Missing W: When the President Was an Adult

by Bruce S. Thornton


Watching the recent interviews with George W. Bush on the occasion of the release of his memoirs has reminded me what it is like to have an adult for president. The issue is not so much that I agreed with all his policies. The growth in federal spending and entitlements under his watch, the failure to acknowledge the traditional Islamic roots of the jihadists, or the misplaced faith in transferring to another country the machinery of democracy absent the values and virtues that sustain political freedom, are some of the issues that in my view Bush got wrong. But like his classy refusal since leaving office to criticize his successor, the qualities of character on display in his interviews — self-deprecating, amiable, sincere, unpretentious, and principled — are, by contrast with Obama, as damning an indictment of our current president as was the recent electoral rebuke.

Most impressive is Bush’s disregard for the estimation of the liberal media and punditocracy, and his indifference to the brutal invective and insult they heaped upon him while in office. No more disturbing to Bush are Obama’s attempts to use him as a scapegoat for all the problems Obama has failed to solve or in some cases has worsened.

When Bill O’Reilly asked Bush about this, he shrugged away Obama’s buck-passing as a “tactic,” a mere political device, though one he himself was too principled to use. Here we see the maturity of an adult, of someone confident in his beliefs and actions and thus indifferent to the petty, self-interested rhetoric of those with a political axe to grind.

How different from Obama’s thin-skinned narcissism, his petulance in the face of criticism, his juvenile pushback (remember his using the sexual vulgarity “Tea Baggers” to describe the Tea Partiers?) against any resistance to the notion that he is a superior creature, the “anointed one” who merely by showing up will transform the world. His sullen reaction to the voters’ disenchantment with him — the two-bit psychologizing about “fear” clouding the judgment of the masses, or his post-election refusal to acknowledge that voters disliked his disastrous healthcare legislation — all bespeak the mentality of a callow teenager who demands that the world acknowledge his excellence just because he asserts it, and then gets angry when it doesn’t.

Given that Obama displays the character of an adolescent, are we then surprised that 66% of people 18-30 voted for him in 2008?

That cohort is the richest, most cosseted, most indulged, most obsessed ever, and the worst educated cohort in American history. But where would they have learned anything? Their schools are more concerned with massaging their self-esteem than with teaching them basic skills. Their teachers are more eager to subject them to therapeutic curricula that instruct them about safe sex and the glories of homosexuality, than to teach them history and political philosophy. They are more worried about turning students into global-warming cultists and “tolerance” fundamentalists rather than citizens worthy of political freedom. And they inculcate a self-loathing multiculturalism and balkanizing identity politics rather than the principles of liberal democracy, in which rights and value inhere in autonomous individuals, not categories predicated on grievance and victimization.

Meanwhile, popular culture and consumer capitalism have both made this cohort the supreme arbiter of taste whose preferences companies ignore at their fiscal peril. Television shows, movies, popular music, fashion, video games, even most iPhone apps are dumbed down to a 15-year-old sensibility that prizes cheap sentiment, received wisdom, transient intellectual fashion, instant gratification, noisy glitz, pointless vulgarity, and just plain dumbness. Si monumentum requiris, surf the net or cable television, or spend time at your local Cineplex.

What else explains how projectile vomiting, juvenile masturbation jokes, and flatulence gags have become de rigueur in movies and sit-coms? What else accounts for the transformation of misogynistic, psychopathic hip-hop thugs into romantic heroes? Who else but a teenager could tolerate the banal lyrics and lame rhymes of most popular music, next to which Hoagy Carmichael or Cole Porter sounds like Shakespeare? What other sensibility could make a star out of Paris Hilton or Lady Gaga?

The result of this toxic brew of ignorance and inflated self-esteem is a voting block particularly vulnerable to superficial appeals to vaguely portentous sentiment (“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”), and attractive slogans that flatter their utopian delusions and pretensions to superior virtue (“Hope and Change”).

But we shouldn’t be too hard on these young people, plenty of whom can think straight and, despite their poor schools and a stupid and vulgar popular culture, have managed to develop virtues and learn some common sense. Many serve in the military and their churches, they take care of their families and friends, and they help out in their communities. As for their benighted coevals, being young means they have a chance to grow into a more mature and responsible political philosophy. After all, many of us in the Sixties drank the leftist and hedonistic Kool-Aid but managed to awake from that dogmatic slumber.

No, those responsible for these generational deficiencies are the adults who never grew up, the perpetual adolescents who created the schools and popular culture that keep the young mired in their ignorance and narcissism.

Back in the Sixties these Peter Pans decided the real world with its rules and limitations was too irksome to their desires and appetites, so they cast them off, camouflaging license as liberation. Their utopian whims and leftover leftist nostrums were elevated into a lofty idealism that either led to disastrous policies like the abandonment of South Vietnam, or degenerated into fashion accessories, the political equivalents of Che Guevara t-shirts. And they legitimized the hypocrisy of spoiled teenagers who scorn and mock everything that makes possible the freedom and affluence they enjoy and abuse.

The election seems to have put the grown-ups back in charge, at least in the House of Representatives. Maybe now we will see policy proposals predicated on an adult view of the world: reality cannot be bent to our utopian desires, the world cares nothing for our feelings or wishes, all goods require costs and trade-offs, human and social perfection is a pipe-dream, discomfort and disappointment are tragic constants, all decisions and actions entail unknown contingencies and unforeseen consequences, and most choices are not between the good and the bad, but the bad and the worse. To think otherwise is to think like a progressive.


©2010 Bruce S. Thornton

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