philosophical terms, to view as selfevident principles that for others are becoming increasingly less so. If left unaddressed, that weakness will ultimately pervert the moral vision upon which the war on terrorism is based, sowing confusion and cynicism about what, exactly, the United States is fighting for. George W. Bush has done a lot of good by conducting the war on terrorism the same way he has conducted most other things since he entered national politics roughly three years ago. Now he needs to change.

By Peter Beinart