Monday, October 11, 2004


Going upriver

If presidential elections are won on “character,” why does Bush even stand a chance?

I saw Going Upriver yesterday, and found it to be interesting and actually quite moving. I’m not a big proponent of voting for president based on personality and character issues, but those of you who are ought to see this movie. I came away convinced that Kerry is a man of conscience, strong convictions and sound judgment who passes any of the sorts of “character tests” we claim to impose on presidential candidates.

Kerry is a decorated combat veteran who has spent his adult life in public service. Bush spent the Vietnam war on the home front and most of his adult life getting handed a series of cushy business positions through his connections. The fact that Kerry can be assailed on character issues in this election (flip-flopper, or liar about his Vietnam record), while Bush can count on close to half the population approving his “strong” character or leadership qualities, is the sign of a serious malaise in our society. I feel like GOP strategists and their supporting bevies of pundits are mooning the rest of us. When corruption (e.g., Cheney's Halliburton) and moral vacuity (e.g., Bush) parade as virtue, and real virtues are characterized as weakness or vice, we’re in a time of great danger for a republic, not unlike the transformation of the late Roman republic into the autocratic Roman empire.

Two points about the movie. First, interviews with a number of Vietnam vets other than Kerry made abundantly clear what a difficult, tormenting decision it was for each man to turn against the war. In contract to antiwar activists on the home front, the each vet basically had to decide for himself that he had put his life on the line, and perhaps been permanently damaged physically or mentally, for a bad cause. Even worse, they may have had to acknowledge that some of the shooting or killing they personally did was not justified by the laws of war.

Second, it was interesting to see that Kerry, whose eloquent and heart-wrenching speeches are excerpted in the film, was viewed as such a powerful voice for the veterans’ antiwar movement (Nixon himself is captured on tape saying so) that the Republican leadership had to drum up a vet front organization to challenge him. (Nixon and Karl Rove have a lot in common when it comes to dirty tricks.)

One of the most significant, but overlooked, moments of the Vice Presidential debate was the intense irony when Cheney glove-slapped Edwards as having a”a record that’s not very distinguished.” Not the fact that Cheney lied about having met Edwards for the first time on the debate stage, but that any GOP flack would dare utter the phrase “undistinguished record,” a phrase that should be stamped on Bush’s forehead like the mark of Cain.

It is well documented that Bush has been at best a mediocrity and at worst a failure at every endeavor he has undertaken in his life, up to and including the Presidency. Whereas a person of an ordinary middle class or modest background could claim success at having worked his or her way to the top of a business, or to a state governor’s mansion, or to the White House, in Bush’s case, it hasn’t been a question of working his way up, but of being either handed it or tapped for it due to having a wealthy family, or a powerful father (or a biased Supreme Court).

Again, please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t claim that Bush’s undistinguished record, his lack of successful leadership experience or apparent leadership qualities, or even his personal weaknesses such as substance abuse or modest intelligence automatically disqualify him from the presidency. As I will blog about further, the Republicans established with Ronald Reagan that the country can be run by a behind-the-scenes committee or cabal working through a spokesmodel president. What I am saying is that if you care about personal qualities in the president, then it’s a sign of a world turned upside down that Bush is deemed acceptable to so many people.

Bush backers would say: what do you mean “no leadership qualities”?! You moron, the man’s been president these past four years!

But I don’t think the Presidency builds character if you didn’t have it to begin with. And I don’t think that personal virtues and leadership qualities attach to the man as a token of the office. When Caligula was Emperor of Rome and held the power of life and death over all his subjects, he used the powers of his office to proclaim himself a god – and thereby a paragon of all the virtues. History recognizes that that did not make him so.

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