Sunday, October 26, 2014

The family dynamic of a national disaster

“Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called walking.” — George W. Bush

I WON'T attempt to deny it. I thought (and continue to think) that George W. Bush was quite possibly the worst president in our nation's history. 

The reasons are many, but I'll toss out a couple.

1) During President Bill Clinton's administration, the federal deficit was eliminated and the federal budget was balanced. Clinton left us a $280 billion surplus that George Bush succeeded in replacing with a $6 trillion deficit.

2) George Bush and his minions (or puppeteers) lied and obfuscated about nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the invasion of Iraq and two deficit-financed wars.

Here's how the above two truths intersect, explained simply and clearly by the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities:

"If not for the Bush tax cuts, the deficit-financed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the effects of the worst recession since the Great Depression (including the cost of policymakers’ actions to combat it), we would not be facing these huge deficits in the near term. By themselves, in fact, the Bush tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will account for almost half of the $20 trillion in debt that, under current policies, the nation will owe by 2019."

What I've never been able to grasp, though, is how we ended up with this frat boy failure.

In the October 25 addition of The New York Times, the brilliant Frank Bruni peers into the family dynamic that created George W. It's fascinating.




Fathers, Sons and the Presidency
By Frank Bruni
October 25, 2014

I’M always thinking back to that lunch in Kennebunkport, because I saw it all there: what drove George W. Bush toward the presidency; what shaped so many of his decisions in office.

I was interviewing his parents at the family’s compound on the Maine coast. The 2000 Republican National Convention was just weeks away, and Bush by then was a well-established political phenomenon. Even so, his father said that he remained amazed that George had made it so far. Never had George’s parents seen such a grand future for him.

Perhaps an hour into our conversation, George’s brother Jeb, the Bush boy who had been tagged for greatness, happened to join us. From that moment on, when I asked his father a question, he’d sometimes say that Jeb should answer it, because Jeb knew best.

And as he gazed at Jeb, I noticed in his eyes what George must have spotted, craved and inwardly raged about for so much of his life: an admiration that he had been hard pressed to elicit. Running for the presidency was his way of demanding it. Winning the White House was his way of finally getting it.

And he went on to govern in defiance of the father who had cast such a long shadow over him and nursed such doubts about him. He went on to show him who was boss. No matter the cost, he invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein, whom Dad had spared. No matter the tactics, he secured a second term, which Dad hadn’t.

Will he whitewash all of this in the tribute that he has written to his father, “41,” which is scheduled for publication right after the midterms? I’m guessing yes, but whatever the evasions or revisionism of “41,” it will be more than just a book. It will be the latest chapter in a father-son psychodrama that altered the country’s course.

And it will be a reminder of how many other father-son psychodramas did likewise.

While Bush is only the second child of a president to duplicate his dad’s ascent, he’s hardly the first occupant of the Oval Office whose career can be read as a response to his father’s dominance or disappearance, an answer to his father’s example. The history of American politics is a history of daddy issues, of sons who felt compelled to impress, outdo, usurp, avenge or redeem their fathers.

There are striking leitmotifs. Neither Barack Obama nor Bill Clinton ever really knew his father, and it’s impossible to divorce either’s ambition from that absence. The two men have said as much themselves.

Clinton’s father died in an accident just three months before he was born, leaving the future president with “the feeling that I had to live for two people” and “make up for the life he should have had,” he wrote in his autobiography, “My Life.”

“And his memory infused me, at a younger age than most, with a sense of my own mortality,” he continued. “The knowledge that I, too, could die young drove me both to try to drain the most out of every moment of life and to get on with the next big challenge.”

Shortly after Obama’s birth, his parents separated. Obama saw his father only once subsequently, when he was 10 years old and his father traveled from Kenya to Hawaii for a monthlong visit. The brevity of that contact — the distance between father and son — informed the narrative and title of his memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” and was a principal engine of his accomplishments.

“If you have somebody that is absent, maybe you feel like you’ve got something to prove when you’re young, and that pattern sets itself up over time,” he said in an interview with Newsweek in 2008. It’s a pattern detectable in many presidents.

In a 2012 story for Slate titled “Why Do So Many Politicians Have Daddy Issues?” Barron YoungSmith wrote, “American politics is overflowing with stories of absent fathers, alcoholic fathers, neglectful fathers.”

To look back through the years is to see presidents in rebellion against their fathers and presidents in thrall to them, presidents trying to be bigger and better than the fathers who let them down (Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan) as well as presidents living out the destinies that their fathers scripted for them (John F. Kennedy, William Howard Taft). It’s to behold the inevitably fraught father-son dynamic playing out on the gaudiest stages, with the most profound consequences.

Did Clinton’s unappeasable needs come from the enormous hole that his father left? Did Obama develop his aloofness early, as a shield against the kind of disappointment that his father caused him?

The particular imprints of fathers on sons have been conspicuous in the leading characters from the most recent presidential elections. Paul Ryan was just 16 when he discovered his father dead of a heart attack. He grew up fast, and became zealous about physical fitness. Mitt Romney was trying to complete his own father’s failed quest for the presidency, and at the start of debates where he was allowed notepaper, he’d scrawl “Dad” on the blank sheet.

Al Gore, too, was attending to the unfinished business of his father, who had made it to the Senate but never the White House. And John McCain, the son and grandson of four-star admirals in the Navy, was trying to do those generations of men proud.

The country’s presidents and presidential aspirants were of course also trying to please and honor mothers, and the presidency is perhaps just as much a history of mommy issues. But there’s something singular about the father-son face-off, as there is about the mother-daughter pas de deux. In the parent whose gender we share, we’re more likely to find our yardstick, our template, our rival.

And with fathers and sons, there’s a special potential for misunderstanding, for the kind of chasm in which resentments and compulsions flourish. Men aren’t socialized to express their feelings, to speak their hearts, to talk it out.

So sons and fathers often stand at the greatest remove, neither able to read the other. From what I’ve witnessed, from what I personally know, many men spend the early part of our lives misjudging our fathers, and acting out accordingly, and then the latter part finally coming to know them. It’s one of our longest journeys.

And maybe George W. Bush — who styled himself as the kind of folksy Texan that his father wasn’t — is at last completing his. Maybe he’s reached a point of uncomplicated appreciation. How different things might have been if he’d arrived there earlier.

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