Friday, January 16, 2009

A Boomer's Farewell

More than four years ago, immediately after the re-election of President Bush, I referred to him as a “man of the sixties.” Like my college classmates who stormed University Hall to protest the war in Vietnam, I suggested, he was sure that the rightness of his beliefs entitled him to disregard any law or precedent—not to mention the facts of the case—to make his dreams come true. That was why, having made this or that decision, he refused ever to reconsider it, no matter how badly it was turning out in practice. Two nights ago, in his Farewell Address, the President confirmed exactly what I had said, then and repeatedly since, in these words.

“As we address these challenges -- and others we cannot foresee tonight -- America must maintain our moral clarity. I've often spoken to you about good and evil, and this has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two of them there can be no compromise. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right. This nation must continue to speak out for justice and truth. We must always be willing to act in their defense -- and to advance the cause of peace.”

Ironically, as Bush prepared to leave the White House—quite possibly as the last modern conservative Republican to occupy it—he echoed the most famous pronouncement of the founder of that strain in American politics, Barry Goldwater, in 1964: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” But Goldwater was wrong then, and Bush is wrong now. The idea that any leader can know and apply absolute truth in the service of absolute good was exactly the idea that our Founding Fathers designed the Constitution to protect against. Bush’s last words perfectly explain why they were careful not to mention God in the text of the Constitution, which was above all an earthly document designed to keep man’s worst impulses in check. Bush is perhaps the first President we have ever had who chose to unleash them so recklessly, and the world and the country have paid the penalty.

The words of the new testament, quoted in the midst of the Second World War by George Orwell, give the lie to Bush’s argument: “There is none that is righteous, no, not one.” The Founders had learned this the hard way: they had seen the British constitution, which they believed to be the most just on earth, degenerate into tyranny and military rule. They wrote the Constitution, and added the Bill of Rights, to make absolute power impossible, no matter how righteous any cause seemed to be. And when, 80 years later, secession tested the Constitution, we were fortunate enough to have a leader, Abraham Lincoln, who turned the war into a moral struggle, but never made it into an absolute one. Never was this clearer than in the opening of his Second Inaugural, a speech delivered, like Bush’s, in the midst of war—a far more terrible war.

“Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

In the same way that Muslim revolutionaries believe in their righteousness as fervently as George W. Bush believed in his, Lincoln recognized that both the North and South claimed the support of the Lord. Both, clearly, could not be right; neither, perhaps could be entirely right. And even though the North won the war and slaver was abolished, the evil that brought it about continued to plague the nation in other forms, since it simply reflected the evolution of human nature and American institutions up until that time, which it would take more than a century to undo.

All our greatest Presidents have understood this. Roosevelt led us into world war on behalf of the four freedoms, including freedom of religion, but he obviously recognized that the victory over the Nazis and the Japanese required compromises with evil—and specifically with the Soviet Union—that he was prepared to make. Kennedy in June 1963 voiced exactly the thoughts that Bush now calls upon us to reject. “No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture, in acts of courage.” And, he continued, we could work with the Soviets to create a real peace, despite our differences—exactly what Bush has claimed to be impossible with respect to adversaries far less dangerous than the Soviets ever were.

The President is wrong to say there can be no compromise with evil: human nature being what it is, there can be nothing else. We have not, and will not, create heaven on earth. His democratic/free market utopia is now in the ashcan of history alongside the Marxist-Leninist fantasies of his and my contemporaries on campuses forty years ago. The task of statesmen is to design the compromises that must be made. Because George Bush never understood this, he contributed less than nothing to the welfare of the United States and the world.

Because of Bush’s belief that righteousness trumps all, the United States government has detained foreigners (and one or two Americans) indefinitely, disregarded the Constitution and the law designed to enforce it, and tortured prisoners. We now face a terrible, critical choice: whether to remain true to the structure of international law that we began to set up at the end of the Second World War, or to claim, in effect, that war crimes are the prerogative of any American administration that simply decides to carry them out. We will almost surely be unable to escape this choice no matter what the new Administration decides to do, or not do. I have been reliably informed that already a German judge has sought to indict Donald Rumsfeld for war crimes and that only the intervention of the German government persuaded him to desist on diplomatic grounds. Such pressure will be less effective after January 20.

Yet even if the crimes of the last seven years are not punished, we can take some solace from the Founding Fathers. When—in correspondence I quoted here years ago—Jefferson protested the lack of a Bill of Rights in the original Constitution, Madison replied that no matter what the framers inserted, future governments would find a way around it. Jefferson did not disagree but insisted that a written Bill of Rights would make it easier to restore liberty after the crisis was over. So they should, and perhaps that is all we can reasonably expect. These last eight years can live as a warning of what the United States, under the wrong Prophet leadership, can became. Sadly my own generation did not produce the man or woman who could undo Bush’s work, but we still hold considerable power. The new President obviously regards politics as the art of the possible and intends to put an end to these abuses. Perhaps we should, as we must, trust in his wisdom to decide what other steps to take.

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