On Thursday night, President Bush delivered his farewell address, a traditional exercise of departing presidents. I didn’t watch it, but on reading the words found it to be a spirited defense of his policies and actions. He immediately recalled the great dread moment of his adminstration: 9/11. He described an America in many ways better than when he assumed the office. This is only natural — and, it may be, true to some degree.
This blog, I have often warned, is not a political place: there’s an indefinite number of other sites from which to choose, rooting for every conceivable strand of political thought and ranting against all the rest. But President Bush has been the only occupant of the White House during Vulgar Morality’s four-year existence. It seems only right, on his departure, to ask whether he has had any influence over the themes favored in this space.
Are we more or less free than we were eight years ago? Do Americans, as a rule, in their private and public dealings, behave more like moral adults than they did in 2000, or have we become more like children, abdicating the hard choices to some wise, far-seeing parental authority?
Before I try to answer, a word of caution.
I do not believe presidents, or politics generally, have much effect on these matters. Freedom depends on behavior: on morality. The Constitution allows a large enough sphere of freedom around the citizen, that we can each of us seek salvation after our own lights. Morality in turn transcends every person and every power, and is rooted in the ceaseless conversation of the future with the past. The customs and traditions that guide our behavior have adapted to many changes, and not a few catastrophes, and have little to fear from the muffled sounds and furies emanating from Washington.
The worship of politics, even in its most benign, well meaning manifestation — in the writings of Bernard-Henri Levy, for example — leads to a certain meddlesomeness, and even, on occasion, to despotism. Liberal democracy, of which the American system is an extreme example, shrinks the power of politics to a bare minimum. We live in family and community. Our politicians must deal with the dirt and grime of the world.
It is from this perspective that I’d like to examine the politics of the last eight years.
President Bush confronted two disastrous events in his term of office: 9/11, and the financial collapse of the second half of 2008. With each, he faced a clear-cut choice: to increase the power and intrusiveness of the government, or to rely on the courage and initiative of the American people. With both, he unhesitatingly chose the side of Leviathan and sought to limit the choices available to ordinary people.
During 9/11, while government agencies floundered, the only effective response was engineered by the ordinary citizens of flight 93. After 9/11, a monstrous Homeland Security bureaucracy was erected to prevent the citizenry from participating in its own protection. We are forced into bizarre rituals at public doorways and airports: removing our belts and shoes, getting groped by unattractive strangers. Meanwhile, elected officials retreated behind concrete barricades and barbed wire. My city of Washington, once among the most beautiful in the world, is today an unsightly mass of Jersey walls, half-dug ditches, and metal fencing.
The day after the president’s speech, as I drove through Washington, fierce-looking cops suddenly cut off traffic in both directions, and forced us to wait while an official motorcade, filled with Privileged Ones, slowly meandered across Constitution Avenue. I might have been in France before the Revolution, rather than the capital of the greatest democracy on earth.
I want to make clear what I mean. I don’t mind a bit of zeal and watchfulness from the government, when it comes to protecting lives and property. I supported the Patriot Act. But the entire effort presumed that the citizen was a helpless child rather than a moral adult — that any participation from the ground up would result in confusion and undesirable behavior, rather than a more effective defense of the homeland. Fear and paternalism set the tone. The result was a vastly increased distance between public servants and the people who elect them.
Similarly, during the financial crash, President Bush could have worked to restore confidence, and relied, to a greater degree, on the productive forces unleashed by the marketplace: on the aggregated economic decisions of individual Americans, in other words. Instead, he clearly held such individual decisions to be inappropriate, untutored, childish. We had to be protected from ourselves.
The absorption into the government of a fat slice of the American economy will put our freedom in play. Politics, rather than individual choice, will drive much of the economic future. Those who disagree with government policies might, in good Soviet fashion, find themselves punished economically. We are less of a liberal democracy than we were eight years ago.
A few hours before the president stepped in front of the cameras for the last time, a commercial airliner crashed into the Hudson River. In what has been called the “miracle on Hudson,” everyone involved survived. And I believe the question of why everyone survived is pertinent to this accounting of the president’s record.
Part of it was luck. The day was clear and the waters calm. But after one has smacked into a flock of geese that blow out both engines in the aircraft one is flying, a bit of good luck doesn’t begin to compensate.
The rest was the human factor. The pilot made good snap decisions and demonstrated fantastic flying skills. He chose the river for a crash landing to avoid loss of life in the city, and was last to leave the stricken aircraft. The crew and the passengers kept their cool. In an old-fashioned display of courtesy, the men helped the women, children, and elderly to exit the plane after it ditched. Passengers pulled people out of the river, at some personal risk. They protected one another and tended one another’s wounds. The captains whose ferries frequent this corner of the river self-organized, without government mandate, into a rescue fleet. They arrived in minutes, saving many who would have otherwise died from exposure to the icy waters.
Local government put in an appearance in the form of two NYPD divers. Their labors saved a couple of lives. But mostly these were free citizens helping their fellows. These were moral adults, in a time of peril and uncertainty, stepping up to their responsibilities. No laws had to be passed, no giant bureaucracies erected. In a fast-moving drama, the people followed their own sound instincts: and behold, everyone was saved. It was New York’s finest hour since that grim morning in 2001.
The great reservoir of moral strength of the American people remains undiminished. Now, I wish President Bush well in civilian life. He has toiled hard in difficult times, and has earned the right to rest. From the perspective of freedom and morality as I understand these ideals, however, the president would have done better to trust less in Leviathan and more in the strength of the people: a lesson I hope is not lost on Barrack Obama when his moment of disaster and decision arrives.