The idea of America has always been powerful in the world. The idea of American righteousness has always been powerful at home. “Avoid foreign entanglements,” said George Washington. “The last best hope,” said Abraham Lincoln. “A shining city on a hill,” said Ronald Reagan. That is what professors call “American exceptionalism”: We think we are not like other people because God did shed his grace on us. A lot of Americans, Reagan one of them, have always believed, simply and deeply, that we are better than other people. That is a key to President Bush’s rhetoric. The old story: We are going to save the world, whether or not the world wants to be saved.
Now, to many, the war is a disaster. In The Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows wrote recently of spending the past two years with military, intelligence, and diplomatic personnel at the “working level of America’s anti-terrorism efforts.” Most are Republicans, he says, and many supported the decision to invade Iraq.
Then he says: “I have sat through arguments among soldiers and scholars about whether the invasion of Iraq should be considered the worst strategic error in American history—or only the worst since Vietnam. Many say things in Iraq will eventually look much better than they do now. But about the conduct and effect of the war in Iraq one view prevails: It has increased the threats America faces and has reduced the military, financial, and diplomatic tools with which we can respond.”
But Bush persists, as we pour out our power, credibility, good intentions, and blood into the sands of Iraq. He seems to thrive on it. He may be judged one of the worst presidents in our history. But then he has asked why we should worry about history, since we’ll all be dead when it’s written.
“Talk to you about history real quick,” he said, in what I consider his best campaign interview, a frank session, both impressive and frightening, with nine Christian journalists in May of this year. “A president shouldn’t worry about how history will judge him. I’ll never know. . . . But when we try to do big things—accomplish big objectives, whether it be cultural change or the struggle we’re in—it’s going to take a while for history to really judge the accomplishments of a president and the true impact of a presidency. . . . So when you hear this thing about, ‘Well, he’s worried about his standing in history,’ I’m not.”
“Bush has the Father Knows Best vote, from men who have lost their personal power and hate what is happening all around them. The angry men left behind see George Bush as their last champion.”
I believe him. Christianity and Christian “values” are only part of it. Bush is a real gut politician trying to get these United States back into the godly warmth of family, church, and work. Let’s get back to the way they used to be—at least in the fog of memory. He told the Christian editors that he wants to change the way Americans think—or, rather, to change it back. “The culture needs to be changed,” he said, adding “People can understand what I’m talking about, changing the culture from one that says, ‘If it feels good, do it, and if you’ve got a problem, blame somebody else,’ to a culture in which each of us understands we’re responsible for the decisions we make in life. I call it the responsibility era. I can be a voice for cultural change.”
Asked whether he is winning that crusade, he said, “Yes.” He offered this evidence: “Something’s happening in America. When I’m walking the rope line, people say things different than they did four years ago. . . . I bet you every other person or every third person says, ‘Mr. President, my family prays for you.’ It’s not, you know, ‘Good luck, I hope you go tear down your oppo- nent.’ . . . It’s ‘My family prays for you.’ ”
It is not just religion; the word family is just as important in those sentences, reaching back to everything his fans and followers believe is part of their America, but perhaps not yours. That’s what he wants to hear, and he hears it from people who want him to preserve what they see as the unquestioned American way. They are code words, really—I am you and you are me. Bush sent out that message to his base in one of his earliest national debates, in Iowa during the 2000 primary season. Asked to name his favorite philosopher, Bush said “Christ.”
There was silence for a moment, and the moderator ended it by asking Bush to explain. The future president answered, “Well, if [viewers] don’t know, it’s going to be hard to explain. When you turn your heart and life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as your savior, it changes your heart and changes your life.” President Bush does not explain, as he told Bob Woodward in 2002. The writer asked whether he was listening to staff and advisers as he prepared for war. Bush said, “Of course not. I’m the commander. See, I don’t have to explain why I say things. . . . I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”
Campaigns, of course, are the time politicians are called on to explain themselves. In the third debate, the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS News’s Face the Nation, did ask both Kerry and Bush to explain the meaning of their faith. Kerry initially tried to surpass Bush’s rhetoric about the divine provenance of liberty, insisting that “[e]verything is a gift from the Almighty.” Then he appealed to other faith traditions, noting the spiritual worth of the Koran, the Torah, and Native American blessings, ending up with a classic vow to tolerate diverse religious practices, including “the right . . . not to practice.”
Bush, for his part, talked about prayer again: “I pray for strength. I pray for wisdom. I pray for our troops in harm’s way. I pray for my family. I pray for my little girls.” And I assume he prays for a big turnout of the 100 percenters, praying there are enough of them looking to him and seeing themselves.