Henry Graff: Bush and the Plight of the Presidency

Roundup: Historians' Take

President Bush’s constantly dropping approval rating should not be misunderstood as simply a response to the Iraq debacle. A variety of mistakes and missteps must be considered factors in the public’s disapproval of his performance. As chief executive he is being given a judgment unique in history. The words of criticism leveled at him come from all directions. The Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, declares without hesitation: “We see no end of Bush’s dangerous incompetence.” Other critics speak of Bush’s untrustworthiness and lack of credibility. And Senator Russell Feingold aims to censure Bush for breaking the law.

Truth to tell, however, not only Bush’s presidency but the presidency itself has long been declining in the appraisal of the American people. This process has been afoot for many years, although Bush has added significantly to the view that the president of the United States should not be regarded as a glorious figure of the republic. It does not do to observe that Bush’s predecessors were all denounced at one time or another. Jefferson, for instance, was labeled by some voters as “Mad Tom,” and Lincoln was disparaged not only by Copperheads but also by important voices in his own party as inadequate for his position, even as an imbecile. Still, the country as a whole knew better, and both men, like most who have lived in the White House, had the comfort of being able to keep in mind, as Lyndon Johnson liked to declare out loud, “I am your president” and relish their place in history.

For half a century now the office has been losing its luster. There is no longer a political honeymoon for a newly-elected president. Well before Bush’s present crisis, the besmirching of the White House has been conducted as steadily as if it were being graffitied by vandals. As a result, the presidential office has been losing with increasing momentum the vitality and majesty that once made it shine and glisten. Regardless of the outcome of the nation’s present agony, the populace must soon face the consequences of its heedlessness.

The major blows to the institution in the last forty years are known to all: Kennedy’s disaster at the Bay of Pigs, Johnson’s failed war in Vietnam, Nixon’s malfeasance in the Watergate break-in, Reagan’s ignominy over Iran-contra, and Clinton’s degrading impeachment and trial. Other blows are less dramatic and visible—like “little strokes”—but still, being more insidious, sap the strength of the office all the same. Some are outgrowths of the general culture; some may be laid at the door of the presidents themselves; some, ironically, result from the notable diligence and success of the media. News collected on a 24/7 basis produces a public awareness of high-level shortcomings and shenanigans that in another time was unknown or not reported upon. People once confidently trusted the words of the federal government’s chief spokesmen, invariably concluding, “They know.” Since Vietnam they have lost that trust.

What explains what has happened? For the last generation, the country has been witnessing a leveling of the pyramid of power in practically every segment of society. Nothing less than a widespread “crisis of the executive” has been occurring, and remains in full throttle. School principals, church officials, corporate CEOs, and college heads have all felt the sting of this assault on authority. The president of the United States is chief among the victims. President-bashing, indeed, is a widespread national pastime. America has become more than ever a “nation of Madame Defarges,” a phrase first used sixty years ago by the journalist Walter Lippmann. It recalls the scene in Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities of the wine merchant’s wife who, while knitting incessantly, takes gleeful satisfaction in watching the well-born passing on the way to the guillotine. The public appears to enjoy the squirming of its politicians and particularly the squirming of its highest officials. First Ladies, too, have become targets in recent years, as witness the treatment not only of Hillary Clinton but also of Rosalynn Carter and Nancy Reagan. The media, whether in print or on the airwaves, are engaged in rampant “gotcha journalism” for the intended benefit of their own circulation or popularity ratings. Their investigative reporters are the monarchs of the newsroom.

Adding to the onslaught on the presidency these days is the spate of movies and novels that, drip by drip, make disrespect and even mockery of the office commonplace. This is lese-majesty on a scale heretofore unthinkable. From morning to night, from the A.M. press briefing at the White House to the carryings-on of the late night comedians on network television, the president— Republican or Democrat—is under an incessant immoderate bombardment. And the jokes and cartoons about the president are meshed into Sunday talk shows and reported in Sunday newspapers and weekly newsmagazines....

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