The incredible shrinking presidency

Bush's ever-diminishing stature and nonexistent vision for America are cheapening the White House.

Published June 28, 2001 5:10PM (EDT)

As the dog days of summer approach, it's becoming clear that President Bush's to-do list is even shorter than his attention span: "Tax rates down? Check. Energy prices up? Check. T-ball given its rightful place in the national spotlight? Check. Checks in the mail? Check."

But it isn't just Bush's anemic agenda that has sputtered and keeled over, it's the very model of leadership that has dominated our democracy since the nation's founding. Bush's ever-diminishing stature is diminishing the presidency itself. In fact, it's the death knell for the "Great Man" theory of leadership, the military model of a single father figure to guide us, protect us and set the national agenda.

With Dubya's dubious victory in November and his managerial innovations, like the CEO-in-chief approach and the Cheney prime ministership, it is now abundantly clear that you can be president and not be a leader -- that you can have power but no authority.

Ironically, during the campaign, Bush seemed obsessed with trying to define leadership. In one memorable stab, he even justified his much-vilified appearance at Bob Jones University as an act of leadership: "That's what a leader does. A leader doesn't shirk. A leader leads. A leader stands up and sets an agenda." However Lilliputian it may be.

When recently asked to define his administration's central mission, the president's instant answer was "tax relief." With that brief response, he flouted three of the most fundamental attributes of leadership: the ability to identify a compelling vision of a greater future, a gift for inspiring people to transcend their own interests and the courage to not merely reflect current opinion but to challenge and shape it.

To be fair, the old model of leadership had already been badly wounded by eight years of Clintonian spinning, triangulating and minute-by-minute polling. But it met its Waterloo with W.'s ascension. There was our sophomoric president earlier this week, for example, turning an Oval Office photo op with Ariel Sharon into an embarrassing display of presidential petulance. In the "Am not!" "Are too!" verbal jousting, Bush kept insisting, despite Sharon's unambiguous disagreement, that "progress" is being made in the Mideast. He used the term 13 times in 11 minutes. Someone with more maturity -- say your average kindergartner -- would have taken Sharon's hint and dropped the subject after, oh, the fifth repetition. But not Bush, who insisted on lecturing the Israeli prime minister: "Progress is in inches, not in miles. But nevertheless, an inch is better than nothing." No word on whether he added: "I'm rubber, you're glue."

Just as puerile were Bush's pronouncements following his return from Europe earlier this month when he almost pulled a muscle patting himself on the back for exceeding expectations: "I didn't think about Ronald Reagan when I was there," he said, "but now that you bring it up ... With all due modesty, I think Ronald Reagan would have been proud of how I conducted myself. I went to Europe a humble leader of a great country, and stood my ground. I wasn't going to yield. I listened, but I made my point." Which apparently was: "America kicks butt, wooooo!"

Or consider the searing intellectual depth of the advice Bush says he offered Russian President Vladimir Putin during their recent summit: "It's negative to think about blowing each other up. That's not a positive thought ... That's a thought when people were enemies with each other." Are these the pronouncements of a man maturing into the leader of the free world or a guy who's been watching way too much Barney?

Consistently incoherent and, as he reminded us in his commencement address at Yale, proudly uneducated, Bush appears oddly unfamiliar with the system he now purports to lead and stunningly unaware of the world beyond our borders -- except, perhaps, for Vincente Fox's rumpus room. Nor is Bush's breathy, anxious verbal style -- beginning his speeches in a manner that suggests he knows he's already lost the argument -- doing him any service in the presidential stakes.

The American genius has always been in bringing out the extraordinary in ordinary people. Picture Jimmy Stewart's Jefferson Smith going to Washington or Gary Cooper's Longfellow Deeds going to town. But with Bush, we have a thunderingly ordinary guy thrust into an extraordinary office, and bringing to it an absolute vacuity that makes you wonder about not only the contents of his mind but the hollowness of his imagination.

It goes way beyond his abuse of the English language, although this is nothing less than remarkable: "Is our children learning?" "Will the highways on the Internet become more few?" "We cannot let terrorists or rogue nations hold this nation hostile."

And while it's often a challenge to figure out just what the heck our president is trying to tell us, one message is clear: He is determined to squander the unique opportunity the presidency provides -- the opportunity to call us to a cause greater than a $300 rebate.

With most of the major issues of the day, the president's North Star appears to be protecting the business interests that bankrolled his presidential campaign and are gearing up to bankroll his reelection bid. They tell Dick Cheney what to think and he tells W. The lights are on in the White House ... but nobody's home.

Those who can buy presidents clearly do not need leaders. But the rest of the nation desperately does and should begin asking the question: Now that the old model of political leadership is officially dead, what's going to take its place?

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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