The Chosen People

On the eve of the final debate of this presi-dential election, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post wrote of back-to-back campaign visits by President Bush and Senator Kerry to the Ohio cities of Cuyahoga Falls and Youngstown. In Cuyahoga Falls, he found a pair of brothers, Andy and Adam Griffin, who managed to get into one of the president’s rallies. “I’m 100 percent for Bush,” said Andy. “It’s 100 percent I like Bush,” said Adam, who first identified himself as a Christian. In Youngstown, the reporter talked to a Kerry supporter named Jack Saling, a retired truck driver, who said of his allegiance to his candidate: “It’s 50-50. I’ve never followed Kerry that much, but we need a change, a serious change.”

“A rock star,” Milbank calls Bush. He is the candidate of passion; he turns people on. No one says that about Kerry. I think of him as the straight-“A” student. If you teach (and I do), you will recognize that Kerry is of a type: a smart guy who gets it all down, synthesizes it beautifully, and then tries to give you back what he thinks you want. I thought the defining moment of Kerry’s campaign was (unfortunately for him) his acceptance speech at the Demo-cratic National Convention. It was an “A” paper without a single original thought. I counted fifteen lifts from archived presidential speeches, most of them by John F. Kennedy and Ron-ald Reagan, the passion candidates of their times.

Love or hate his political music, it is the president who has given great en-ergy and passion to this campaign. His opponent has barely risen above “Anybody But Bush.” The conventional wisdom months ago was that if the campaign turned into a referendum on Bush, he would surely lose. But what we are seeing is not a referendum on what each of us thought about this president or his presidency. The contest is indeed about two Americas, not rich and poor, but past and future.

This campaign, I would argue, is one of the last convulsions of angry, real American men, fighting desperately (and well) to hold back the time and tide of the new—the un-white and un-Christian, and girlie-men, too, who sooner or later will be America. Bush has the Father Knows Best vote, from men who have lost their personal power and hate what is happening all around them.

“We think we are not like other people because God did shed his grace on us. We are going to save the world.”

As a group, their power probably peaked in 1996, when the Chris-tian Coalition distributed 40 million election guides after Bill Clinton’s veto of the partial-birth-abortion ban. Since then, though, the coalition and other reactionary groups have lost power, besieged by infighting and lawsuits and defections of leaders who have muted their anger to go mainstream.

Now the angry men left behind see George Bush as their last champion—whether he really is or not is a different question—as the man who can hold the line against these aliens and all these alien ideas. This is why Kerry’s words “global test” have become a mantra chanted by Bush and his surrogates. Whatever the senator’s words actually meant, a lot of good old-fashioned American men had their own idea: Kerry was going to give away God-given American superpower and greatness to the aliens.

I had a small premonition of how this was going during a trip through Florida in March 2003. On the 18th, the day before we went to war, I was just finishing up the question-and-answer session after a speech on presidential leadership, mostly about the strengths and weaknesses of Kennedy and Nixon. A couple of the last questions zeroed in on the war in Iraq. I said, with appropriate respect, that I thought Bush was ignorant of history and was doomed to repeat it. I added that I thought his secretary of State was incompetently presiding over the rape of diplomacy and that his secretary of Defense seemed to be crazy enough to actually believe that American invaders and occupiers would be greeted by dancing in the streets. There was applause for that.

But the next question was different: I was asked about how history might view this Iraq war. I answered that one possibility was that President Bush might be overreaching and that history could one day judge that this was the “beginning of the end of American empire.”

A hundred people, maybe more, in the crowd of 1,750 people began to boo. Some people walked out, too, or maybe they just wanted to get out early to avoid traffic as the parking lot emptied. Before applause drowned out dissent, some guy yelled, “Go back to Russia, you bum!” I loved that; it made me feel like a kid again. There was something encouragingly American about the scene: The crowd, or at least some of it, would let me demean the president and his men but not diminish the country or its actions, right or wrong.

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.

The Chosen People