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Oh, the Humility

We are now faced with an almost oxymoronic national challenge: to be a humble superpower—just as Bush suggested back in 2000.


Illustration by Ward Sutton  

Seven years ago, at a debate in Iowa among the Republican candidates for president, each man was asked to name the political philosopher with whom he most identified.

Christ,” George Bush answered, famously, “because he changed my heart.”

The follow-up exchange isn’t well known, but it’s at least as telling. When the questioner asked Bush to elaborate on the heart-changing part, he demurred. “Well, if they don’t know, it’s going to be hard to explain.”

It was a year later, in a one-on-one debate with Al Gore, that Bush was asked about his foreign-policy vision—how he would “project us around the world.”

“If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us. If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us … Our nation stands alone right now … in terms of power. And that’s why we’ve got to be humble … One way for us to end up being viewed as the Ugly American is for us to go around the world saying, ‘We do it this way, so should you.’ ”

It was a perfect answer—and, in retrospect, of course, perfectly ironic. Bush’s rise and fall are so stark and clockworkish it’s like a play, a tragedy and farce in three acts.

Act One, 1999–2001: the nice Christ-y talk of humility plus the blithe arrogance (we get it, you don’t) of true believers—and then, with 9/11, the opportunity to be born again, geopolitically, and divide the whole world in two, “either with us or against us.”

Act Two, 2001–2005: the moment push came to shove, all humility abandoned in favor of highfalutin Wilsonian hubris about our place in the world and lazy, stupid, Ugly American hubris concerning the particulars of Iraq.

Act Three, 2006: nudged by Karl Rove or reminded of Jesus’ promise in Luke (“He who humbles himself will be exalted”), an eleventh-hour show of humility (press-conference regrets over “Bring ’em on” and Abu Ghraib)—but his own chief Middle East spinmeister carries the new candor a truth too far, confessing in Arabic on Al-Jazeera two weeks ago that we are “witnessing failure in Iraq” and that “undoubtedly, there was arrogance and there was stupidity from the United States in Iraq.”

And let the final line of this play be the other half of Jesus’ injunction in Luke 14:11: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.” Amen. The end. Curtain.

The war is lost. The question now is just how hideous the outcome will be, and the timing—whether the last U.S. convoy (or, if the Vietnam analogy becomes foursquare, helicopter) leaves Baghdad’s Green Zone in 2007 or 2008. America has been humbled—and we’ll see this week if Bush and the Republicans will be humbled politically in turn, having so monstrously exalted themselves these last several years.

Even some Republicans want Bush and the GOP punished. Christopher Buckley is one of seven conservatives who wrote an extraordinary Washington Monthly cover package last month called “Time for Us to Go.” He said that “one has no sense … that the president or the Republican Congress is in the least bit chastened by their debacles.”

I discovered the essay posted on a Website called Republicans for Humility. Which got me thinking that the GOP used to be the party of humility, for better or worse: skepticism about big government and deficits, buzzkill pragmatism and competence over utopian wishfulness, a strict obedience to the authority of the Constitution—nothing like Bushism.

Of course, this country has always had an iffy relationship with humility. John Quincy Adams was a founding imperialist (“North America [is] destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation”), but also warned against overreach (“America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy”). We’re the country of Jimmy Stewart and Warren Buffett and a reflexive disapproval (as I heard incessantly as a child in the Midwest) of “getting too big for your britches.” But we’re also the nation of Orson Welles, Donald Trump, and “America, Fuck Yeah!”

And now we are faced with a paradoxical, almost oxymoronic national challenge: to operate as a superpower with humility and magnanimity—as Bush suggested in 2000. The right choice is neither a bullying America-rules moralism nor a weenie-ish blame-America moralism. Rather, it’s to temper our long-standing sense of righteous superiority with our equally hardwired pragmatism—to maintain a clear-eyed view of what’s practical and sensible, to avoid believing our own bullshit. The salient, illuminating presidential comparison is not George W. Bush versus Jimmy Carter, as the Republicans would now like us to think, but Bush 43 versus Bush 41. As Chris Buckley wrote, the senior Bush, for whom he worked, is “the most … humble and cautious man on the planet.”


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