Experience is still the best teacher. If recognizing what we don't know or where we've gone wrong is the beginning of knowledge, we've entered a new phase of civic education.
Gone is the appetite for sexual scandal. Chandra Levy is still missing and we can feel for her parents, but we can't be bothered examining the psyche of Gary Condit, a political Prufrock whose timidity was rendered irrelevant in post-Sept. 11 America. Bill Clinton suddenly seems emblematic of another time long gone, an intellectual playboy who became the first boomer president. We now see the limitations of that indulgent mind-set: Smarts without a moral anchor, trivializing the presidency and undermining leadership. Superficiality squanders brilliance.
George Bush will either fulfill the ideal notion that a president can rise to the requirements of his time, or he'll fail. Harry Truman succeeded during the final days of World War II, but we weren't sure he could or would when he entered the Oval Office. He hadn't even gone to college - he didn't even finish high school - and he played a cornball piano (not a sexy sax). But Harry knew that "the buck stops here."
Today everybody's in a hurry to evaluate and judge results of the war on terrorism, with daily updates, but the short view is the child of short attention spans. Television, with its repetitious images and entertainments, creates a never-satiated curiosity for the newest fact or the latest interpretation, but whether we win or lose will be determined by the steps that lead to goals of retribution and peace. You can't flatten the learning curve in a day, a month or even weeks.
It's an exquisite irony of history that George the son suffers the aftershocks of the Persian Gulf War, which George the father failed to finish off properly. The current president will have to stand by his word that there are no distinctions between the terrorists and the countries that harbor them. It's too soon to know whether he's capable of doing that.
The president has an extraordinary opportunity to show himself to be like Shakespeare's Prince Hal, the young royal who became King Henry V. Prince Hal, like George W. the former frat boy, enjoyed carousing with fun fellows, his drinking and sporting companions, but when he was called on to take the reins of power, he put away his childish things.
It's a cliche that we can forgive the young man the sowing of his oats if he learns through experience a little about the human condition. George W., like his father, wants to be seen as "the good guy," and it was this self-image (among others) that persuaded his father not to go after Saddam Hussein. These are the footsteps the son cannot follow.
Fortunately for George W., "the good guy" will be measured today against different attributes and standards. The trend-spotters tell us that the "manly man" is back. He's the rough-hewn fireman and the tough-guy cop in New York. He's the soldier going off to war in Afghanistan, a man's man who's willing to risk his life to save others. He's the man who's willing to speak his mind and accept (rather than rationalize) the consequences of what he does.
He's the man who lives in the real world, where words can't take the place of deeds, where victims are not abstractions of ideology, but flesh and blood vulnerable to destruction by evildoers. He's not a man who feels our pain, but who punishes those who inflict it.
It wasn't so long ago that some men thought they had to get in touch with their masculine selves by beating drums in the forest. A male protector had to be in touch with his "feminine" side. A man who rode to the rescue offended feminist sensibility. Suddenly the hero of the day is the blunt and abrasive Rudolph Giuliani. It takes abrasive bluntness to tell a billionaire Saudi sheik what he can do with his money.
Prince Hal's father advised the future king to "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels" so they would forget the foolish young man his critics thought him still to be.
George W. did not have the luxury of that choice. You might say (with thanks again to the Bard) that the potential for greatness was thrust upon him. What he does with it is up to him. We can only hope that experience is a good teacher and pray that he knows where the buck stops.