Oh, the Humility

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.”

George H.W. Bush’s weakness as a politician boiled down to several connected problems: He seemed like a Wasp wimp, someone with neither fierce convictions nor any knack for rhetorical grandeur—too plainly humble. In 1988, his offhand derision of “the vision thing” fixed his image as ludicrously passionless, flat-footed. During the same election, when he needed to sell the idea that he wasn’t a wimp, he refashioned himself as a Clint Eastwood: “Read my lips,” Peggy Noonan had him snarl. “No new taxes.”

After he was elected and worked out a deal with a Democratic Congress (sensibly, humbly) to raise taxes, he was a goner. And while the “vision thing” remark will dog him forever, in retrospect its mistrust of fancy rhetoric looks like a healthy instinct, born of a truly conservative humility about what’s reasonable to expect of government. He was the President Bush, remember, who during the Gulf War in 1991, having removed the Iraqis from Kuwait—mission actually accomplished—decided against sending U.S. forces on to Baghdad to remove Saddam. Humility in action.

When his son was running in 2000 and needed to sell the idea that he wasn’t a cowboy, he stuck to his humble-foreign-policy talking point—but then did a 180 as soon as he acquired a big, simple, stark vision of America vengefully, mightily, miraculously remaking the Middle East. Unlike his humble old man, who plainly never subscribed to the fiscal or religious or geopolitical certainties of his party’s newfangled base, George W. Bush after 9/11 was vulnerable, like a callow, feckless kid seduced by a cult at a moment of personal crisis—this is a man, after all, who suddenly swung from boozy, irreligious party boy to Evangelical teetotaler at age 40.

Two cults: After Bush signed on at age 55 to both the Ayn Randian certitude of his neocon Übermenschen and the credulous biblical certitude of the religious right, his regime has embodied an awful hybrid of the worst of both—PowerPoint know-it-alls stoked with messianic zeal and a crusading Christianity shorn of real humility. On a personal level, I’m sure he still considers himself a steadfast exemplar of Christian humility—that he’s an unworthy sinner in obeisance to Jesus Christ—notwithstanding the Iraqi debacle into which his arrogance has dragged us all.

Perhaps his solipsism—his absolute trust of his “gut” and his ability to detect someone’s “good heart”—was part of his personality before his Christian rebirth. But you can’t help notice that a proud solipsism is what distinguishes the ascendant, wingnuttier types of Protestants from the theologically humbler mainliners. For Evangelicals, it’s all me me me, from the born-again experience to the personal relationship with the savior to speaking in tongues, interpreting the fancies and feelings that happen to flicker through their central nervous system as messages from God.

“God wants me to do it,” Bush reportedly told people when he first ran for president. After 9/11, he said he didn’t consult his father for advice but “a higher Father.” So in other words, he relies on his own instincts concerning politics and policy, but recasts them as divine instructions. Humble? The absolutely freakish opposite, it seems to me.

At last year’s National Day of Prayer on Capitol Hill, the main speaker, a Texas baby-boomer and GOP leader, used the occasion to praise humility. “No matter what your faith, no matter what your political persuasion,” he said, “your prayers for our increased humility, for our ever-humbler service to God … are needed and wanted.” That was House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. He has certainly been humbled since then. So maybe prayer does work, and God has a sense of irony.

The risk for the Democrats, if they’re lucky enough to get back in the game this week, is a new hubris all their own. If the electorate does hand over the car keys, it will represent an urgent, frightened wish for a restoration of (historically Republican) humility in Washington—a responsible grown-up, a designated driver, an end to the willfulness and recklessness. If Democrats imagine they’ve been given some grand mandate that inclines them to overplay their hand, they could blow the comeback.

They should ignore, for instance, the advice of the Times’ Paul Krugman, the MSM’s most hyperbolically Kos-like voice. “What the make-nice crowd wants most of all,” he wrote recently, “is for the Democrats to forswear any investigations into the origins of the Iraq war. … But it’s very much in the national interest to find out what led to the greatest strategic blunder in American history, so that it won’t happen again.”

His idea is Republicanesque: viciously kick them in the balls and then disingenuously insist it’s all about “the national interest.” And as a practical matter, a primary focus on how the Bush administration screwed it up will confirm, in the minds of swing voters, the Democratic caricature: whiny national- security pussyfoots and second-guessers. The die-hard Republican third of the electorate will never admit that Iraq was an avoidable disaster, and the middle third—who get the big picture and understand Bush is to blame—will tune out. In fact, if it’s all reduced to niggling, partisan House-hearing-room fights over who did precisely what in 2002 and 2003, the real magnitude of the debacle and the Republicans’ responsibility will be diminished. In my humble opinion.

Email: emailandersen@aol.com.

Oh, the Humility