Bush Is No Candle in the Winds of Easy Empathy

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At the time of Princess Diana's funeral, the blubbering tabloids and their readers became indignant at the British royals for failing, it was thought, to show sufficient emotion.

Here was a defining moment. The house divided between (1) those of us who believe in the stiff upper lip and the essential privacy of authentic human feeling, including grief; and (2) those who weep along with Elton John as he sings "Candle in the Wind" to the prostrate world, or who deposit teddy bears and such mementoes at the doorsteps of celebrities they never met. Intimacy on parade: Sorrow as pornography. Americans staged the same spectacles when John Kennedy Jr. died.

I belong to Category One. I have not given more than 50 seconds of my life to thinking about the British royals, but I sided entirely with the queen and the duke when they hesitated to participate in the mawkish public outpourings that surrounded Diana's departure.

Now the Washington Post's estimable David Broder is getting after George W. Bush for ignoring his presidential duties as an empathizer. Not enough emotion, Broder suggests, is emanating from the Bush White House. In the midst of the (fairly short) Hainan Island standoff, the midwestern floods, the riots in Cincinnati, the rising gasoline prices, writes Broder, President Bush has been uncommunicative, "stoic to the point of reticence."

Broder claims he is not nostalgic for the giant Arkansas watermelon; for his sticky insincerities; the wet, lip-biting flow of his poignancies. But still Broder senses some "odd silence at the center of the city," as if a condign presidential music were missing, as if we were entitled to a fireside chat and were not hearing it.

The Cincinnati riots, Broder believes, should have moved Bush to say something concerned and statesmanlike. "The incident was local but the problem of police-minority relations is national — and important. Bush had a perfect opportunity to lay down a marker for his administration and the country and to shape the kind of discussion this issue needs in every community."

Broder says that Bush's failure to speak up on such matters as the Cincinnati riots means the President is neglecting "a vital element of democratic leadership."

I think that is wrong.

In the first place, we live in a culture of pre-hardened argument, of debate as predictable as kabuki. A president is foolish and undisciplined to get rhetorically involved in an issue (oh, let's say, gays in the military) simply because it happens to be in the air at the moment. Each argument (police brutality, abortion choice and so on) instantly deploys its predictable pros and cons. I know all your arguments, you know all my arguments. If a man's presidential ambition is to see America continue as an afternoon talk show, a sort of brawling Jerry Springer spectacle from sea to sea, then by all means seize each emotional agitation as it flies through the air and do a segment on it. We live in an age of gladiatorial jaw-jaw, of moral polarization as entertainment.

I think Bush — underestimated as a sort of error, a misunderstanding like Chauncy Gardiner — obeys an intelligent instinct (and in any case is true to his own nature and breeding) in not feeling obliged to empathize up and down the American landscape. Better to stick to his own agenda, raising the issues when he is ready to do and say something substantive. You need a mandate to empathize, and Bush doesn't have one. He knows that.

Better to show respect for the individual facts of individual situations. Better to show that respect that is evident when a president assumes that the American people are adults, that they understand the complexity and inevitable abrasions of, say, police-community relations in a town like Cincinnati, and that they do not expect their president to be Elton John, singing to them in maudlin quavers.