October 20, 2007

Isolation and the Executive

President Bush has now spent six years in the White House, by the time he leaves the place in January 2009 he will have completed his eighth year in the seat of US government and have left a momentous legacy. Bush has attracted hatred and praise in ways that few US Presidents have in the last fifty years- he has been compared both to Sir Winston Churchill and Harry Truman and to Adolf Hitler. What hasn't been addressed though are some of the real lessons from Bush's time in the White House and those of his predecessors. When the Americans elect a President, they elect a man or perhaps a woman who then serves at the apex of their government for the next four or possibly eight years. One of the most interesting facets of that service is the ways that it effects the person in control- it is their whim that ultimately decides and has to decide great questions of policy and the pulpit that the White House is afforded is still the most powerful in the World, so the question of how the office shapes its holders is a vital and important one.

Bush's Presidency is the first War on Terror Presidency. But his Presidency reflects trends that have been present for a long time- at least since the second world war and which are present as well in other democracies- the UK for example. As this fascinating article from Todd Purdum (husband of Dee Dee Myers an official in the Clinton White House) makes clear the US President is an increasingly isolated figure. Its part of the nature of the office that the President is surrounded by security and occupied by the business of a vast bureacracy. In the early Republic men like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were connected to their fellow countrymen through the exchange of vast volumes of correspondence. The fears of anthrax mean that the present President is unlikely to receive directly a single letter from an ordinary voter. Bush dined outside the White House three times in the last six months- his contact with the outside world, even with longterm friends is mediated always by the vast military machine surrounding him. There can be and are almost no spontaneous social contacts with non-employees available to him, there are very few moments when his every interraction isn't planned for and leglislated long in advance.

President Clinton and other former Presidents have spoken about how this strange position effected them. Clinton used apparantly to walk past the lines of tourists and chat to them whilst going in to work in the morning, he found this gave him human interraction. President Reagen rang up charity phone lines to give money and had to convince the rather terrified interlocutor on the other end that he was indeed the President of the United States. We don't know about life inside the Bush White House yet- and probably won't until the term of the current President ends though Mr Purdum has gathered lots of information. What instantly strikes me though about the kinds of lives led by Presidents and Prime Ministers is that increasingly they are veiled from outside sources of information- they are by the nature of their office out of touch with people's lives. Whether that matters or not is another matter. I think it does partly because it makes the President into an icon not a personality- the trappings office must change a personality especially over such a long time and give that personality an exaggerated sense both of its own importance and also of its own omniscience.

The most worrying part of the Bush administration's rhetoric to me is often the way it sites their man within history. Mr Blair, the former Prime Minister, has the same rhetorical preoccupation and Mr Brown his successor shares it. David Owen, the ex British foreign secretary and neurologist recently argued that there is a condition of hubris into which politicians whilst in office descend. One wonders whether their unique position means that they think they are uniquely placed to anticipate the verdicts of historians long into the future. President Bush for example recently reminded visitors to his White House of the experience of President Lincoln in 1864 when he was deeply unpopular- of course he is right to remember that unpopularity isn't neccessarily a mark that one is wrong, but nor is it a mark that one is right. Mr Bush lives in the White House, burned during the war of 1812, a war which few now consider a success either for Mr Maddison or for his British counterpart the Earl of Liverpool. Isolation though breeds that sense of superiority- of communion not with your peers but with a long line of historical predecessors and successors.

Of course, isolation is a fact about modern political lives- the recent events in Pakistan demonstrate why. And Presidents and Prime Ministers from Spencer Perceval to John F. Kennedy have paid with their lives for the access their public gets to them (fortunately that list neither in the UK nor the US extends no further, though President Reagen was almost another victim in the early 1980s). But it isn't a good thing- it perpetuates the distance that supreme power creates by surrounding it with a barricade of security. Still more, the President and Prime Minister surround themselves with attempts to avoid scrutiny, a careless comment can kick up a controversy and the way that President Bush for example can't make a self deprecating joke without Michael Moore putting it in a film demonstrates the unreality of the office and the difficulty of living with it. Isolation may be a fact of life for these people, but it isn't a good thing. Casual interraction, the battering of meeting with equals and friends, all these things are crucial to living a real and a full life. Its one reason why wives and husbands are so crucial to political life- as Peter Hennessy commented recently in an interview with Iain Dale, its crucial to have a wife or husband that takes you down at the end of the day to normality. One can see in Oliver Stone's film about Nixon that Nixon loses contact with reality when he can't even talk to Pat Nixon about his life in the office: he can only talk to Haldeman and Ehrlichman.

Isolation encourages madness, hubris and mistakes. It is one of the worst and most neccessary elements of modern political life- and its one that modern politicians have to strive to find their way to break through. In the end politics remains as it always has been an intoxicating brew- but once you lose your soul, the point is that you are on the way to losing the world.

14 comments:

ThunderDragon said...

Excellent post!

manofroma said...

Your blog seems great to me, although a bit too sophisticated. Is this sophistication the essence of what you call academic? (I know this is not your thought). Trying not to be provocative I'm only disappointed.

I thought only French and Italian Academias (or their respective literatures) suffered from this illusion that sophistication of style immediately translated into quality of content, or from this aristocratic (id est corporative) disease that makes intellectuals more concerned about other intellectuals than about talking to a public. The natural consequence of this undemocratic attitude being of course that the world does not not read our works any more.

Britain was such a happy exception. You did so much not only for the 'public understanding of science' but also for the 'public understanding of humanities and politics'.

Where is Europe going if even the shepherds are getting lost....?

A man of the street of Rome, downgraded to middle-brow status (though proud of it), whose ancestors were noble citizens of Roma since at least 10 centuries

Gracchi said...

Thanks TD

Manofroma cheers for the praise. I'm sorry about the sophistication- I do write some simpler articles- but basically I write this for fun, so though I'll try and be more concise in the future I suspect the subjects won't change! I do think that there is a point in there- and I think TD has found it for example- anyway thanks for visiting and sorry your visit disappointed you in some ways.

jmb said...

This is a wonderful post but I think you are kinder to Mr Bush than he deserves. I am sure he will be found wanting when judged by history.
One of his latest cruel errors of judgment is his veto of the SCHIP bill, passed by Congress recently. If you are interested see here

Colin Campbell said...

I can remember living in Washington in the 1980s and 90s that politicians were much more available and that they actually went out to dinner in public venues and attended events. I suspect that has changed dramatically not just while they are in power, but likely also afterwards. That said, it is probably no bad thing that the current president is carefully managed.

Anonymous said...

No no no don't listen to manofroma's incomprehensible post. There is absolutely nothing 'too sophisticated' about your writing – it is most lucid and precise.

Stick exactly to what you are doing, it works beautifully! One of the few blogs out there that is consistently a joy to read.

Gabriel said...

Nothing else to add except excellent post! once again.

edmund said...

This is obuiily a real problem to be honest hte modern obsession with polling and focus groups sounds to me like it's justified by/ helps comepensate for this trend...in that it menas the president get some insight into what ordinary people think- probably better min most ways than human contact ( how represenitve of Americans are Dc's or people who work at charity lines)

it's the subtle things this is probaly the biggest problem

i think ther's quite a lot of evicne the current president quite oftne has better instincts than his advisiers on campbell's comments- eg he was keen on them getting their act halfway together on Al Quada before 9/11

Gracchi said...

Thank you very much anonymous- to be honest I don't think anything will change round here- I enjoy writing this blog so I'm going to keep doing what I do- afterall I'm not being paid and its really just fun!

Edmund yup I can see what you say about polling and indeed that's something that was said about clinton- but I think the biggest impact is at the margins, its the personal effect I think that matters most.

dearieme said...

You see how far our civilisation has descended into the perpetual fear of violence every time you see the old film of Hitler being driven through a German city. He had ample enemies with excellent reason to hate him, yet the security precautions are, by modern standards, light. An alternative explanation is that the evil fellow was simply braver than modern democratic politicians.

jamiek said...

"(fortunately that list neither in the UK nor the US extends no further, though President Reagen was almost another victim in the early 1980s)"

Apart from Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. Also, a serious attempt was made on FDR in the thirties.

Gracchi said...

Jamiek I should have made it clearer I was talking chronologically further- there have been other killings but none since the killing of Kennedy- despite the best efforts of John Hinkley jr. Sorry for the confusion I realise it could be read either way- and I should have made it clearer.

jamiek said...

Yeah, sorry to be pedantic. It seems to me that political leaders used, in part, to take the prospect of assassination as an occupational hazard until fairly recently. Their not doing so now may be a contributing factor to their isolation and recklessness.

Sunny said...

adding my voice to the chorus - well thought out and argued post Gracchi :)