"Stand by Our Man"

By Andrew Sullivan

By Salon Staff

Published September 19, 2001 7:37PM (EDT)

Read the story.

There is a long American tradition of rallying behind the president, and putting aside misgivings over his politics (or his abilities), when the nation faces serious threats from beyond its borders. This, perhaps, is as it should be.

But surely it should be part of the bargain in such circumstances -- the united we stand, divided we fall bargain -- that the political supporters of the president not exploit the opportunity to carp at their own political adversaries, or to claim for their man a level of statesmanship that has not yet been established. If they do this, then a response is fair game.

It would misread the American people to suppose that they have united behind George Bush because they now see him as a larger, more capable, more inspiring man than formerly. We have not united behind George Bush by virtue of any attribute of his. The country has united behind the office, and incidentally behind the man who is the embodiment of that office, because there is nothing and nobody else to unite behind.

Let us give George Bush, against whom I would have voted several times if possible, his due. There has indeed been a minimum of grandstanding. There have been no rash acts (that we know of). And even Bush's famous awkwardness of expression seems to have been subdued for now. He is even speaking coherently and sometimes cogently.

But let us also give the majority of the American electorate, who voted for other candidates in large part because of their grave misgivings about George Bush's policies and abilities, their due as well. Despite the continuing wound on American democracy that last fall's election represents, Bush's former political opponents (including Clinton) have rallied around him. His actions have not faced any audible murmur of opposition from congressional Democrats. He has the full benefit of the nation's doubt, and the full measure of its support. No president since Roosevelt has enjoyed more.

That should be enough to satisfy Mr. Sullivan. None of it means that Mr. Sullivan was right about Bush all along. Rather than debate about whether Bush is another Churchill -- a debate that could get impolite -- let's agree that Bush is not without strengths suitable to the occasion and support, if we possibly can, all the steps that he, as leader of our executive and our military, may undertake against the barbarians who have attacked us.

I suggest this partly because I do not hear President Bush himself complaining that he has been underestimated. Maybe he remembers that the last wartime president whose supporters insisted so ardently that he be supported, right or wrong, was driven from office in disgrace.

-- Peter Nordberg

I couldn't agree more. I haven't voted for years -- my disgust at politics has crystallized into a cynicism so pervasive that I thought no politician cared about anything other than getting reelected and getting a little nookie on the side.

That attitude has now changed. There will always be people who sneer at President Bush, but he's earned my respect. His emotions, barely contained on the 11th, showed us he is human. His eloquence during his speech at the National Cathedral shocked and moved me like no other politician. And his prudent and reasonable handling of the situation so far (including his visit to the mosque) is an example to the world of how great the U.S. can be.

There will always be people who hate the president, simply because he's a Republican. If he was a Democrat, it would be the same thing - unthinking hatred and resentment. It's politics -- typically unthinking, unreasoning, lockstep following of the "team" your parents put you on, or your friends convinced you to join in college, or the media has convinced you to join, or whatever reason made you a Democrat or a Republican. There's never any thinking involved. People simply accept what they are told to believe by their party, rather than evaluating each situation on it's own merits.

This tragedy has shaken some of us out of that. We've started to see that the President isn't perfect, but he's one of us, a citizen of this country, who's doing his best in a horrific situation. We can't expect more than that, can we?

-- Greg Sommerville

Andrew Sullivan is the biggest hypocrite in America. This is the person who not only degrades other Americans that don't think like he does but calls them traitors and evil. If this act of war were done under President Clinton administration Andy would be the first one to say that President Clinton was pulling a stunt from the movie Wag the Dog. Bush has messed up at every turn. His tax cut crippled us because it did not take into account an emergency and what it would do to the economy. His isolationist views now make him and America look like fools. We now need the help of other countries that have refused to form alliances. We now will be in the pocket of China, Russia and the Europeans. Because they have to come to our rescue. He can not articulate anything without notes. The mayor of New York, Clinton and other leaders of Congress when in the media can speak candidly, with clarity and off the cuff. Bush is the worst nightmare for affirmative-actions proponents because he demonstrate what you get when you let unqualified persons in school and the Oval Office base on race and genealogy.

-- Reuben Eckels

How can you publish Andrew Sullivan's call for giving Bush a chance to lead (as reasonable as that request may be) without putting it in the context of his own words of a few days ago? He wrote in the Sunday Times of London that "The middle part of the country -- the great red zone that voted for Bush -- is clearly ready for war. The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead -- and may well mount a fifth column." Is there no end to the hypocrisy of a man who calls for civil discourse just days after calling whole regions of our nation decadent and treasonous? The people of New York must be especially charmed to hear what Mr. Sullivan thinks of them.

-- D. Lewis

If Bush was really displaying leadership, why would Sullivan have to devote 1,000 words to arguing what ought to be a self-evident proposition? After all, no one has to bolster Colin Powell's image or convince us that Donald Rumsfeld, however misguided, is hard at work.

Hearing a president promise "I will not lose my focus" does not instill confidence, no matter what Sullivan says. If anything, the references to "tinhorn terrorists" and "wanted dead or alive" suggests that Bush, an effete preppie if ever there was one, watched far too many TV westerns as a kid.

-- Stephanie Goldberg

I wish I could agree with you about our President's performance during our Nation's tragedy. I desperately want a President who connects with me (and the other Americans who feel he stole the election). I am willing to acknowledge the strengths of a politician with whom I strongly disagree. Mayor Giuliani is such a man. His views on art and the homeless differ from mine but I am so proud to be an American when I see his sincere and articulate response to the growing horror he has to deal with each day.

Mr. Bush has speech writers who are trying valiantly to put the right words in his mouth. And handlers who indeed counsel him on spin and political damage control. Even with such talented help he can't deliver a sentence that moves me. He appears to be reading from a teleprompter. He seems lost in off the cuff situations such as press conferences. Your reference to the eloquence of Reagan is apt. As an actor by profession he could deliver a line with the best of them.

I will of course, as an American, support my government. I just wish the man with the most important job in the world could rise to the stature of the man with the most important job in New York.

-- David McMath

It would be much easier to take Andrew Sullivan's plea to give our one and only president a chance if Sullivan hadn't previously expended thousands of words showering Bush with sweetness and light. To Sullivan, Bush -- like Reagan -- is a paragon bent only on upholding the altruistic conservative principles that make our nation great. Forget the corrupt, secretive energy commission. Forget the truly dubious and hostile people Bush has appointed to government posts. Forget the desire to hand over heaps of the nation's money to people who are already rich. Forget the pathetic and useless obsession with a missile shield that would have done nothing to prevent the WTC attacks.

The U.S. will stand behind Bush in a time of crisis because we have no other choice. But does that mean we have to like him? Please.

-- David Rubien

Mr. Sullivan, I'm a lifelong Democrat. I didn't vote for George W. Bush, and was among those who felt that he stole the election. Mr. Sullivan, I couldn't agree more with your commentary about him during this trying time. He has really surprised me with his ability to stay on focus. I've been so impressed with the methodical way which he and Secretary Powell have aligned our allies. I was pleased to see him stand with American Muslims and remind us that this attack is not the true face of Islam. Now, the two modern Presidents I feel would be most prepared for this situation would be FDR and (God help me for saying this) Reagan, but I agree with you that Bush is far better for this than Gore, and I voted for Gore. Thank you, sir, for a great article.

-- Jeff Hughes

I read with interest Mr. Sullivan's praise for President Bush's handling of this crisis. I am behind the President at this crucial time. However, I am a Texan and I am familiar with some troubling habits of George Bush. As Governor of Texas Bush said, "there need to limits on freedom." This was said as Bush pushed protestors away from the state capitol.

Bush has taken every chance to vilify the federal government. Now, it appears that the same Republicans that lash out at the federal government acknowledge that the federal government must take charge of security at airports. Bush and Cheney campaigned that our forces were under-prepared -- did there criticisms encourage terrorists around the globe? Was their hysterical criticism almost treasonous?

Maybe George Bush relates better to the common man than some politicians -- he would always talk to the peanut vendors at the Ballpark in Arlington- but while Bush worked a five hour day for the state of Texas, Al Gore did an extensive report on the failures of airport security.

-- Jeff Daniels

Okay, Sullivan, I'll make a deal with you: I'll withhold picking on George Bush if you refrain from any more snotty comments about how those of us who live on the coasts will serve as "fifth columns" for the terrorists. Yeah, I live in California, and I didn't vote for Bush. I saw him as an unqualified, amiable boob. I still do. But the stakes are too high to quibble right now. You see, my brother-in-law lives on the East Coast. He's a colonel in the Army, at the Pentagon. He wasn't hurt in the attack, but his life is at stake. And maybe mine and yours, too. I don't want Bush to be as incompetent as I think he is -- too much is at stake. And I don't want his staff to be incompetent, either, even though this atrocity happened on their watch, and certainly they deserve some of the blame. After all, Bush and his staff were too busy fantasizing about their Star Wars defense and completely ignored the real threat, even though their critics warned them repeatedly that terrorist acts, not nukes from Iraq, was our real threat. So truce: I'll restrain myself from taking cheap shots at Bush, if you can stop taking cheap shots at me. Deal?

-- Mark Nelson

I agree with much of what Andrew Sullivan has to say. This is indeed a time to rally around our leaders, and Bush and those advising him have so far done a pretty good job.

However, Sullivan would be a lot more persuasive if he could just resist the urge to get in a few more digs at Bill Clinton. After eight years of often unfair, vicious attacks on a Democratic president, those of us who are skeptical about George Bush are just supposed to roll over and make nice. This sounds like the Bush/Republican version of bipartisanship: Democrats should simply agree with what they have to say, end of subject.

These are indeed new times, and some of the old political grudges should be set aside. I'm willing to give it a try. Is Andrew Sullivan?

-- Brett McDonnell

Sullivan probably does about as well as anyone could to put in a favorable light Mr. Bush's conduct after the recent acts of terrorism. But it won't do. The excuse for running around the country instead of returning to Washington is frankly incredible, and although Sullivan claims we have much evidence for the alleged threat to Air Force One, he doesn't mention any. Bush was planning to direct affairs from a safe location? Cheney says that he, Cheney, was directing them from the basement of the White House. Bush's ungrammatical stream of consciousness report is praised as touching all the main points, but it reads just like a college student under the pressure of an exam garbling some phrases from lectures he's only half understood. To paraphrase LBJ, Mr. Bush is the only president we've got. At this time we have to support him in every material way and hope for the best. But we don't have to tell obvious lies that everyone can see to be lies, as if manifest humbug were the only way to be patriotic.

-- Steven L. Reynolds

I disagree with Andrew Sullivan's assessment of President Bush's leadership. When told by Andrew Card that "a second plane has crashed into the other tower, America is under attack," Bush remained seated in a classroom, listening to children read, waiting to be told what to do. He should have immediately stood up and said "Children, I have to go, something has happened." A President is told America is under attack, and he just sits there. Outrageous!

Mr. Sullivan says Bush "has assembled one of the most experienced national security teams in memory". This team has an insane fetish for a destabilizing and ineffective (so called) missile defense, glibly scraps longstanding and hard won international agreements that contributed to our security and well being, and taken a hands off, "whatever" approach to Israeli/Palestinian relations. Experience counts for little here.

I contrast Bush with Giuliani. Before Sept. 11, I thought the New York Mayor a boorish, if intelligent buffoon. But his spontaneous and sincere expressions of grief, anger, strength, resolve and calm have moved me, and shown a level of emotion and understanding that the President is incapable of delivering, perhaps of knowing.

-- Mark Ventola

Comparisons to Truman, Clinton and Churchill do not convince me to stand by President Bush in this time of crisis. Indeed, I fail to see the relevance. Better to compare him with a President born into poverty, who educated himself, served the military in active duty, built a successful law practice, wrote his own speeches, fought a war within our borders and remains known for his compassion without ever having pointed it out himself.

President Bush is no Abe Lincoln. Nevertheless, I will stand by our man. But only for three more years.

-- John Sweeney

Sorry Andrew, supporting America in its time of need does not mean giving Bush and the government a free ride. After all, a foolhardy foreign policy, in which we support groups that later rise up against us, is what got us into this mess in the first place. Marty Meehan is to be commended, not vilified and subject to death threats, for telling the truth. From the onset, the four hijacked planes had precise targets in New York and Washington. Air Force One, always protected by the military -- unlike the Pentagon -- was simply not a logical target.

As Meehan has often stated, Bush was quite correct in taking the advice of the Secret Service and not immediately returning to Washington. If it looked bad to have Dick Cheney hunkered down in the White House while Bush hopscotched around the country, then so be it.

It is simply despicable that the administration put out misleading information in a lame attempt to garner sympathy, while the country was in shock.

-- Karla Sorenson

Where, besides those isolated instances and a few others, is the Bush-bashing Sullivan writes about? It may not be apparent from reading knee-jerk leftist writing or listening to reflexively anti-Bush commentators, but most Americans (look at those poll numbers) have decided to overlook the President's numerous shortcomings for now. He gets taken to task for the word "crusade," as indeed he should, and for turning his first statement into a photo-op with well-scrubbed Florida children. But many of us who genuinely dislike the Pretender are keeping our opinions to ourselves -- not because he has suddenly met the occasion he will rise to, thus achieving the Kennedyesque greatness the Bush family has always yearned for, but because reflexive response is sheer dumbassedness in the best of times and worse than that now.

So: Did Dubya wear the wrong tie to the National Cathedral memorial service? God, yeah, who dresses him? Is it worth battering him over? Of course not. There will be time to examine his failures once history has shaken things out, and many of us will. But have we done so thus far? No, no, and it says far too much about Andrew Sullivan's reflexive nastiness for him to turn mild criticism from some and greater criticism from a very few, into a sort of treachery when danger is clear and present.

-- Jimmy Smith

No matter how you may wish it, project it and hope it, our president is and always will be a man of average intelligence who is not up to the job he holds.

Just yesterday, there he was sitting next to the French president, with his stumbling, halting speech, seeming to grow ever smaller in his chair as the minutes dragged on. How many more times are we going to have to hear him say "we're gonna smoke 'em out"?

When it was over, I switched to NBC where Brokaw was talking live with Clinton. The man was talking intelligently, telling us things the president should know ... that we have had some successes thwarting other terrorist attacks in the past. Nothing happened at midnight December 31, 1999, as was planned, for example. Telling us that our anti-assassination law applies only to heads of state, that the CIA could take Osama out. All the talking heads I'd seen so far haven't been aware of that as they've called for rewriting the law that would allow us to shoot him in the head.

-- Steve Warren

Salon Staff

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