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Why George W. Bush is easy to malign

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted June 2, 2008

Scott McClellanLast week, the pre-release ballyhoo for Scott McClellan's tell-all memoir was splayed all over the news. Mr. McClellan, President George W. Bush's former press secretary, has alleged that President Bush launched the war against Iraq on flimsy factual grounds, and ignored any contradictory evidence that would have sapped the cause. Many, including Ron Paul Republicans, have greeted this claim with joy or delight.

This kind of "tell-all"'ing is something that both President Bush and former President Bush have had to put up with from time to time. The reason why, although counterintuitive to some, is easy to put down: George W. Bush, like his father, is easy to malign.  

A more comprehensive bit of muckraking is found in Kitty Kelley's book The Family, which reputedly has had the ban put on it for Bush loyalists. After reading it, I can see why. She's a middle-class Democrat, and popularity of her titles makes it reasonable to conclude that she's a representative one. Like many partisans, she has a certain habit of re-fighting battles already lost. To be subjective about it, her writings did make me wonder how comprehensively the term "entitlement mentality" applies to the Democrat ranks. Certainly, to a book-respecting Republican partisan, her and her likesake doing so makes for an enervating read. The Bush family discouraging their supporters from reading it may be little more than a well-intentioned attempt by the former at relieving the latter from undertaking a tiresome chore. It doesn't take a Methodist to conclude that a good Republican making that attempt would be "stuck on supererogation."

At any rate, it would be of little use to a loyal Republican partisan, except for primary purposes, nowadays. In a more relaxed age, though, such a book would be useful as a test for Bush loyalists, to pick through with a notepad and four file folders for each picker-through'er. Those folders would be labeled "Elisions of Fact," "Internal Inconsistencies," "Demonstrated Partiality," and "Elicited Doubts." Any item in the book that matched one of those four categories would be put on the appropriate notepaper; these papers, once filled, would be stuck in the appropriate files. (For relief, a fifth category could be added: "Guesses About When The Libel Lawyers Stepped In.") At the end of the readings, the loyalists' files would be handed over to President Bush's staff, if not Bush himself, for perusal.

Of course, the workload of the current Presidency is such that any such ‘plan' is little more than a wistful dream, concocted under the influence of juleps and nostalgia. One major inconsistency I myself noted was Ms. Kelley's shift from explaining away George H.W. Bush's economic success as due to his connections and nothing more, while crowing over George W. Bush's relative business effeteness as due simply to his business incompetence. Both ways can't be had without some kind of a trade-off. If "connections" and "family money" were the guarantee that people of Ms. Kelley's stripe vaunt it as, then the present President Bush wouldn't have been so slow off the gate.

This supposed incompetence makes for the first reason why George W. Bush is easy to malign. It's a rule of thumb that the older the family's money, the more drained is the scion's market sense. The reason why is found in Ludwig von Mises' short but insightful book, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality. One of the essential attributes of free-market capitalism is the recurrent retooling the economy undergoes, which leaves previous successes hemmed in by cognitive or psychological inflexibility: in a phrase, "high and broke." In a predominantly market-oriented society, a recurrent social problem is finding something for these people to do. The traditional answer in Western capitalism is for them to renounce any business ambitions and settle into a life of "social service," through either going into politics or taking up charitable work. (Intellectual or artistic work is also accepted, sometimes.) In this sense, the aspersive term "mere business" does aid in providing a niche for these people.

Of course, the diminution rate of business talent in the old-money circuit varies from family to family. A useful rule of thumb is, "the less spoiled the descendants, the more quickly the productivity vanishes." By this maxim, I'm far from trying to imply that business success is reserved for the spoiled: the scope of the point is narrower. The harder the rod used on the child, the more the child stays in the parents' shadow. The more the child stays in the parents' shadow, the more inflexible the child is. The more inflexible the child is, the more vulnerable (s)he is to one of those recurrent retools.

Members of the Bush family, it is evident, do not spoil their boys. If anything, the reverse is true. (I offer this observation in the nature of an inside tip: when a middle-class Democrat describes an upper-class family as akin to the Mafia, it means that the family's members are not spoiled. You can add a targeted "aw, shucks" if you like.)

So, we have the first reason why George W. Bush is easy to malign. He's the scion of an old-money family who was raised strictly.

The second reason comes from middle-class Democrat prejudices, ones which are also evident in Ms. Kelley's book The Royals. (I read it also to see if she was merely partisan or something more, and came away with the conclusion that she's just a partisan with a middle-class worldview.) Based upon present American liberal culture, the ideal upper-class man or woman for middle-class Democrats is "Lord Wastrel," who fritters away the family fortune – and the business talent required to earn a new one – by taking up a life of either charitable works or "public service" that's compatible with the Democrats. There is something to be said for this vision, as it ties explicit class privileges together with special class responsibilities. Interestingly enough, it is also compatible with upper-class children who live in their parents' shadows due to being raised in a hard manner. Such scions find it easy to identify with the downtrodden, as they themselves were trod down at times by their parents.

The middle-class Republican way, though, demands a different kind of class responsibility. Either Junior sullies his hands in trade successfully, or he holds himself to a much higher standard of conduct than ordinary folks do. The corresponding class responsibility for the latter type is a much higher standard of self-criticality and a higher level of self-discipline. By renouncing drinking and carousing, George W. Bush has met this criterion: hence, the admiration for him in Republican ranks.

Unfortunately, a political figure who undertakes the discipline of character building bumps into one of the dark arts of politics – one that's standard for the craft. It's the "higher hypocrisy," or the covert "ought." It's found in every large polity to some degree. Its use is to keep political figures from going soft. 

Its prevalence comes from the pressures of the calling. People expect their political leaders to be living symbols, to encapsulate some set of ideals or visions. Those ideals and visions are abstract concepts. To some degree, a political figure is caged by the need to match those abstractions to his or her own behavior. The heat in this kitchen varies according to two factors: the person's self-criticality, and the degree to which (s)he is used to being watched.  A politician that's low in both, or is merely low in the former, can successfully shrug off even outrageous conduct that's widely complained about. If good at the trade, (s)he can even make him- or herself lovable through doing so. Someone that's high in both takes criticism too seriously for the shrug-off to be used reliably.

Hence, the second reason why George W. Bush is easy to malign: his capacity for self-forgiveness is sub-normal.

The third reason comes from the second. Public figures that are too hard-raised to laugh off even deserved criticism need to protect themselves. The ones who respond to undeserved criticism of themselves with an inquiry, instead of a dismissal out of hand, wind up needing that protection even more. With respect to political figures, the staff's protectiveness is simply the price for a high level of self-responsibility in political candidates. That shielding wouldn't be needed by the kind of politician who thinks that a hypocrite isn't such a bad thing to be.

So, the third reason why George W. Bush is easy to malign is because a certain kind of moralizer finds it easy to get his goat.

The fourth reason ties in more immediately to Mr. McClellan's charges. The alleged mistakes pointed to by him and other critics of President Bush, particularly with regard to the Iraq War, evince the spirit of workaholicism in the Bush Administration. To be blunt about it, the fourth reason why George W. Bush is easy to malign is because he and his staff "work too hard."

The fifth and final reason comes from the fact that George W. Bush is a happy Republican partisan, as is his father. Partisans have no qualms at all at dishing out to the other side what their own side has taken. I can't think of a better example than the Willie Horton campaign-ad bomb. Like it or not, batting back is part of the standard fare on the political menu card. A mature partisan simply concedes that a card from the "dirty trick" cold-deck worked once, and the underlying technique is now fair bombing.

Reason #5 doesn't have to do with the partisan hurly-burly, though; it ties in with the above-mentioned "higher hypocrisy" – ‘higher', I note, with respect to the essentially profane art of statecraft. George W. Bush is also easy to malign in these times because we often expect too much of our political figures. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.


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