Bush, they hardly knew ye

Posted: Jan 08, 2002 12:00 AM
For a considerable portion of the intelligentsia, George Bush is an enigma wrapped in a riddle inside a paradox. How, as The New York Times asked this Sunday, could one man seem "transformed from a casually educated son of privilege into a mature leader of a nation at war? Gone are the jokes about his I.Q. and his attention span." Where did they go?

Has the president changed, or have we, as NYT historians claim, "projected onto Mr. Bush" those qualities we "desperately want him to have"?

W. is characteristically singularly uninterested in the question, responding impatiently to yet another question about how Sept. 11 has changed him: "Talk to my wife," he said. "I don't know. I don't spend a lot of time looking in the mirror. Except when I comb my hair."

The truth, as President Bush's own remarks suggest, is that we have changed far more than he has. The liberals' caricature of Bush as stupid and ill-informed was always more a reflection of their own biases ("Smart people vote Democratic") than of any objective reality. Bush may not be, by temperament, an intellectual, but stupid people don't get Harvard MBAs, either.

Moreover, even the question itself reveals the deep prejudices of the chattering classes: elite journalists, policy wonks, bureaucrats, academics all pulled from the same small pool of Ivy League (or equivalent) colleges (and yes, I went to Yale). Being smart is the most important human characteristic, the ticket to secular heaven. So a recent book, "The Reckless Mind," ponders amazedly how intellectuals, even really, really smart guys like philosopher Martin Heidegger, could have signed up with Hitler or Stalin, as if high IQ was not just a convenient human skill that can be used for good or ill, but the essence of human goodness. President Bush is smart enough, but the leadership qualities he has evinced lie elsewhere: judgment, strength of purpose, optimism, and a willingness to do the right thing before everyone recognizes it is right.

There are just two kinds of political leaders, as some wag put it: mommy pols and daddy pols. (This is not necessarily a gender divide: Most mommy pols are male. And a few intrepid females, such as Margaret Thatcher, can pull off being daddy pols). Since Sept. 11, the American people have developed a sudden belated taste for having a daddy in high office, whether it be Rudy Giuliani in New York or George W. Bush in The White House.

The difference between mommies and daddies is not love. A daddy who doesn't seem to care about you is not good for much, either in personal or political life. But daddies and mommies tend to have different ways of expressing care and concern. A friend of mine described recently what happened when his 3-year-old son fell down and scraped his knee. Mommy, naturally, ran to comfort him with coos and concern and kisses. Daddy brushed him off, checked out his scrape and reassured him with brusque words: "You are just fine. Go back and play."

Mommies feel your pain. Daddies give you confidence that you can ignore the pain and get on with life. Children -- and adults -- obviously need both: a shot in the arm and a sense of connection. So President Bush refers questions about his emotions to Laura Bush, an obviously much-loved and respected mate. His wife keeps track of his inner life. He concentrates on action, whether it's blocking tax increases "over my dead body" or smokin' terrorists out of caves.

When you are scared as Americans have been, you want to know that there is a daddy in charge, not only to protect but to inspire. President Bush's genius is not only to reassure Americans that he is up to the job at hand but, more important, that so are we.