In a recent column, I mentioned the piece by Walt Harrington in the current American Scholar (here). A stunning piece on George W. Bush, with reporting on his father as well. In that column, I noted something Harrington said about 41. I said I wanted to make some further notes later — and here they are.
Bush  remained calm and confident during his tumultuous presidency. Critics saw him as delusional; defenders saw him as self-assured. Bush believes that one of the most important stage requirements of the presidency is indeed never to signal weakness or self-doubt or confusion: “One of the things you learn about great leaders is that they never project the burdens of responsibility on others.”
I remember something Bush told a group of us NR-niks, when we met him in the Oval Office: “The American people can read body language.” A president must not communicate that he is down or heavy-laden. He must not complain about the office and its demands.
Does President Obama follow this? Or does he gripe about the hard work that he, after all, signed up for? Campaigned for?
Bush, as you may know, did a huge amount of reading while he was president — I’m talking about the reading of books. We learn from Harrington that, during his two terms, he read 14 biographies of Lincoln.
Good gracious. That’s wonderful and all, but I think it’s borderline irresponsible. Can you do your job as president and get in that much reading?
I have a much less important and demanding job than the presidency — and, in comparison with Bush, I read squat.
When Bush read, in Presidential Courage, by Michael Beschloss, that historians were still debating whether George Washington had been a good president, he told Laura that if they were still debating Washington’s presidency more than 200 years later, he would not worry what public opinion was saying about him now. “And the other thing for me was that I saw a great man be criticized, as you might recall,” he says, referring again to the vitriol aimed at GHWB during the losing reelection campaign of 1992.
That reminded me of the 2000 campaign — during which George W. was sometimes asked, “What if you lose?” The candidate had a habitual answer: “I saw a good man lose in ’92.” In other words, no big deal.
For some years now, Harrington has taught journalism at the University of Illinois. He writes,
. . . I was surrounded by students and faculty angry about Bush’s impending invasion of Iraq. In my academic cocoon, Bush was called a stupid warmonger trying to avenge his father’s failure to oust Saddam Hussein, a stupid warmonger trying to make the world safe for Big Oil, a stupid warmonger trying to prop up his sagging popularity. I told colleagues that I believed Bush — right or wrong — sincerely considered Iraq a deadly threat to the United States, period. My view got me labeled a Bush conservative. Then one morning I got into my academic office building’s elevator and saw this scratched into the paint: “Kill Bush.”
I had to catch my breath: Was this America?
Yes, it is America, very much America. And the hatred directed at President Bush was something like animalistic, I think. There was the smell of violent lunacy about it.
Harrington saw how impressive and commanding Bush was in private conversation. “As he talked, I even thought about an old Saturday Night Live skit in which an amiable, bumbling President Ronald Reagan, played by Phil Hartman, goes behind closed doors to suddenly become a masterful operator in total charge at the White House.”
You know, I thought the exact same thing. I remember leaving the White House after a session with Bush — a session that some of us had had. Bush had given a tour d’horizon, and, believe me, it was pretty much dazzling.
I thought, “I wish the whole world could have heard what I just heard. I wish it had been filmed, to be broadcast far and wide. People would be shocked. Why does Bush freeze up in public?”
Anyway, again, that Harrington article is here. A valuable contribution to GWB studies.
Saw a headline that made me smile, and marvel a little: “2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls go online.” (Story here.) Do you know what I mean? Isn’t that remarkable, something to ponder?
Give you a little music. For my latest piece in City Arts, go here. I touch on 1) West Side Story, 2) a new piece by Stanley Silverman (in which Sting was a performer), and 3) Walton’s score for Henry V (complete with narration and acting by Christopher Plummer).
A speck of language, sort of? Language and music combined? A reader wrote me to say that “lionize” was the Word of the Day at Dictionary.com. An example was
But the urge to lionize him is an indication that we live in a terrible age for pianists. There is today almost no pianist worth crossing the street for.
— Jay Nordlinger, “Curtain Calls”, National Review, May 31, 1999
You know, I’m almost afraid to look up the piece to see whom I was talking about. Maybe I have since lionized him.
For years, whenever he was in London, Harris resided at the Savoy Hotel. According to the hotel archivist Susan Scott, as Harris was being taken from the hotel on a stretcher, shortly before his death, he warned the diners, “It was the food!”