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William F. Buckley Jr.

Do you stop, ever, to ask whether professional skills are badly used? It would seem obvious that men are born with strengths they should not use, else running your car over the neighborhood pest asks only the question, “Do it?” — eliminating the critical question, “Ought I to do it?”

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There is general agreement that just because the doctor knows how to end life, that doesn’t mean he should go ahead and do so simply because he has the skills in hand. There are debates of enormous consequence whether the doctor who can end a pregnancy should feel free to do so, and we read that in fighting various widespread afflictions in Africa, short cuts are taken which condemn the marginal player. Triage, they call it, when human cunning seeks out a parable for moral cover.

The White House report by Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times is headlined, “Bush-Watchers Wonder How He Copes With Stress.” Now that wording is arrantly mischievous, because there is a planted axiom there. It is: No one should be able to cope with such responsibilities as Mr. Bush exercises.

If one suffers from an incapacity to sleep, one calls in the medical community for advice. But what if such advice can’t honorably be given? Can one envision the doctor at the White House, pill in hand, standing by and saying, “Mr. President, I have the means to grant you physical relief from the pain you are undergoing, in the knowledge that while you sleep a dozen Americans will be killed in Iraq because of orders you issued. Is it right that I should be the instrument by which your anxiety, remorse, indecision, are palliated?”

“Presidents in trouble,” Ms. Stolberg writes, “often look to history for solace, and Mr. Bush is no exception. He has sometimes likened himself to Harry S Truman–a president who struggled to explain the nation’s involvement in Korea, but whose reputation was redeemed after his death.”

But what games are we here playing? History records that when Mr. Truman ordered the atomic bomb dropped on Japan, he went to sleep and learned of the effect of the bomb only after he woke. Was he troubled by the capacity to remove his thought from acts which, as a man of action, he had authorized?

The great, the weighty question of taking responsibility for the hideous transcriptions of power is coped with only by such as Shakespeare. But is there any way to handle the trivialization of the question?

“Mr. Bush was asked last week if he had experienced any pain, given his own acknowledgment that things in Iraq had not gone according to plan. He spun the question towards the military families’ pain–’my heart breaks’ for them, he said–before turning it back to his own: ‘The most painful aspect of the presidency is the fact that I know my decisions have caused young men and women to lose their lives.’ “

It isn’t possible to leach from the mind the human element that travels from the executive order to the wounded private. But it should be possible to disdain as contemptible public references to it. To approach a president at a press conference and ask him to explore, step by step, 1) his act as commander in chief, and 2) the final moments of men who obey his orders in a foreign land is to abuse the powers of the press. A civil society supposes–has to suppose–that normal reactions affect our leaders. There is, with this generation, the distraction of General Patton in high glee as heads are smashed and bombs explode. It can be said to be human to take pleasure from the theatricalization of war.

“Being commander in chief means learning to cope with stress. Abraham Lincoln went to the theater to relax. Franklin D. Roosevelt, paralyzed from polio, lulled himself to sleep by imagining himself as a boy sledding down a snowy slope at Hyde Park.” It isn’t right to ask a president, or his wife, how they manage to take their minds away from the bloody frontiers of national life.

Copyright 2006 Universal Press Syndicate



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