The little man

History will remember Bush as an incompetent and incurious man overwhelmed by a world too big for him.

Topics: State of the Union, Washington, D.C.

The little man

The headline of the AP story was “Bush Urges Confidence in His Leadership” — which is like “Author Says Memoir Is True” or “FEMA Offers Contingency Plan” — and I didn’t bother to read further. The Old Brush Cutter never got the knack of urging, and whenever he tries, he looks small and petulant, like a cartoon of himself. He photographs well in formal situations, and he is good at keeping a low profile when necessary, which is a key to survival in politics, as in boxing, but when it comes to the hortatory, he gets all hissy and squinty.

As a preacher, he is not in the top 50 percentile, and if his name were J. Ralph Cooter he would be hard put to find work in any of the persuasive professions. But there he is, giving the State of the Union, more or less in charge of the shop, or on a first-name basis with those who are, and so long as he refrains from perjury and tax increases and doesn’t wear a dress to the Easter Egg Roll, he will probably slide along OK.

Of greater interest than the president’s remarks to Congress was the report of the Office of Personnel Management showing that the federal government continues to grow under Republican rule. The executive branch now employs 1.85 million at an average salary of $63,125. In our nation’s capital, the average is a handsome $80,425. Of course, the hiring of screeners at airports raised the total, but screeners’ average salary is around $27,000 a year, which pulls down the average, which means there must be many happy folks in the higher ranges, assistant pooh-bahs and panjandrums and dukes of earl who are adept at taking a small acorn and weaving a seven-hour day around it, for which they enjoy job security, 13 paid holidays and 21 vacation days, and retirement at up to 80 percent of salary.

Not a bad gig, considering. There are mature gifted musicians scuffling for less than screeners earn, and farm families scraping along despite prayer and hard labor, and genius comedians scrapping for spare change. So a young Republican lady or gent could be tickled pink to land a job as assistant secretary for compliance assurance and get an 18-by-24 office with a window looking out on the Washington Monument and spend the day in meetings after which you will write memos of ingenious persiflage and obfuscation, like a cat smoothing the litter box.

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Republicans believe in smaller government and deregulation, but it takes more and more of their friends and loved ones to not regulate us, and who can blame them? Washington is the perfect place for the slacker child who flubbed his way through college and flopped in business and whom friends and family kept having to prop up — find him a government job. Government service is a broadening experience. It certainly has been for Mr. Bush. He has traveled to China and Europe and other places that never interested him before. He has come into contact with the poor people of New Orleans in a way that never would have occurred to him in his earlier years. He has met opera singers and jazz musicians and journalists. This is all good.

And he has met the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and visited with young people horribly wounded in the war, which would be a soul-searing experience for any commander. To see a beautiful young woman who must now live without an arm as a direct result of decisions you made — who could see this and not scour the depths of your conscience?

And to suffer pangs of conscience even as you exhort the public to have confidence in you — this has to be an interesting experience. Your mistakes are responsible for terrible suffering, but you stand among your victims and urge public support for your policies as a sign of support for the people those policies have injured. This is a plot worthy of Shakespeare.

So why does he still seem so small, our president? In his presidential library, he’ll be portrayed as Abraham Lincoln after Chancellorsville and FDR after Corregidor, but to most of us, the crisis in Washington today stems from a man intellectually and temperamentally unequipped to rise to the challenge. Most of us sense that when, decades from now, the story of this administration comes out, it will be one of ordinary incompetence, of rigid and incurious people overwhelmed by events in a world they don’t dare look around and see.

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(Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)

(c) 2006 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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