Archive for May 29th, 2008

The awkward exits of Bush and Clinton

The vicious reaction by the White House to former Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s book What Happened seems a bit overblown. Nothing coming out suggests anything we don’t already know — that the Iraq war was sold to the American public through propaganda, President Bush actually believed a lot of the spin, Cheney was forming policy behind the scenes, and domestic initiatives were taken with an eye on the electoral calendar. This isn’t anything previous histories of the White House haven’t put forth.

So why the visceral reaction? I suspect it’s because an insider has put forth damning evidence that the war was sold through propaganda and spin. President Bush is having an awkward exit from the seat of power. With approval ratings down at historic lows, Iraq continuing as an unpopular and apparently unwinnable war, problems and tensions increasing with Iran, and oil prices skyrocketing, Americans are virtually united that the country is going in the wrong direction. As a lame duck President Bush can do nothing to turn around his reputation, he is leaving office as a failure.

His one hope was that history would vindicate him. He cited President Truman as an example. Truman was disliked because he made a horrendous error in the Korean war, choosing to try to conquer North Korea after quickly liberating the South. That led to three years of needless death and destruction, only to get back in 1953 to where they could have been in 1950. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think that was a major error by the Truman administration — what Irving Janis called a “fiasco,” since they should have known that the Chinese were likely to get involved, but groupthink clouded their judgment. Truman is remembered fondly by many because he was a straight talker and made momentous decisions at the start of the Cold War. Bush’s supporters hope that the Iraq mistakes will be forgiven once this is seen as a long term ‘war on terror’ with Islamic extremists the equivalent of the Soviet Communists as the enemy. The hope is that Bush will be seen as a visionary, despite tactical errors in reaction to an unprecedented terror attack.

McClellan’s revelations — and those likely to come in future memoirs — make it unlikely history can vindicate Bush. Besides the fact I think the analogy with Truman is flawed since the problems in the Mideast are much different and more complex, the idea that Iraq was sold by an administration focused on propaganda and deceit casts a long shadow over any legacy the Bush Administration will have. Rather than leaving office unpopular but clinging to a claim that he was a straight shooter who did what he thought best, with the hope of history judging him more kindly, he’ll leave as an unpopular President whose own insiders admit based decisions on deception and political calculations. The President looks either weak or dishonest, depending on how one interprets the evidence.

The other furor that seems overblown is the continuing effort of the Clinton campaign to win the nomination and seat the delegations from Florida and Michigan. Given that she signed a pledge not to compaign in those states and agreed with the decision that they could not move up their primary, it appears a very cynical move to change her tune only when it became clear this was her one chance to remain credible in the nomination flight. Even then, the math doesn’t add up. At the same time Bill Clinton lashes out at the media, Hillary Clinton peppers superdelegates with a letter full of spin and propaganda, including false claims about what the polls say. Her decision to go easier on Obama seems less one of conviction than recognition that going negative against him would only push the party away. She wants them to suddenly decide she’s the better candidate and choose her over Obama.

Last week I argued Hillary should stay in the race until South Dakota and Montana votes (I grew up in South Dakota, I love the fact it’s getting so much attention now), she brought a lot of energy to the race and I think she’s helped Obama. She deserves respect, and should be allowed to end her run with dignity. The actions of the campaign, however, are not one of a candidate who is planning to give in, but one who still thinks she can win. For its part the Obama campaign has been very generous in not stressing the reasons why Clinton may be unelectable, and has confidently moved into general election mode. So why does she continue to fight?

I think the awkward exits of both President Bush and Senator Clinton (and her husband) are based on a mix of political pride, and a kind of intoxication with power. Clinton is analogous to an active alcoholic who is sitting near a drink locked in a glass case. Told that she can’t have the drink, she can’t resist, it’s right there, almost close enough to touch. The temptation is break the glass and do whatever she can to enjoy the feel of power rushing to her vains. I think both Hillary and Bill look at the White House, the power and connections that they enjoyed for eight years, and believed strongly they would regain, and can’t accept that it’s going to be denied. Addiction clouds ones’ judgment. A return to power is so close!

President Bush has the power. He sits in the Oval Office, he gets the intelligence reports, he knows that despite being a lame duck, he is the President of the US. Thus the idea that he made serious errors, that he may have failed at one of the most important jobs in the world, is something he cannot allow himself to take seriously. Like the drunk who makes excuses for having a drink, noting it’s stress or “I can quit anytime,” he clings to a view that he did make the right decisions, and time will vindicate him.

This also explains why those close to the “power addicts” are so angered by those who try to bring them back to reality. Bill Richardson is a “judas” to James Carville, McClellan is dismissed as disgruntled and accused of betrayal. A deeper lesson here is that power not only corrupts, but is addictive, clouds judgment, and those who have or have had it have a hard time giving it up. President Bush knows that his exit is programmed, and there’s nothing he can do about it. McClellan’s book helps make it a difficult and awkward exit. Hillary and Bill apparently still think she can break the glass and find a way to grab the cup of power for one more gulp. That desire clouds their judgments, and risks making what should be a graceful and proud exit to one as difficult and awkward as the President’s.


Spiritual dehydration

In my entry last week, “Material Saturation” I wrote that we are, as a society, at a point where more material prosperity adds virtually nothing to our happiness and satisfaction. Recently I was involved in a panel discussion about southern Africa where the participants talked about how many of the ideals and values that inspired the quest for change have now given way to raw materialism — the desire for good sun glasses or a second car. I saw the same thing happen in eastern Europe, as the post-communism era saw idealistic efforts to think about how to reform society give way to consumerism and efforts to have more stuff. In teaching about world politics it never ceases to amaze me what greed drives people to do: kidnap girls to use as sex slaves, kill others in order to make money or eliminate competition, devote ones life to the acquisition of material possessions, oblivious to the fact that, as the saying goes, ‘you can’t take it with you.’

Meanwhile, despite our material comfort and prosperity, we yearn for more. Rousseau noted this back in the mid 18th century — rather than being satisfied when natural demands are met, we create artificial demands that can never be fully realized. We are not satisfied with a great meal after the hunt, celebrating with family and friends, we want gourmet food, with the best chefs and finest wines. We aren’t happy with shelter from the elements, we want a large house with all the conveniences imaginable. What at one point is a luxury, like a VCR or a microwave, soon becomes perceived as a necessity. And we get locked into a spiral of needing more and better stuff, and then measuring ourselves by comparing ourselves to others in a material sense — does he make more than me, does she look better than I do, why do I drive this beat up old car while he drives a Lexus, etc.

Even when others are not judging us, we get caught up in thinking that others will be looking at our material conditions, and drawing conclusions on our value as a person. People secretly want others to fail in order to reinforce ones’ own sense of self worth, and seek diversion and distraction, anything avoid having to reflect on whether or not ones’ life has enduring value. People throw themselves into following sports, becoming political junkies, or other escapes. All this feeds into a kind of material neurosis, incurable due to material saturation.

I think the way to counter that is to recognize that material saturation is, at least in the case of we in the industrialized West, usually accompanied by a spiritual dehydration. For many, even the idea of something spiritual is suspect — that’s the stuff of religion, superstition, new age silliness, or distraction from the material realty of life — the opiate of the people, as it were. Yet that view of spirit is very limiting, and reflects an enlightenment era error — namely to see understanding reality as a competition between religion/superstition and reason. By fighting religious authority, the believers in reason bracketed out spiritual concerns (though philosophers like Rousseau and the later romantics brought them back in) and dismissed them. This made it easier to embrace the material, it’s objective, and can be measured and quantified.

Yet people yearn and are dissatisfied. Life becomes a treadmill…pay the bills, clean the house, take the kids places, and then shop for a brief respite from the every day routine, a rush of adrenaline as some new items are added to ones’ collection. Soon that becomes old, and the routine goes on, eating away at peoples’ enjoyment of and experience of life. How do we respond to this spiritual dehydration?

For people like me, it’s not to embrace an organized religion or new age mysticism. It’s also not simply to go out and do things with friends; a rich party life can also be very dissatisfying. At base, I think, it has to be seeing oneself as a spiritual being in the world. And I’ll define spiritual in a way that may be odd: spirit reflects the creative force within us, the part of us that wants to explore, learn, create, and experience. It isn’t disconnected from the world because we are in the world. But it’s mastery of the “material”, it’s seeing ourselves as our own rulers, autonomous and creative, taking each moment and doing something with it. Taking responsibility for life, and not wanting the mundane, not wanting to be molded by society. Most importantly, we need to be able to take any moment or situation and do something with it, without needing to measure it’s material worth or compare to others. This doesn’t address the metaphysical questions about spirit or meaning, but rather a pragmatic “how does spirit manifest itself in the world of life” definition. Beyond that, I think such creative energy requires us to recognize the essential connection we have with each other, the human need for that connection, and its importance in sparking creative drive and giving it purpose.

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