I once heard the actor James Cagney reminisce with eloquent brevity about his hard-drinking father. By the time of the younger Cagney’s adolescence, pop, he said, had swilled himself into that psychological vortex of “a good man going downhill fast.”
Most liberals would redact the “good” from that character sketch to describe George W. Bush’s current and personal state of affairs, but even conservatives and their more right-wing and militant brethren privately concur these days with the “going downhill fast” part. Never has a fall from presidential grace occurred with such rapidity and conspicuousness.
Katrina and Rita were huge stories in their own right, of course, but the latter took on a unique hugeness only because it followed the former’s hugeness being simultaneously overshadowed by the huger hugeness of Bush’s incompetence in responding. Political fallout, not nature’s, became Katrina’s primary narrative, and a political eulogy became its color commentary. Bush’s swagger swiftly devolved to feigned humility, then abject supplication. He desperately needs voters to cut him some slack, and the man who claims not to care about polling numbers is now willing to say or do anything to bump them up.
The man who once famously, and proudly, also claimed not to read newspapers - hence by implication, not to even follow the news - now seems to be consciously suffering the effects of their collective negativity. He who puts others in harm’s way and happily instructs them to stay the course appears to be unhappily drowning in his own. A Newsweek story portrayed an acute presidential funk that, left untreated, contains the seeds of chronicity. Saturday, sitting in Rita’s Colorado command headquarters …
the president was hearing mostly good news [about the hurricane’s unrealized horror]…. The president didn’t look all that relieved or happy, however. His eyes were puffy from lack of sleep (he had been awakened all through the night with bulletins), and he seemed cranky and fidgety. A group of reporters and photographers had been summoned by White House handlers to capture a photo op of the commander in chief at his post. Bush stared at them balefully. He rocked back and forth in his chair, furiously at times, asked no questions and took no notes.
Bush’s reported frame of mind reminded me of stories circulating in the late 1990s about Bill Clinton’s funk. The official White House word was that he could “compartmentalize”; that when other business called he could put aside his impeachment problems and concentrate on the issue at hand. Aides later admitted that was less than true; that Clinton would often drift off during important meetings, clearly obsessed with his plummeting political fortunes.
Bush doesn’t have to fear congressional impeachment, but he’s being subjected to a de facto impeachment by public opinion. And he knows it. He knows he is no longer top gun and the only mission he can accomplish these days is that of hanging on by his political teeth. That’s quite an ego demotion for a man who once fancied himself the Anti-FDR and global dragon slayer of historic note.
What’s more, according to a Washington Post report the president’s funk “is changing the psychic and political aura of the White House…. Aides who never betrayed self-doubt now talk in private of failures” - failure in marketing what was billed as a noble war; failure in undoing the New Deal’s principal plank of Social Security; failure, even, in the fundamentals of preparing for the easily foreseeable.
With the economy destined to tank and Iraq’s civil war looking hopelessly irresolvable, these same aides have to be thinking about a midterm-election strategy: perhaps another little war would do. What else does the funkster in chief have as an option to pick up his spirits, and his numbers?
That’s the White House’s transitional “psychic and political aura” that should worry.