"The public censured the Commander-in-Chief for the bloodshed, for this seemingly endless war. More and more politicians and journalists, Republicans as well as Democrats, called his administration incompetent. Military failures produced demands for peace negotiations. And the President was roundly condemned for curtailing civil liberties."
Sound familiar? But the president in question (the quotation has been altered slightly to conceal this) is not George W. Bush but Abraham Lincoln. The time is not summer 2005 but the spring of 1863. The words are not those of some contemporary columnist but of poet and novelist Daniel Mark Epstein in his beautiful and elegaic book Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington.
Epstein's words are a reminder that the job of a president is uniquely hard. It is something to keep in mind when you read snarky articles like the Washington Post's current offering on Bush's August "vacation" in Crawford, Texas. They said the same thing about Ronald Reagan when he chopped wood at his ranch in Santa Barbara County, about Dwight Eisenhower when he played golf at Augusta National or Burning Tree, about Lincoln when he spent evenings at the Soldier's Home in the cool hills to the north of central Washington, D.C. As David Frum points out, Franklin Roosevelt spent two weeks on a fishing vacation in the Caribbean in December 1940.
Roosevelt's speechwriter Robert Sherwood, in his book Roosevelt and Hopkins published in 1948, reports that Roosevelt fished (following the instructions of Ernest Hemingway, with little success), called on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in the Bahamas (a particularly useless waste of time), read a letter from Winston Churchill (without commenting on it to anyone) and looked through binoculars at Vichy France warships off Martinique. In his press conference at the end of the cruise, "It still seemed that he had spent two weeks in a state of total relaxation and utter indifference toward the prospects of world calamity."
But Roosevelt, the sympathetic Sherwood explained, was thinking all the time. "The 'refueling' process was a vital function for Roosevelt. Nobody that I know of has been able to give any convincing explanation of how it operated. He did not seem to talk much about the subject in hand, or to consult the advice of others, or to 'read up' on it. On this occasion he had Churchill's remarkable letter to provide food for thought; but this-though it was a masterly statement of the problems involved, of which Roosevelt was already quite well aware-presented no key to the solution other than an expression of confidence that 'ways and means will be found.' One can only say that Roosevelt, a creative artist in politics, had put in his time on this cruise evolving the pattern of a masterpiece, and once he could see it clearly in his own mind's eye, he made it quickly and very simply clear to all."
No, George W. Bush is not Lincoln or Roosevelt. But he is president, and he takes his responsibilities very seriously. He is aware constantly-in Washington, at Camp David, in Crawford-that the lives of very many people depend on him, and he tries to live up to his responsibilities. Bush's political opponents and many of his supporters, I think, tend to forget this-tend to ignore the evidence visible on his face that he has aged significantly in office, as Lincoln and Roosevelt aged. His opponents see him as a crafty, cynical, diabolical manueverer, interested only in political gain. I think he carries with him everywhere a crushing burden of responsibility, every bit as serious as those Lincoln and Roosevelt carried. This is a man who, as far as I can tell, had no ambition whatever to be president until his father was defeated for reelection in 1992, and then decided that God had put it in his way to be president, and is trying to do the job as well as he possibly can-knowing that no one can do it perfectly. Think hard about what it would be like to be George W. Bush: not a golden life, I think, but more of a nightmare.
Or think hard, my conservative readers, about what it would have been like to be Bill Clinton in the eight years he was president. Many conservatives see Clinton as a sociopath, a man totally uncaring about the consequences of his actions. I choose to see him differently. We have evidence that Clinton was often pressing for action against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, understanding that they were a threat. That's evidence that he felt a responsibility to save Americans' lives. He did not fulfill that responsibility as well as he surely wishes now he had, and neither did George W. Bush between January 20 and September 11, 2001. But the burden of responsibility told. This vigorous man who left office at 54 had to undergo heart bypass surgery at 58.
The presidency is a unique burden. Let us not be cavalier about the men (and in the future possibly women) who must bear it.