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Disappointing the Presidential Cultists after Katrina

But depressing as it is, there is nothing surprising in the failure of the officials in one of America’s most corrupt states. The truly baffling element of this breakdown of American leadership has been the lacklustre performance of the commander-in-chief. For a politician whose greatest talent is supposedly for rousing the nation in its darkest hours, this has been a dismal show.

Four years ago, Mr Bush won his place in the history books – and a second term in office – with a brilliant and instinctive display of leadership in the wake of the September 11 attacks. He had a slow start, as devotees of the anti-Bush polemicist Michael Moore will recall. His “rabbit caught in the headlights” look as he heard the news will not, it seems safe to predict, be in the video highlights section of the George W Bush presidential library. But within 24 hours he was a man transformed. In words and deeds he seemed to know exactly what to do.

Skip forward four years and the contrast is bewildering. This is America’s greatest catastrophe since the terrible events of that sunny morning, four years ago yesterday. Indeed Hurricane Katrina has directly affected far more Americans than 9/11. More than a million people have lost their homes. Most of a city may have to be razed to the ground. And yet only in the past few days has the White House given the impression that it understands the magnitude of what has occurred.

When it was announced that Mr Bush would address the nation the day after the city was swamped, I confidently expected him to deliver the goods. Inspiring the nation in time of trauma is one of a president’s principal tasks and it is supposedly very much Mr Bush’s “thing”. Moreover, this was not a politically sensitive issue. This was not Iraq. There was no need to play down the casualties and indulge in “happy talk”. Rather this was an apocalyptic act of nature.

He himself said in his 2000 presidential campaign, “natural catastrophes are a time to test your mettle”. With his Iraq policy in disarray it had long been clear he was on the look-out for a chance to prove himself again. Instead, he issued little more than a shopping list of aid items. ~Alec Russell, The Daily Telegraph [1]

One desirable casualty of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation that engulfed New Orleans has been the mystique of the presidential cult, which has only become more obnoxious and oppressive in the past four years before suffering a potentially devastating collapse in the past two weeks. Mr. Russell’s indictment of President Bush is interesting more for the reason why he regards Bush as a failure than the searing attack itself: Mr. Bush failed to be the ‘inspirational’, hand-holding pseudo-spiritual guru who consoles the public in times of calamity.

No doubt Mr. Bush failed in this regard because the destruction of a major city cannot be addressed by invoking meaningless platitudes or making blithe quips about how Americans will rebuild an even better city (which are Bush’s bread and butter in giving ‘inspirational’ speeches)–it is a major event that would require a level of seriousness and wisdom for its understanding that Mr. Bush has never shown any sign of possessing. Undoubtedly, this was a failure insofar as Mr. Bush usually tries to play the part of counselor combined with apocalyptic prophet, even if he relies on the unstable chemistry of the charisma of putative war leader. But it is certainly not a real failure when we consider that this role is one of the most dreadful aspects of the deformation of our constitutional government into an unceremonious, vulgar, demagogic autocracy.

Those who desire Mr. Bush to ride to the rhetorical rescue with a savvy speech and words of comfort, soothing the wounds of a nation and so on, are the very people whose degeneration from being free people has allowed someone as mediocre as Mr. Bush to possess such a powerful office in the first place. If Americans wanted inspiring and wise leadership, they might just vote for it if anyone were offering, but a majority wants a demagogue who will ignore their flaws, butter them up with inane applause lines and get them on the government gravy train in one form or other.

Having chosen the demagogue (admittedly, from a field of demagogues), many are finding that the affable fool cannot deliver them the proper ‘leadership’ they desire. What is worse, however, is that so many Americans are so servile that they yearn for such ‘leadership’ in the first place. Competence, foresight and common sense in a president would be far more inspiring, and far better leadership, than his ability to hit the right note in a speech. Even if Mr. Bush rediscovers his ability to manipulate the public in trying times, this will not have made him a better president or better leader.

Whether or not there is anything like an “authoritarian personality,” there is surely a sycophantic or lackey personality. For far too many years, particular devotees of the Presidency and many Americans generally have evinced all the signs of possessing it. Many of the people who have found fault with Mr. Bush, when it has not been simple opportunism or more reasonable criticism of logistical failures, actually believe that presidents are all that their worshipers have cracked them up to be. What a cruel blow to discover that they are not only mortal men, but not very impressive mortal men at that.

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