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The Hollow President

by Joseph Sobran

June 4, 2002

During a recent meeting with President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, President Bush asked in surprise, “Do you have blacks too?”

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (when you have a name like Condoleezza, do you really need a title?) came to the rescue, informing our president that Brazil has more blacks than any other country outside Africa. Of course it depends how you reckon, since the mixing of blood has resulted in a population in which most people have some African ancestry, and Brazilian color lines are less rigid than ours. But not many Brazilians could be mistaken for Michelle Pfeiffer.

The fact is that four million Africans were brought to Brazil by Portuguese slave-traders before the trade was banned in 1888. That is eight times the number of Africans who were brought to this country. Nobody can know everything, but you might expect the Leader of the Free World, an Ivy League graduate, and a former Texas governor to have some dim awareness of the biggest country in South America.

Not only is Bush’s ignorance embarrassing; it has some bearing on the current controversy over how well informed he was about terrorist activities in this country before last September 11. No matter how many data were amassed and evaluated by the experts of the FBI, the CIA, and other agencies, no matter how skillfully it was winnowed and sent to the top, the man at the top — the man who would have to make the crucial decisions about what to do with the facts — was a man with a notably, even shockingly, skimpy knowledge of the world.

In the end, our fate now depends heavily on the personal qualities of a single man. This is a far cry from the kind of decentralized government prescribed by the U.S. Constitution.

Is George W. Bush equipped to exercise “global leadership”? The answer is all too plain. He is ready to pronounce whole countries “evil” without knowing much about them except that they aren’t on “our side.” And they called Ronald Reagan simplistic!

Reagan was no scholar, and some of his gaffes were notorious. But he at least had a rough practical philosophy to guide him. His basic conservatism made him stable and predictable. Bush’s indefinable “compassionate conservatism” makes him manipulable and unpredictable. And it’s no substitute for a knowledge of the world. It merely makes him passive, subject to random pressures and sudden events.

In truth, nobody can be ready for “global leadership.” More power is concentrated in the U.S. presidency than anyone could possibly exercise wisely; there is too much to know, and even a man a hundred times better informed than Bush — a Henry Kissinger, say — still wouldn’t know enough to perform all the tasks, foreign and domestic, a president is expected to undertake.

The “democratic” political process, as it’s politely called, is hardly designed to bestow the presidency on the man best qualified, or rather least unqualified. An unprincipled two-party duopoly offers the voters a stark choice between a pair of career politicians, whom it’s usually fair to describe as hacks. If the Electoral College operated the way it was supposed to, it might do somewhat better; but it’s now widely viewed as an undemocratic anachronism. And true enough, it was meant to prevent the very things the party system consistently produces, especially crass demagoguery.

An old saying comes to mind: “He who is unaware of his ignorance will be only misled by his knowledge.” Bush would be less dangerous with his enormous power if he were conscious that he is woefully unfit for it. Such humble self- awareness can be a saving grace. It tends to retard rash judgments and decisions. A humble man never mistakes himself for a messiah.

What doesn’t the president know, and why doesn’t he know it? About the outside world, American history, and the Constitution he is sworn to uphold? He still seems like a rich kid skimming through the Ivy League without bothering to get an education — the son of an alumnus, going to ball games and beer parties every night except when he has to cram for an exam.

He has somehow skimmed all the way into the presidency of the United States, and now he feels compelled to strike appropriate poses of “resolve” and “determination.” But it all rings terribly hollow. He has come to great power without having prepared himself for it.


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