2003-03-01 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

by Stuart Mirsky

"Democracy is the worst form of government there is," said Winston Churchill back in the mid-twentieth century, "except for all the others!" Some have ascribed this quote to the French statesman Clemenceau, instead of Churchill, but whoever said it certainly had a point!

I was reminded of it recently, as I listened to the pundits and commentators holding forth after the Bush State of the Union Address. Here we had a president who took office un der an electoral cloud, a man who seemed a rank amateur to all and sundry, unable to inspire confidence even in many of those who voted for him, who then went on to surprise us all with his clarity and steadfastness in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. A president who literally blossomed before our eyes from laughable verbal bumbler to plain-talking orator. A man genuinely able to move a nation with his own special brand of Texas straight-shooting. A man who reversed the terrible sense of vulnerability that beset us after al Qaeda did its worst. And yet, as a people, we can't seem to stop our carping or complaining.

After Bush's recent performance before Congress, what did the talking heads have to say? Well, they were all over the map, as usual, dissecting and deconstructing the president's words, evaluating his speech as though it were just another entertaining moment on television . . . which, to some, I suppose was all it was. The absolute dumbest complaint I heard after the speech was on the cable television program known as "Buchanan and Press" where Press, the non-Buchanan half of the show's eponymous analytic duo, announced that what really got him was that Bush "failed to introduce his guests", those private citizens from various walks of life who are routinely invited to attend the annual joint session of Congress as proxies for all the rest of us.

They always introduce the guests, Press averred, it's a tradition. But Bush just ignored them! Ouch, that criticism must have really struck home at the White House!

There is something about the dynamic of democracy, I think, that makes it hard for citizens to pull together. The opportunity to speak freely and to vent seems to draw out the worst in us, encouraging everyone to advance an opinion, whether he or she knows anything about the subject or not. Any old opinion will often do, it seems, as long as it questions the judgment of those who are charged with the thankless job of governing the rest of us.

Do we face an unpleasant and high-risk decision re: dealing forcefully with a dictatorship that threatens world stability and our own long-term security because of its history of ill-intentioned aggression and lust for weapons of mass destruction? Well then, every individual in this country knows what's best to do, no matter what the Executive Branch says! Every commentator knows how to handle those bellicose Iraqis and North Koreans better than the men and women who are paid to do this for us. And every congressman or woman knows too! Of course, the opposition party knows (almost on auto-pilot you might say) that whatever the President proposes is dead wrong from the get-go!

Was Bush too isolationist when he ran for the presidency in 2000? Well, yes, that's what his opponents and the media told us back then. But isn't he too interventionist now? Wouldn't it be better to mind our own business and allow the community of nations to maintain the status quo, relying on continuing sanctions and containment of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, than to risk proactive intervention? You betcha, says the loyal opposition today. Nation building is a good idea if it doesn't cost too much and if the guy in the other party doesn't like the idea. But it ain't so hot, when he suddenly sees the light!

And isn't Bush being too unilateral in insisting that America must go it alone if it has to, in order to deal with a rogue dictator like Saddam? Of course, says the opposing party.

But when the president recently tried to multilateralize the effort to deal with North Korea, given that the North Koreans are much more of a military threat than the Iraqis at this point, what happened? He was castigated by the same opposition for being too wishy-washy on the issue and for not taking the lead to deal with the matter head-on as he is doing (wrongly, they suggest!) with the Iraqis.

I remember how the loyal opposition rallied against Bush's father, the former president, when he determined to intervene to reverse Saddam Hussein's seizure of Kuwait back in 1990. It's all about oil they cried. He really just wants to go in there and push Hussein out to grab those oil fields that Iraq possesses. The proposed liberation of Kuwait is just an excuse, they cried!

So what happened? Bush pere got castigated in the end for not going in and finishing Saddam, once he had done what he had said all along was his sole goal, to liberate Kuwait from the aggressive Iraqi dictator. So how do you govern in a democracy where everyone wants to second guess you and the institutional opposition sees dissent as its duty, no matter which way you turn? The younger Bush has metamorphosed into a strong, competent and inspiring leader. But to his political opponents this just means they must find a different brush with which to tar him.

Well maybe he's not as dumb as people thought after all? Maybe he's really too smart for his own good!

It's all in the spin and the democratic conceit that every decision is everyone's to make.

It sometimes amazes me that anyone wants to risk being president at all. They insult you, they belittle you, they monitor your every word. Every decision you make is subject to perpetual national backseat driving.

But then again, what's the alternative? A government like the one Saddam Hussein provides for his people, where he sits and smokes his oderous cigars while his generals and other lackeys compete with one another to shower him with blessings and praise?

So maybe Winston Churchill had a very valid point afterall. I just wish we could figure out a way to make this democratic free-for-all a little less messy.


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