Will the Occasion Rise to George W.?

  • Share
  • Read Later

Bush gives the thumbs-up to supporters in Midland, Tx.

"I'm a leader," George W. Bush says. "A leader leads." But do followers follow?

What do leadership and followership amount to now? W. says that he can summon spirits from the vasty deep. But will they come?

We shall see.

Bill Clinton swaggers off with his air of rogueish triumph — savoring, perhaps, the knowledge that he could have gone on and on as President if only the Constitution had allowed him to run, and that his own vice president ran to fill his shoes but did not succeed. Any narcissist is gratified when he finds that the world turns dark and heads south at exactly the moment he leaves the room. Cause and effect, his unconscious assures him.

But did Clinton lead? He polled a lot. He kept an incredibly sensitive finger — sometimes the finger's name was Dick Morris — pressed lightly to the American pulse. He possessed a survivor's instinct and excellent information as to the state of mind of the followers. His political brain was a sort of Enigma machine that decoded the American mood. But was Clinton a leader?

The thing to understand may be that the nature of the followship has changed, or has seemed to change. Expanded democracy and cultural diversity have conspired with good economic times and the fantastically proliferated electronic democracy of information to make leadership in the old presidential sense seem somewhat obsolete. Clinton saw the change and adjusted to it brilliantly.

I suspect that George W. Bush, although he works the promising if foxy oxymoron of compassionate conservatism, may still be operating on the old paradigm. There's a sort of sinister bargain here: Old paradigm leadership works very well — in fact, is indispensable — the worse things get.

Clinton's apologists have sounded the perverse lament that he might have been a great president if only his times — the 1990s — had not been so prosperous and peaceful. There was not enough challenge around (no Great Depression, no world war) to elevate Clinton to the top rank of presidents with FDR or Lincoln. When times are fat and everyone in the television ads from cabbie to widow seems engaged in wireless trading, building a portfolio, then the followers of the land may grow frisky and cavalier about their leaders. They indulge the conceit that Bill Gates or Alan Greenspan is much more important in the scheme of things than the President is. A lot of the American followership has grown almost jeeringly independent, confident of its self-sufficiency.

Will George W. Bush, God help us, be "luckier" in that respect? Will he have the world-historical challenges to which to rise? May he live in interesting times — but not too interesting.

Of course, the farther that the world proceeds from the days of Hitler, Stalin and Mao, the more it is inclined to think of "leadership" as a basically positive thing, a self-evidently desirable quality to have in a head of state. We are inclined to forget how dangerous powerful leadership can be.

For the moment, the American danger may lie in the opposite direction — leadership weakened by fractured followship and a shadow of illegitimacy. We inaugurate a new president who has been ambiguously fifty-fiftied into the White House. His enemies wish him ill with an almost unparalleled ugliness and intensity.

It may be well to remember, in the days ahead, how miserably Bill Clinton began his eight years. By the time the spring of 1993 rolled around, TIME magazine was running a cover story that showed a tiny little Clinton, an inch or two tall, with the headline "The Incredible Shrinking President." We shall see.