It's odd, isn't it, how things fall together? Last week, you may recall, it was birds. This week, it's presidents--and not just poor W., the unfortunate lamest of lame ducks, whose on-screen portrayal we watched a couple of days ago at our local theater and about whom I wrote only yesterday. And not just the two men vying, now finally in the last week of the campaign, for the job the current incumbent will soon thankfully vacate. No, it was also that we played, last night, our recording of the last two segments of the documentary portrait of LBJ on American Experience--the story of a great man destroyed by his fatal refusal to recognize the futility of his war in Vietnam. I was much moved--to tears, actually--at the end of the Johnson documentary, by the photographic record of a broken man, old at 64, with a long, silver mane of hair and a face deeply scored by the pain he made no secret of feeling about the ignominious end to what should have been a great presidency.
The single, inevitable parallel between Bush and Johnson is striking: both mired in unwinnable wars, each with a presidency and a legacy at stake, they are marked forever by the blood of American soldiers. I realized that I had entertained much the same thoughts and feelings about both of them, at one time and another. Back in the 1960s, I shared the disdain for Johnson that was commonly felt by those of us who opposed not only the war, but his conduct of it. In the 2000s, I have had that same feeling for Bush. I have been asking myself, since watching the documentary, whether I might be shedding tears for the memory of Bush many years from now (of course, I were still to be around to shed them!) as I did for Johnson's last night?
Perhaps. I'm honestly not sure. The difference, as I see it, is the difference between tragedy and pathos. The Bush story is one of pathos largely because of the protagonist's character: I see him--forgive the judgment--as a small man, petty, scrappy, belligerent, self-assured, unquestioning, self-congratulatory in his arrogance, incapable of recognizing or regretting his own errors of judgment. His actions have been preremptory, ill-considered, reactive rather than proactive. He has proved the hapless victim of circumstance, a period of history much bigger than himself. I feel sorry for him, but without admiration for that more-than-human struggle with destiny that characterizes the tragic hero.
If I see Johnson differently, it may well be because of the great conflict that befell him in the course of his presidency. Starting out as an unpromising and manipulative Texas politician who would sell his grandmother's soul for a vote, he grew after Dallas into a President who struggled to achieve great things: his record on civil rights and the Great Society, his introduction of Medicare and his declaration of the war on the (still unresolved) war on poverty--these are the solid foundation of his greatness. He may have achieved them through his old manipulative devices, but achieve them he did, and to the lasting benefit of this powerful nation. How dreadful, then, in the light of this dedication to the betterment of his country, was that fatal flaw that attached him to the Vietnam war, and to the obsession with coming out victorious in a fight that was lost before it started.
This, I would argue, was a truly tragic conflict in the heart and soul of a powerful man, upon whose fate the fate of millions of others rested. Watching the documentary evidence of his downfall, it's impossible not to see in his eyes, his face, his bearing, the slow erosion of a deeply conflicted human soul. Am I simply biased in failing to see the same in Bush? In Bush, I see a man who certainly has aged in the course of his presidency. In his face and bearing these days, I see a man who is tired beyond endurance, I see a man who has surrendered without being able to acknowledge the part he has played in his own downfall and who continues to hold others accountable for the results of his actions.
Am I twisting history by putting things in this literary light? Perhaps. Looking now at Barack Obama and John McCain, I see the same difference between smallness and potential greatness, the same small-mindedness that appeals to those concerned first and foremost with their own well-being and the greater vision that proposes the struggle for a better world for everyone. I know who I think would make the better president. I hope that, if elected, he will prove to share Johnson's passionate embrace of humanity--and that he will not be similarly hobbled by a futile war. My worst worry about Obama is his oft-stated commitment to an increased military presence in Afghanistan: let it not become for him what Vietnam became for Lyndon B. Johnson.