The Charismatic Presidency

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In a recent commentary, television personality Andy Rooney expressed
unbridled anger at the people who brought disgrace to the United States at
Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He said that these acts had undone all the good
work of the United States in the past, and he uttered an idea commentators
such as he rarely pose. Great civilizations have gone into decline, he
noted, and the clear implication was that the United States may be
approaching a moment which future historians will identify as the beginning
of its decline. It's a thought worth pondering.

President Bush's management style needs much more analysis than it has been
getting. From afar it looks as though everyone in the inner circle of his
administration gets anything they want. Last year, when Colin Powell wanted
to use diplomacy to round up allies in the United Nations, the president
sent him forth. At about the same time, Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Cheney were
making disparaging remarks insulting America's most useful allies in Europe
and setting the stage to distance the Bush administration from standards of
international law. The neo-cons in the Pentagon and Secretary of Defense
Rumsfeld wanted war and were willing to foist a shady Iraqi exile, Mr.
Ahmed Chalabi, upon the unsuspecting and unwilling Iraqis. All sorts of
claims and strategies, rationalizations and spin, spewed from the
administration, and all the people in the inner circle seemed to get what
they wanted. Mr. Chalabi, who had ties to Iranian intelligence, told them
exactly what they wanted to hear so they could have their war: weapons of
mass destruction, rose petals at the feet of American soldiers, democracy
for Iraqis, stability in the Middle East, peace for Israel.

All that blended well with the political style of Mr. Bush. He operates
more like an evangelical preacher than the usual politician, reflecting a
style of people like Jim Baker more than his father's style. The way he has
been handling the issue of homosexual marriage is instructive. Speaking to
his "base," the Christian right, he asserts that there is a grave and
overwhelming danger. The institution of marriage itself is in jeopardy of
being destroyed "by a few judges," he asserts. And in an emotional appeal,
he says he is the only one who can save it. The tactic is classic: state or
invent a problem, exaggerate as much as possible the danger it poses, and
claim to be the only person who can come to the rescue. It works on
religious television, and it has worked well for Mr. Bush. Once you accept
the premise of overwhelming danger and one-man solution, you are urged to
place your fate blindly in his hands.

No matter what you think about homosexual marriage, the fact pattern does
not support the idea that marriage as an institution is in danger of
collapse because of it. It is a claim that, like the claim of the threat of
imminent attack from post 9/11 Iraq, has no basis in fact and is a wild
exaggeration. Be afraid, very afraid, and by implication, only I can save
you. Charismatics who create movements based on this kind of fear-driven
emotionalism have been known to cast inconvenient fact patterns aside and
to lead people into grave danger, even disaster. Once people embrace this
mindless leadership principle not only fact patterns but problem-solving
principles can be cast aside. Attacked by al Qaeda? Forget al Qaeda, the
real danger is in Iraq and I can save you.

The radical right has discovered that these tactics work on enough people
that they can be used to win elections. The message this year is that Mr.
Bush can save you because he is steadfast and focused, while Mr. Kerry
cannot save you because he is wavering and, by implication, weak. You are
urged to fail to notice that no administration in memory has made as many
blunders or shown as much disregard for reality as has Mr. Bush's and none
has done more 180 degree turns on policy than he has. In fact, the only
steady course he has followed lies in dismantling this country's social and
environmental progress. Future historians could determine that his is the
most incompetent administration in U.S. history. Andy Rooney may be on to
something when he implies the country has turned a corner, perhaps a
fateful one.

Meanwhile, the Buffalo News recently reported something that probably did
not reach the rest of the country. A man of Middle-Eastern extraction who
is accused of illegal trafficking in untaxed cigarettes and was said to
support radical groups overseas by sending them money was denied bail at a
hearing at which government lawyers requested a closed-door conference with
the judge. The bail was denied. Defense attorneys commented that whatever
information was used in the decision was declared classified, that the
defendant had no way of defending himself against whatever the charges were
because he never heard the charges and doesn't know who his accuser was.

The Anglo-American judicial system is far from perfect and tends to favor
wealthy people over poor people, but some of its principles give it
definition. Among those are the right to hear what one is charged with, and
the obligations of the state to provide the defense with all the
information it has at its disposal that could come to bear on the trial.
One has a right to face one's accuser, even if you are from Yemen. But
under the Bush administration, and under provisions of the Patriot Act,
those principles evaporated in a court in Buffalo, N.Y. The accused was an
Arab and few voices were raised to protest this kind of treatment. Next
time, sometime, it won't be an Arab.

Perhaps it is time for people to be afraid. The American culture which
prided itself on a tradition of secular rationalism is drifting toward an
emotion-driven isolationism under which people are urged to embrace a
charismatic and to ignore the deterioration of principle and morality his
administration has wrought. This is a situation that requires people who
rely on facts and not fantasy to take corrective measures. Mr. Bush seems
to be urging that only he can save America, but he cannot save America from
the real eminent danger: himself.

John C. Mohawk Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and
professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New
York at Buffalo.