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.
With appeals for homeland security and the necessity to find Saddam's weapons, he rallied a large majority of the American people in support the war in Iraq. It was a matter of national interest. When that war was quickly won and the troops found no weapons of mass destruction, the president was forced to look to other themes muted in his original assessment. Like Lincoln, he had to expand his vision in changed circumstances.
The president now appeals to pragmatism fused with idealism. "In democratic and successful societies, men and women do not swear allegiance to malcontents and murderers; they turn their hearts and labor to building better lives," he said in London. "Democratic governments do not shelter terrorist camps or attack their peaceful neighbors; they honor the aspiration and dignity of their own people."
The president's new rhetoric places him squarely in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson, the Presbyterian preacher's son who was president of Princeton before he was president of the United States. This would have been an implausible comparison only three years earlier. Like Wilson, he wants "to make the world safe for democracy."
The president seems to like the comparison. He frequently invokes Wilson as a warning to nations that won't stand up to barbarism. Against Wilson's idealism, the president says, "free nations failed to recognize, much less confront, the aggressive evil in plain sight." Within a generation after Wilson's failure to persuade others to stand with him against evil, the civilized nations were forced to confront Munich, Auschwitz and the Blitz.
Bush-bashers see only cynicism in the president's language, accusing him of becoming a man in search of a rationale for an unnecessary war. Similar things were said of Abraham Lincoln when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
But if Lincoln was slow to come to the idea of freeing the slaves, he recognized its importance (as well as its utility) when he lifted his pen to sign it.
"If my name ever goes into history," he told William Seward, his secretary of state, "it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it." History similarly waits for George W. Bush.