The existence of Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama proves one thing: the character of a single man can affect history. The “great man theory” of history is true: one man can change the world.
Not that Clinton, Bush or Obama are great men, although Obama, who’s only 46, may turn out to be, if he comes anywhere near walking all his pretty talk.
Let’s consider the characters of our former president, our current president, and our future president, and their effect on your life.
First, Bill Clinton.
Slick Willie. The biggest bullshitter of them all. Great personality, but very little character. Smart. Calculating. Desperate to be liked. And because of his empathy and charisma, very attractive to women, and being a Big Libido Dog, very willing to chase them down and bonk them. (You can be sure at this very moment Bill Clinton is bonking any number of women: probably a regular one near his home in Chappaqua, another regular one at work in Harlem, and a few regulars in the world's main cities, plus the groupies he picks up for one-night stands.)
And there you have it: we’ll remember his presidency for the fact that Monica Lewinsky fellated him in the White House. Funny that: when he became president, he could finally score an upper-class girlfriend, instead of the white-trash bimbos he nailed before.
Being smart and calculating, Slick Willie will also be remembered for cleaning up after Reagan and the elder Bush and leaving us with actual budget surpluses, helped by the internet making our economy more productive. He will also be remembered for stealing Republican ideas and unlike the Republicans, making them real — like shrinking government and reforming welfare, things Reagan talked about till he was blue in the face but never lifted a finger to fix.
But not being a very moral man, Bill Clinton will also be remembered for, along with the UN, doing nothing about the biggest tragedy of our time happening under his nose: the Rwanda genocide.
So he prevailed in the good times, and did not make them worse, except stand by idle while 800,000 Tsutsis got macheted by Hutus in the biggest genocide since Pol Pot offed his countrymen by having his minions put plastic bags over their heads (when they can’t afford bullets, mass murderers come up with all sorts of cheap solutions).
So, no legacy to speak of from Bill Clinton, because his character doesn’t go much deeper than being a good-old-boy bullshitter (heck, even the spectacularly incompetent Jimmy Carter can point to a legacy of having put human rights on our foreign policy agenda). The effect of Clinton’s character on your life? Negligible. The economy was OK. And the tabloids gave you equal parts dismay and laughs. Remember the semen on the dress? The cigar? The meaning of “is”? Bill’s wife, being less of a bullshitter, and more truly compassionate, would have made a better president than him, but she’s lost her chance.
Now consider the character of George Bush. The family-entitled Yalie MBA fratboy, who always had others cleaning up his business messes so they could suck up to his Dad, until the family black sheep became a dry-drunk, born-again Christian and Karl Rove made him governor of Texas and then president of the US, scotching the presidential chances of the one Bush heir who might have been an OK prez, poor Jeb.
Nitwit George did what he was put in to do, which was to cut the taxes of his rich friends, and then he sat around while Cheney ran the country, until the challenge of 9/11 came, and exposed the mediocrity of his character.
9/11 happened, and what did Bush tell a stunned nation? “Go shopping.”
We should have known then. Imagine the character of a man who says something like that — after 3,000 of his fellow citizens have been blown away. Just try to think what other men might have said if they were president during 9/11. Bush’s favorite philosopher, Jesus, for instance. Or Churchill. Or Mandela. Or even Al Gore, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama.
Surely something a little more inspiring than “go shopping.” Surely something a little deeper than “you’re either for us or against us.”
It was not only the character of Bush that let us down after 9/11, it was the character of the men chosen to surround him. First his Dad made the serious error of sticking Bush with his pal Cheney, who then went on to stick Bush with his pal Rumsfeld and a host of other ideologically pure but incompetent morons. And there you have what we got: an administration of dumbass MBA CEOs.
The problem with CEOs in politics is simple: CEOs in America are not responsible to anyone but themselves. They’re not responsible to their employees, their shareholders, their boards, the environment or anyone. They have the power to fire thousands and the freedom to screw up monumentally, yet walk away from their companies with golden parachutes. They are the most non-accountable humans on earth. Their job does not build character.
They don’t have to listen to anyone but themselves, which is why you have dumbasses like Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld going about their merry crony-helping way, blissfully unaware that they’re plunging America and Iraq and New Orleans into chaos. As far as they’re concerned, their actions have enriched their friends: their Halliburton and Big Pharma and Big Agriculture and Big Finance cronies make billions out of our healthcare system, the Iraq War, farm subsidies and whatever else they’re pushing, so what could they possibly be doing wrong?
In their world, it’s all about making each other rich, and that’s the right thing to do. That’s why they’re in government. What was behind Bush’s pathetic attempt to privatize Social Security but a massive planned handout of play money to Wall Street? And hey, as long as Halliburton and Bechtel and Blackwater are making money out of the Iraq War, why the hell call it off? So a few thousand poor grunts die in the process, so what?
Dick Cheney’s recent conversational to-and-fro with a reporter bears repeating.
Reporter: “Two-thirds of the American people think the war in Iraq wasn’t worth fighting.”
Cheney (big smile): “So?”
Reporter (shocked): “So? You don’t care what the American people think?”
Cheney: “No. I think you can’t be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls.”
There you have it. That’s the responsible-to-nobody arrogance of the American CEO in a nutshell.
Bill Clinton had all the character of a dry cow dung patty, but Bush-Cheney went one further: they’re bad characters. One can characterize the Bush presidency as a timeline of little lies, medium lies and whoppers, starting with lying us into a war that even Bush doesn’t remember why he started. Also, we now know that Cheney, Rumsfeld, and fellow-travelers Condi Rice and Colin Powell actually sat around in meetings after 9/11 deciding what methods of torture should be used on any terrorists they caught. Nobody, it appears, for a moment said: “Hey, guys, what the hell are we doing? This is wrong. We’re Americans, not the Spanish Inquisition. We shouldn’t let the terrorists make us as bad as they are.” No. In fact, Cheney told the media we have to “work the dark side.” In other words, we have to do knowingly wrong.
An insight into Bush’s character is revealed in General Sanchez 'new book, where he remembers this outburst from Bush giving a confused pep talk to his top generals and national security people:
“Kick ass! If somebody tries to stop the march to democracy, we will seek them out and kill them! We must be tougher than hell! This Vietnam stuff, this is not even close. It is a mind-set. We can’t send that message. It’s an excuse to set us up for withdrawal. There is a series of moments and this is one of them. Our will is being tested, but we are resolute. We have a better way. Stay strong! Stay the course! Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out! We are not blinking!”
This isn’t some mad movie dictator or Darth Vader speaking. It’s an actual real grownup talking to other grownups. What people forget about Bush, amidst the lying, the mediocrity, and the stench of a bumbling cartoon upper-class scoundrel, is that he has an entitled, condescending Yale streak of meanness a mile wide. Remember how he once chuckled over the fate of a woman whose death sentence he’d confirmed? That’s a part of the Bush character we tend to forget. It takes a real mean mutha to send young American soldiers to their deaths just to enrich your Texas oil buddies.
Of course, the Bush-Cheney CEOs weren’t only bad characters, they were also massively incompetent, since they always picked ideologically loyal underlings over pragmatically competent ones. One can actually imagine an occupation of Iraq that might have gone well. Go in, topple Saddam, put a strong-man Shiite in charge of the Iraqi Army and Baathist bureaucracy instead of dismantling those bodies, and get the hell out. Instead, the fools put Bremer in charge, and magnified the blunder of the war with his blundering occupation, just as they blundered Katrina with the blundering Brownie. Bremer spent his time passing hundreds of laws about stuff like restricting corporate taxes to 15% — he was sent there to create a Wall Street Journal corporate utopia – while all around him US troops busted down the front doors of Iraqi citizens at three in the morning and created an insurgency of angry Iraqis instead.
So what was the effect of Bush’s character on your life? If you’re very rich, you are now richer. If you’re middle-class, you’re paying way more for gas and food, and you may be having your house foreclosed on. If you’re a kid, one day you’ll be paying off debts that are now in the trillions, what with two wars costing $16 billion a month and earmarks and trade deficits and the plunging dollar and all the borrow-and-spend habits of a drunken Republican administration wasting your taxes like it’s their personal alcohol (US public and private debt was $49 trillion last year, so you and every American man, woman and child are each $160,000 in debt). If you’re a liberal, you may have been crying solidly for years now. If you’re a conservative, you’re wondering how the hell a supposedly conservative administration ruined your conservative dreams. If you’re a tourist in another country, you may have to listen to a lot of valid criticism of your country. If you’re Cheney or Rumsfeld, you may not be able to travel freely abroad because overseas prosecutors are waiting to make themselves famous by arresting you as a war criminal, like they did with Pinochet. If you’re a Republican, you’re wondering how many decades it’ll take before you taste real power again. If you’re a proud American, you’re wondering what you have to be particularly proud of besides the iPhone. And if you’re one of over 4,000 unfortunate soldiers who went to Iraq, you’re dead.
A great deal of damage all round. The Bush-Cheney CEO cowboys have lived out their bad characters on our time and dime to the full.
OK, after two disappointing characters, Bush and Clinton, what about our next president?
Let me say one thing right off the bat about Barack Obama. He appears to have more character in a single digit of his pinkie than Bill Clinton has in his celebrated penis or George Bush in his celebrated gut.
So, yes, I expect a lot more from an Obama presidency than we got from Clinton or Bush. After all, I’ve read Barack’s memoir, “Dreams From My Father.” If you want to know Barack’s character, read it. You’re not going to get a more self-revelatory memoir written by any world leader ever. He wrote it long before he had any notion of being president. And he wrote it brilliantly all by himself (not like JFK’s “Profiles in Courage,” for which Kennedy got a Pulitzer although he didn’t write the book himself – those were the innocent days when you could hide your ghost writers).
From his book, it’s evident that Barack Obama is actually capable of deep and abiding self-examination, which is completely alien to Bush and perhaps struck Bill Clinton briefly in the midst of the Monica business, when Hillary must’ve given him earful after earful, and he probably managed a little look or two inside himself for a week or two.
As a politician, Obama shares the calculating intelligence of Bill Clinton and Bush, but he has something they lack: moral intelligence. Barack Obama pulls off a unique feat for a politician: he tries to be honest with himself and those around him. If the pastor Wright controversy proves anything, it is that Barack is an honest man. In his Pittsburgh race speech, instead of expediently throwing Wright under the bus, Barack honestly said he could no more denounce Wright than he could denounce black people or his sometimes racist white grandmother. And later, when Wright implied that Barack says what he says because it’s politically expedient and not what’s really in his heart, Barack dumped his former pastor for impugning his honesty. Honesty above expediency: that’s a very unique character trait in a politician. Barack revealed it again when he called McCain and Hillary’s gas tax holiday idea a gimmick, which is exactly what it was. A little thing like that can tell you a lot about a man or a woman’s character: McCain and Hillary are say-anything political panderers, and Barack is not.
So it looks like we’re going to have an honest president again. Is that a good thing? Our last honest president was Jimmy Carter. Highly moral and smart, but not very competent. No use being honest if you’re incompetent.
Fortunately for us, Barack Obama happens to be incredibly competent. Having been in politics for only twelve years, and starting from way behind a little more than a year ago, he built a political machine from scratch that took on the mighty Clinton machine, oiled for years, and brought it to a spluttering defeat. Barack raised more money than Hillary, his campaign opened more offices in more states, he got more volunteers, he got more votes, and he fashioned a message that knocked the inevitable candidate for a loop. The Clintons still don’t know what hit them, and probably never will. Hillary got so punch-drunk, she kept thinking she still had a chance long after her campaign was deader than the flattest roadkill. All her experience and wonkish competence got her nowhere. On the evidence of Barack’s campaign, he is the most competent administrator in US politics since LBJ or Roosevelt.
But is competence a character trait? I think it is. If you’re smart, and moral, and practical, and have good judgment, and surround yourself with other smart and principled people, and actually listen to other people – all signs of good character — chances are you’ll be competent. Bush was none of that. Clinton was some of that. Barack is all of that.
People keep saying Barack Obama has no idea what the Republicans have in store for him in the general election. Apparently the fearsome GOP will come at him from all sides and chew him up.
Well, I think it’s exactly the other way around: John McCain has no idea what’s going to hit him. The Barack Obama machine is going to roll over him in a landslide. Barack ate Hillary in a long lunch; he’s going to snack McCain in a quick breakfast.
John McCain will end up the crushed flip-flopper he is: he flip-flopped on tax cuts for the rich, he flip-flopped on the environment, he flip-flopped on torture, and he flip-flopped on the Religious Right. (He once called them “agents of intolerance,” and then happily accepted endorsements from the likes of pastor Hagee, who called the Catholic Church a “great whore,” and then he rejected these endorsements — McCain has a bigger pastor problem than Obama.)
McCain may be a war hero, but he’s also a has-been old pol. He became the Republican nominee because he was the least embarrassing candidate in an embarrassing field of losers. Did you see his speech the last night of the Democratic primary race? He looked like a Neanderthal man auditioning for the role of a human – the village idiot who’d just had some coaching. His speech coach had obviously told him, “Hey, why don’t you try to smile more?” so after every sentence, McCain would come up with this doddering idiot grin. The broadcast mercifully cut away from him – I guess they were afraid the old dodderer would start drooling at any moment. Is this all the GOP can come up with? My prediction: half the Republicans will go to the polls to vote for Obama, and the other half will stay home, too embarrassed to vote. Barack will knock McCain over with a few flicks of one finger. Put them side by side and it’s plain to see: on one side the sorry past, on the other the hopeful future.
Barack has something in spades that McCain sorely lacks: the charisma of a JFK. Maybe more important: Barack Obama is the coolest cat in American life since Duke Ellington. His campaign is not only competent, it’s classy. No nasty Karl Roves or crazy James Carvilles in his organization. He’s got that thing Hemingway went on about: “grace under pressure.” No wonder they call him No Drama Obama. He’s Mr. Cool incarnate. Just look at how he demonstrated flipping the crap off his shoulders as the way to handle attacks.
In fact, Barack Obama is a new kind of man in political life. He’s not some butch swaggering hysterical macho bully-boy posturer like Bush or Cheney or Clinton or McCain. He’s a modern, feminized man: a metrosexual of grace and nuance and subtlety and elegance. He’s a faun, not a bull. He doesn’t have to parade his steel in a stiff neck and a grim mouth. He doesn’t snarl. He can afford to keep his steel hidden, because it’s in his bones, not in his biceps. Just compare the way George Bush and Barack Obama walk. Bush walks like a gorilla. Barack walks like a gazelle. Obama will bring a new example of what it is to be a man to the White House and the world.
Having read his memoir, having heard his speeches, and having watched how he’s handled the Clinton machine, I will be slightly disappointed if Barack turns out to be a good president but not a great one. He’s got all the makings – more so than any president since Roosevelt, our last great president.
And when I say makings, I mean makings of character. It’s high time we had a person of character in the White House. The Clintons don’t have character. Being a boomer myself, I’m disappointed that the triangulating, cynical Clintons have come to represent our generation of wide-eyed 60s idealists on today’s political scene. Compare, on the last primary night, the two speeches of Clinton and Obama. Hillary gave a brief nod to Barack while he showered her in fulsome praise. He’s got grace. She doesn’t. Poor Hillary doesn’t even realize that history has passed her by. She said she was “not making any decisions tonight,” not realizing that the train of history has already left the station and she has no decisions left to make except leave the stage. She did her hurt-victim-who-lost-her-candy thing: she said she wanted “respect.” I was half-expecting her, like some high-school kid in a Jesse Jackson audience, to start yelling, “I am somebody!”
Character is something you earn by being thoroughly decent all your life. As a rule, you can’t count on politicians to have character. The job knocks it out of you. Even FDR wasn’t a man of great character. Come to think of it, the last figure of great character we had was Lincoln, and before him George Washington. It says something about the miracle that is America that we can produce as president a George Bush — a scurrilous upper-class bad character — and then, right on his foul heels, follow with an up-from-nothing good guy like Obama.
They’re very rare, people of character, and in politics, they come once or twice a century. This century we’ve had Gandhi, Churchill and Mandela.
Barack Obama could never be in their company, because the challenges he faces are not as great as the ones they did. Each in their own way had to save civilization for their respective countries.
Mind you, that may be the very challenge Obama faces, too. America’s healthcare, public education, economic opportunities, communal bonds and moral stature are all broken – all the things that make us an actual civilization as opposed to a mindless tribe of 300 million TV-dumbed-down, celebrity-worshipping, junkfood-chomping, litter-producing, war-mongering, soundbite-lulled, commodity-obsessed consumers. If he can fix our broken civilization, Obama will be a good president.
And come to think of it, we actually do face a life-and-death challenge that imperils our planet and would have sorely tried the likes of Gandhi, Churchill and Mandela: global warming. Hey, if Obama has the character to move the world towards a big change on that, he could be a great president. Not only of America, but of the whole planet.
Let’s hope. After Clinton’s negligible character and Bush’s bad character, we need all the hope – and good character — we can get.