A China moment?

0214_bush_460x276_1Stanley Fish says that it’s time for Bush to go to China.

I don’t mean that literally, but metaphorically. It’s time for George Bush to do what Richard Nixon did – perform an act whose effectiveness is a function of the fact that he is the last man anyone would have expected to do it. What would that act be? It won’t be – and shouldn’t be – agreeing to a face-to-face, one-on-one debate with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, if only because when you accept the other guy’s invitation you cede him the initiative and the position of leadership, and we all know that George Bush will never willingly do that. No, it has to be something that a) makes clear that he is the one in charge, and b) is so surprising and (apparently) out of character that its very announcement alters the geopolitical landscape and disarms criticism in advance.

Fish’s idea is that Bush should announce a personal fact finding mission to the Middle East. An intriguing idea but I am not so sure it’s a China moment or would have the far reaching effects – symbolic or actual – that Fish proposes it might. What’s interesting are the comments at NYT.com. Here’s a typical comment:

Dear Mr. Fish: Indeed, the Grand Tour is an excellent idea (It is also clear you were enjoying yourself, tongue-in-cheek-or-otherwise, while you were composing this piece.) Here’s why it won’t happen: 1) George Bush does not expose himself to criticism; 2) George Bush does not expose himself to possible harm (Vietnam); 3) Mostly, George Bush does not do anything anyone else thought of first, unless that person’s last name is Cheney or Rove. You last name is Fish. Nice try anyway.

Both Fish and the commenter think they know who Bush is and how he thinks. They want him to act outside the square, jump out of his box because they are convinced they know exactly what box he’s in at the moment.

There’s a lot written about and a lot of evidence to support the incurious, man on a mission, black and white Bush – so much so the very idea of a China moment seems pretty preposterous. But more fundamental then any character flaws that we may or may not be able to identify is Bush’s sense of history. Bush and Nixon have very different notions of their own relationship to the world and to history. Nixon for all his flaws fundamentally saw himself as a statesman that’s what made China possible. Nixon prepared his whole life for that China moment, he not only wanted to be president, he wanted to be a historically significant President. He spent the last twenty years of his life ensuring that legacy. Bush is an accidental president. I suspect he would not have run again had he lost in 2000.

Nixon had both a domestic and a foreign policy agenda that had evolved and matured over time. He was an archetypal politician who for all his paranoia and self-aggrandizement knew – from bitter experience – that politics, real politics occurred over time. Bush has not set out to achieve anything because he believes he has been given a mission.

Bush believes – and in some senses he is right – that he has had his China moment. For Bush the transformation came early on: grabbing the megaphone in the rubble of ground zero, addressing the memorial at the National Cathedral and addressing the joint session of Congress in the weeks after 9/1, Bush unexpectedly declared himself to be a real leader – a war president. The puppet from Texas began to take hold of the strings. Sure his speeches were being written for him but what was new was a deeply personal sesne of mission that animated those speeches like never before.

Bob Woodward has been rightly criticised for giving Bush a free ride in Bush at War and Plan of Attack but what emerges clearly is Bush’s own conception of who he was and how he reacted and Bush believes himself to be a man called and transformed.

According to Woodward’s book, in the lead up to the joint session speech Bush had been insistent that it include a strong sense of his personal dedication to this new moment in American history. He hammered Mike Gerson and his coms team for a set of words that matched how he said he felt:

“I will not forget this wound to our country and those who inflicted it. I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.”

Gerson waited anxiously for a call from his boss following the speech. When the call came, according to Woodward, they both remember what the President said:

“I have never felt more comfortable in my life.”

After he made that declaration, the Presidency of George W. Bush jumped outside its box. Bush grabbed at the power of the “war time president” he quickly declared himself to be. Bush believes quite resolutely he has already been to China. Bush maybe worried about the short term prospects of his party in the mid-terms but I don’t think he worries about his role in history.

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