The man makes his times, or is it the other way around? Philosophers have argued over this conundrum for centuries. But in the heat of partisan debate, we have to sort it out the best we can.
Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, not the most consistent cheerleader for George W. Bush, makes the provocative suggestion that the president, like his predecessor Abraham Lincoln, has discovered a higher moral purpose in the midst of war, and has changed the emphasis from finding and destroying weapons of mass destruction to liberating Iraq in pursuit of democracy in a miserable part of the world that is anything but congenial to the rights of man.
The similarities between the two presidents are striking. Abraham Lincoln, who went to war to save the Union, became an abolitionist only reluctantly. In late summer of 1862, the man who said he would preserve slavery if that were the only way to save the Union was prosecuting a war that was not going well.
Stonewall Jackson had led a brilliant campaign through the Shenandoah Valley that would be studied at West Point 100 years later, and Robert E. Lee had so soundly thrashed the Union army at Second Manassas that the British were flirting with recognition of the Confederate government in Richmond. The newspapers in Boston and New York were growing bolder in their sniping; Lincoln badly needed to freshen up the label on his unpopular war.
Hence the Emancipation Proclamation, which actually freed no slaves since it had no currency in the Confederacy and did not apply to the four slave states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri) loyal to the Union. But it gave moral authority to a war that had begun as an exercise in raw politics.
The argument that George W. Bush is similarly transforming his war is supported by theoretical analysis. Michael Sandel, a professor of government at Harvard, postulates that "presidents, under the pressure of events, especially during war, find themselves needing to articulate new and more persuasive rationales for their policies - especially when great sacrifices are involved."
Lincoln thus had greatness thrust upon him. By expanding his vision to preserve the Union to include freeing the slaves, he was poised to fulfill the promise articulated in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal.
George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 against nation-building, just as Lincoln had distanced himself from the abolitionists in 1860, but circumstances changed. When President Bush was forced to confront acts of terrorism and the fear that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (a fear that nearly everyone shared), he was forced to change both attitude and analysis.