Jewish World Review Nov. 10, 2004/ 26 Mar-Cheshvan 5765
These days, it's hard to be humble
As President George W. Bush gallops into a second term astride his favorite steed, "Mandate," it's hard to suppress the urge to holler: "Whoa, Hoss!"
Confidence is good; conviction is fine; cocksure is even tolerable for a day or two. But hubris, as most second-term presidents and a host of fallen kings will attest, is nearly always fatal. It offends the gods.
Bush's first foray into the winner's circle following the Nov. 2 election was something shy of humble and had even supporters squirming. At a press conference, he responded to questions about what he intends to do by saying he was going to spend his political capital.
"I earned capital in the campaign," he said, "and now I intend to spend it."
Well all right then.
As questioning continued, Bush was prickly with a couple of reporters who asked several questions within one, as they typically do. In the first instance, the question(s) went like this:
"Mr. President, thank you. As you look at your second term, how much is the war in Iraq going to cost? Do you intend to send more troops or bring troops home? And in the Middle East more broadly, do you agree with Tony Blair that revitalizing the Middle East peace process is the single most pressing political issue facing the world?"
Hardly a malevolent question. Don't we all want to know the answers to those questions? Bush answered:
"Now that I've got the will of the people at my back, I'm going to start enforcing the one-question rule. That was three questions."
Again, Whoa, Hoss.
Bush's bristling probably was reflective of nearly four years of repressed anger toward an often-hostile press. But the man who owns the most nukes, and in whose name young Americans are dying, can afford to be charitable. Especially to people whose unappreciated job it is to hang on his every syllable, including the extra ones.
Responding to another three-part question during the same press conference, this time about bringing people together, vis-a-vis a consensus candidate for the Supreme Court or a Democrat on the cabinet, Bush responded:
"Again, you violated the one-question rule right off the bat. Obviously you didn't listen to the will of the people."
Republicans have a right to celebrate their hard-won victory. And if George W. can leap for joy clicking his heels, he should. In private. Remove the spurs first.
In public, however, it would serve Bush well to remember that though 51 percent of voters may have issued a mandate, another 49 percent or so begged to differ. And among those who cast their ballots in the red zone - as in red "Bush" states and regions - were a good many who voted without enthusiasm.
I'm not suggesting that Bush should go out of his way to make nice. Most of those who voted for Bush probably would applaud him if he sent the networks - among the lead dogs at press conferences who sit up front and always are called upon - to the back wall, never to be heard from again.
Given Bush's history with the current crop of reporters, four or five of whom insisted that he admit to mistakes during one recent press conference, it's easy to understand his urge to hurl a brushback pitch their way - high and inside.
Nevertheless, Bush has an opportunity to be recorded as a great president, a historic figure, if he doesn't squander what remains of American goodwill. Don't laugh. If he succeeds in Iraq and Afghanistan; if a Palestinian state evolves and Middle East peace gets a toehold; if Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida are extinguished; if no more terrorist attacks occur on U.S. soil; if he makes strides toward balancing the budget, growing the economy, saving Social Security and improving education - and, oh, by the way, rescuing the continent of Africa from the AIDS pandemic - he'll go down as one of history's most brilliant, if accidental, presidents.
Obviously, those are formidable "ifs," but Bush would be easier to root for if he'd jump down off that high horse. People can forgive honest mistakes - failed presidential policies are not rare - but few find it easy to forgive a bad winner.
Without a crystal ball, we may not be able to predict the outcome of the next four years, but we know this much about human nature. Pride usually goeth before a fall. We can afford neither.
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