by Maureen Dowd
published in the New York Times
under the title "Captive to History's Caprice"
Covering seven presidential campaigns has made me realize that when it comes to predicting how presidents will perform, "nobody knows anything," as William Goldman said about Hollywood.
You'd think it would be safe to vote on issues, but politicians often don't feel the need to honor their campaign promises.
I covered Bush Senior saying, "Read my lips: No new taxes." I also covered him raising taxes.
I covered W. promising a humble foreign policy and no nation-building. I also covered the Iraq fiasco.
Voters try to figure out who they trust to have life-and-death power over them, but there's so much theatricality and artifice in campaigns you can get a false impression of who someone is.
And you never know who they will become once they move into the insular, heady womb of the White House or how they will be buffeted by the caprice of history, and the randomness of crises.
At the very moment when politicians should be on top of the world, embraced by the voters, enhanced by the toys and levers of power, their gremlins surface. They inevitably get hit with trouble that they never could have imagined or prepared for, and that can trigger self-doubt, self-destruction and self-pity.
Why didn't John F. Kennedy simply toss out the C.I.A. plan developed under Eisenhower to send 1,200 exiles to overthrow a popular Cuban leader with a force of 200,000? Did he feel the need to prove himself?
Why did Lyndon B. Johnson ignore his own solid political instincts when listening to Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk about Vietnam falling under their stupid sway just because they had been J. F. K.'s advisers?
Nixon, driven by the same pathology of envy about Kennedy and other golden boys, conspired in a political crime while coasting to re-election.
Why did W. let Cheney and Rummy lead him into hubristic disaster? Did he, too, need to prove himself and outdo Daddy? How could the "compassionate conservative" just skate through Katrina like he did?
The self-destructive impulses that consumed Bill Clinton detracted from his policy achievements and distracted him from achieving all he otherwise could have.
The press tends to swallow campaign narratives of sin and redemption, hard lessons learned.
After giving up drinking and becoming Texas governor, W. had supposedly changed from an arrogant, obdurate, Daddy-competing loser to a genial, bipartisan, mature winner. As it turned out, a total makeover must not be possible after the age of 40.
All of us have known "big shots" who keep a check on their real feelings and dark tendencies until they get the top job. Then they throw off the restraints and revert to their worst instincts, bullying others and insulating themselves with sycophants.
Maybe Hillary Clinton could be ready on Day 1 to make up her Enemies List and banish Overkill Bill to a cubbyhole in the Old Executive Office Building. But it's Day 2 that I would really worry about.
(edited by David Van Alstyne)
Home / General Interest