Failed Presidents Ain't What They Used to Be
A few weeks ago I did something I never expected to do in my life. I shed a tear for Richard Milhous Nixon.
That’s in no small measure a tribute to Frank Langella, who should win a Tony Award for his star Broadway turn in “Frost/Nixon” next Sunday while everyone else is paying final respects to Tony Soprano. “Frost/Nixon,” a fictionalized treatment of the disgraced former president’s 1977 television interviews with David Frost, does not whitewash Nixon’s record. But Mr. Langella unearths humanity and pathos in the old scoundrel eking out his exile in San Clemente. For anyone who ever hated Nixon, this achievement is so shocking that it’s hard to resist a thought experiment the moment you’ve left the theater: will it someday be possible to feel a pang of sympathy for George W. Bush?
Perhaps not. It’s hard to pity someone who, to me anyway, is too slight to hate. Unlike Nixon, President Bush is less an overreaching Machiavelli than an epic blunderer surrounded by Machiavellis. He lacks the crucial element of acute self-awareness that gave Nixon his tragic depth. Nixon came from nothing, loathed himself and was all too keenly aware when he was up to dirty tricks. Mr. Bush has a charmed biography, is full of himself and is far too blinded by self-righteousness to even fleetingly recognize the havoc he’s inflicted at home and abroad. Though historians may judge him a worse president than Nixon — some already have — at the personal level his is not a grand Shakespearean failure. It would be a waste of Frank Langella’s talent to play George W. Bush (though not, necessarily, of Matthew McConaughey’s).
This is in part why persistent cries for impeachment have gone nowhere in the Democratic Party hierarchy. Arguably the most accurate gut check on what the country feels about Mr. Bush was a January Newsweek poll finding that a sizable American majority just wished that his “presidency was over.” This flat-lining administration inspires contempt and dismay more than the deep-seated, long-term revulsion whipped up by Nixon; voters just can’t wait for Mr. Bush to leave Washington so that someone, anyone, can turn the page and start rectifying the damage. Yet if he lacks Nixon’s larger-than-life villainy, he will nonetheless leave Americans feeling much the way they did after Nixon fled: in a state of anger about the state of the nation.
The rage is already omnipresent, and it’s bipartisan. The last New York Times/CBS News poll found that a whopping 72 percent of Americans felt their country was “seriously off on the wrong track,” the highest figure since that question was first asked, in 1983. Equally revealing (and bipartisan) is the hypertension of the parties’ two angry bases. Democrats and Republicans alike are engaged in internecine battles that seem to be escalating in vitriol by the hour.
On the Democratic side, the left is furious at the new Congress’s failure to instantly fulfill its November mandate to end the war in Iraq. After it sent Mr. Bush a war-spending bill stripped of troop-withdrawal deadlines 10 days ago, the cries of betrayal were shrill, and not just from bloggers. John Edwards, once one of the more bellicose Democratic cheerleaders for the war (“I believe that the risk of inaction is far greater than the risk of action,” he thundered on the Senate floor in September 2002), is now equally bellicose toward his former colleagues. He chastises them for not sending the president the same withdrawal bill he vetoed “again and again” so that Mr. Bush would be forced to realize “he has no choice” but to end the war. It’s not exactly clear how a legislative Groundhog Day could accomplish this feat when the president’s obstinacy knows no bounds and the Democrats’ lack of a veto-proof Congressional majority poses no threat to his truculence.
Among Republicans the right’s revolt against the Bush-endorsed immigration bill is also in temper-tantrum territory, moving from rational debate about complex policy questions to plain old nativism, reminiscent of the 19th-century Know-Nothings. Even the G.O.P. base’s traditional gripes — knee-jerk wailing about the “tragedy” of Mary Cheney’s baby — can’t be heard above the din.
“White America is in flight” is how Pat Buchanan sounds the immigration alarm. “All they have to do is go to Bank of Amigo and pay the fine with a credit card” is how Rush Limbaugh mocks the bill’s punitive measures for illegal immigrants. Bill O’Reilly, while “reluctantly” supporting Mr. Bush’s plan, illustrates how immigration is “drastically” altering the country by pointing out that America is “now one-third minority.” (Do Jews make the cut?) The rupture is so deep that National Review, a fierce opponent of the bill, is challenging its usual conservative ally, the Wall Street Journal editorial board, to a debate that sounds more like “Fight Club.”
What the angriest proselytizers on the left and right have in common is a conviction that their political parties will commit hara-kiri if they don’t adhere to their bases’ strict ideological orders. “If Democrats do not stick to their guns on Iraq,” a blogger at TalkLeft.com warns, there will be “serious political consequences in 2008.” In an echo of his ideological opposite, Mr. Limbaugh labels the immigration bill the “Comprehensive Destroy the Republican Party Act.”
But there’s a strange paradox here. The decibel level of the fin-de-Bush rage is a bit of a red herring. In truth, there is some consensus among Americans about the issues that are dividing both parties. The same May poll that found the country so wildly off-track showed agreement on much else. Sixty-one percent believe that we should have stayed out of Iraq, and 63 percent believe we should withdraw by 2008. Majorities above 60 percent also buy broad provisions of the immigration bill — including the 66 percent of Republicans (versus 72 percent of Democrats) who support its creation of a guest-worker program.
What these figures suggest is that change is on its way, no matter how gridlocked Washington may look now. However much the G.O.P. base hollers, America is not going to round up and deport 12 million illegal immigrants, or build a multibillion-dollar fence on the Mexican border — despite Lou Dobbs’s hoax blaming immigrants for a nonexistent rise in leprosy. A new president unburdened by a disastrous war may well fashion the immigration compromise that is likely to elude Mr. Bush.
Withdrawal from Iraq is also on its way. Contrary to Mr. Edwards, only Republicans in Congress can overcome presidential vetoes and in so doing force Mr. Bush’s hand on the war. As the bottom drops out of Iraq and the polls, those G.O.P. votes are starting to line up. The latest example came last Sunday, when the most hawkish of former Rumsfeld worshipers, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, joined his party’s Congressional leaders, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, in talking about drawing down troops if something “extraordinary” doesn’t happen in Iraq by the time Gen. David Petraeus gives his September report on the “surge.” No doubt Mr. Sessions, who is up for re-election in 2008, saw a May 12 survey in The Birmingham News showing that even in his reddest of states, nearly half the voters want America out of Iraq within a year and favor candidates who agree.
This relatively unified America can’t be compared with that of the second Nixon term, when the violent cultural and political upheavals of the late 1960s were still fresh. But in at least one way there may be a precise political parallel in the aftermaths of two failed presidencies rent by catastrophic wars: Americans are exhausted by anger itself and are praying for the mood pendulum to swing.
Gerald Ford implicitly captured that sentiment when he described himself as a healer; his elected successor, Jimmy Carter, was (to a fault, as it turned out) a seeming paragon of serenity. We can see this equation at work now in Mitt Romney’s unflappable game-show-host persona, in John McCain’s unconvincing efforts to emulate a Reagan grin and in the unlikely spectacle of Rudy Giuliani trading in his congenital scowl for a sunny disposition. Hillary Clinton’s camp is doing everything it can to deflect new books reminding voters of the vicious Washington warfare during her husband’s presidency. Then again, even Michael Moore is rolling out a kinder, gentler persona in his media blitz for his first film since “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
Edgy is out; easy listening is in; style, not content, can be king. In this climate, it’s hardly happenstance that many Republicans are looking in desperation to Fred Thompson. Robert Novak pointedly welcomed his candidacy last week because, in his view, Mr. Thompson is “less harsh” in tone than his often ideologically indistinguishable rivals and “a real-life version of the avuncular fictional D.A. he plays on TV.” The Democratic boomlet for Barack Obama is the flip side of the same coin: his views don’t differ radically from those of most of his rivals, but his conciliatory personality is the essence of calm, the antithesis of anger.
If it was a relief to the nation to see a president as grandly villainous as Richard Nixon supplanted by a Ford, not a Lincoln, maybe even a used Hoover would do this time.