Tolstoy was right, and Bush is an idiot

Note: this is a diary I wrote late last night for the Great Orange Satan, reposted here. We'll soon be off for Amy's birthday hot tub and massage, so have some fun without us.

Once every couple of months, I do something crazy, something nonsensical, something for which I have no good reason to do it, and it doesn't even involve karaoke or Maker's Mark whiskey.

Okay, maybe it has something to do with the whiskey.

I click on David Brooks's column in the NY Times. I know--friends don't let friends click on David Brooks, but since I'm already half-inebriated, let me take the hit for you.

According to Brooks, Bush may well be a genius. Or an idiot. But chances are it's the former rather than the latter.

Bush said he will get General Petraeus’s views unfiltered by the Pentagon establishment. He feels no need to compromise to head off opposition from Capitol Hill and is confident that he can rebuild popular support. “I have the tools,” he said.

I left the 110-minute session thinking that far from being worn down by the past few years, Bush seems empowered. His self-confidence is the most remarkable feature of his presidency.


Brooks tries to use the rhetorical tactic of concession to keep from losing his audience right after this bit (more like keep his audience from losing their lunches, but I digress) by saying that some will take Bush's self-confidence as delusion, as an inability to see just how badly the war is going. We call these people realists. But Brooks says not so fast.
Rather, his self-confidence survives because it flows from two sources. The first is his unconquerable faith in the rightness of his Big Idea. Bush is convinced that history is moving in the direction of democracy, or as he said Friday: “It’s more of a theological perspective. I do believe there is an Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me that doesn’t exist.”

Second, Bush remains energized by the power of the presidency. Some presidents complain about the limits of the office. But Bush, despite all the setbacks, retains a capacious view of the job and its possibilities.

Let's look at the first point--Bush's unconquerable faith. It will come as no surprise that to many, Bush's faith in the rightness of his Big Idea is no comfort. In fact, his linkage of his faith in God with his idea of democracy (his definition would no doubt clash with that of many on this site) is, if anything, terrifying rather than comforting.

As to the second, it's the very nature of Bush's "capacious view of the job and its possibilities" that has so many of us (and yes, I am a recent convert) calling for impeachment. Brooks's capacious view of the job includes torture, domestic spying, outing CIA agents whose husbands disagree with official policy, and the list goes on. What it adds up to is the unitary executive, and an imperial presidency.

So how does Tolstoy fit into this? It's Brooks's final ploy to make people think he's not a complete tool (he fails, by the way).
Many will doubt this, but Bush is a smart and compelling presence in person, and only the whispering voice of Leo Tolstoy holds one back.

Tolstoy had a very different theory of history. Tolstoy believed great leaders are puffed-up popinjays. They think their public decisions shape history, but really it is the everyday experiences of millions of people which organically and chaotically shape the destiny of nations — from the bottom up.

According to this view, societies are infinitely complex. They can’t be understood or directed by a group of politicians in the White House or the Green Zone. Societies move and breathe on their own, through the jostling of mentalities and habits. Politics is a thin crust on the surface of culture. Political leaders can only play a tiny role in transforming a people, especially when the integral fabric of society has dissolved.

If Bush’s theory of history is correct, the right security plan can lead to safety, the right political compromises to stability. But if Tolstoy is right, then the future of Iraq is beyond the reach of global summits, political benchmarks and the understanding of any chief executive.

I could go on, I suppose, but I think I covered this point in the title to the post--Tolstoy was right, and Bush is an idiot. And so is David Brooks.

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