Real-World Lessons in Humility

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There comes a time for every new president when the glory and prestige of the office are overshadowed by its power to humble the one who holds it. With the Democrats taking over the Senate this week and John McCain keeping the White House in a state of perpetual anxiety about his intentions, George W. Bush is discovering his presidential limits. He's learning that the most powerful man in the world (even more shocking, the most powerful Republican) can have sand kicked in his face by a no-name erstwhile ally named Jeffords and a renegade former rival. And then be forced to say he likes it.

McCain blasted the GOP — and the White House — for the way Jeffords was treated. Then he communed over the weekend at his compound outside Sedona, Ariz., with the new Senate majority leader, the Democrats' Tom Daschle — a visit that sent Washington into paroxysms of speculation and forced the White House to call McCain's office to make sure he wasn't leaving the party. And what is Bush's response to McCain's distemper? A blistering rebuke? Not quite. McCain has been invited to a private dinner tonight at the White House. As one pro-Bush GOP operative said of McCain, "The only way to control him is to suck up to him. And even that might not work."

You catch more renegade flies with honey

And Jeffords? After triggering the GOP's loss of the Senate and the biggest political humiliation of the Bush presidency, the newly minted Independent from Vermont might have expected rough treatment from the Bushies — or at least the cold shoulder. But, like McCain, Jeffords won a visit to the White House instead, for a meeting on education policy. Even Daschle received the new soap- suds treatment. For plotting the defection that embarrassed the president, Daschle, too, is being rewarded with a dinner at the nation's most famous mansion. Like McCain, he might want to bring his own food-testers.

None of this can be easy for Bush. Throughout the 2000 campaign, a standard line in the Texas governor's stump speech was a call to humility. America must be strong, the Texas governor would say, but it must also be humble. What this assertion meant was never entirely clear. Partly, it was Bush's way of criticizing Bill Clinton's interventionist foreign policy. Bush promised that under his leadership America would no longer try to impose democracy on Russia or peace on the Israelis and Palestinians. It would step back, offer advice as needed, but not dictate terms. America would be humble.

For Bush, revenge is a dish best served not at all

But Bush's message about humility served multiple purposes. It was not just a signal to foreign policy hawks and neo-isolationists that the new Republican president would be less inclined to dispatch envoys or peace-keepers to troubled regions of the world. Humility was a code word designed to reassure voters who feared that Dubya might be too smart-alecky and cocksure to be trusted in the Oval Office. On the campaign trail, the Texas governor tended to exude the opposite of humility. Bush was playing against type, countering the perception of his callowness with a pledge to be earnest and humble. He was saying he could be a mature and responsible leader. He was also promising to be moderate. After all, ideologues, of the right or the left, are not humble. They are so convinced of their rightness that they view their opponents as inferiors and their followers as lapdogs.

But once in office, Bush didn't exactly put on a display of humility. On the environment and missile defense, the new administration quickly alienated U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere. At home, the President declared that an election decided by 500 votes and the will of a single Supreme Court justice had delivered him a mandate for his agenda. And so he pushed through a large tax cut focusing on marginal rate reductions (which benefit the affluent) and laid out an energy policy that includes drilling in protected Alaskan wilderness. Humble is as humble does, and Bush wasn't.

Now, thanks to Jeffords, Daschle and McCain, Bush is. Or at least he's pretending to be.